Mina stampede: Death toll rises to at least 2,177

DUBAI: The crush and stampede that struck Haj last month in Saudi Arabia killed at least 2,177 pilgrims, a new Associated Press tally showed Monday, after officials in the kingdom met to discuss the tragedy.

The toll from the Sept 24 disaster in Mina keeps rising as individual countries identify bodies and work to determine the whereabouts of hundreds of pilgrims still missing.

The official Saudi toll of 769 people killed and 934 injured has not changed since Sept 26, and officials have yet to address the discrepancy.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Naif bin Abdul Aziz, who is also the kingdom’s interior minister, oversaw a meeting late Sunday about the Mina stampede, according to the official Saudi Press Agency. The agency’s report did not mention any official response to the rising death toll.

Country-wise numbers of people lost in the stampede:

  • Iran: 465
  • Mali: 254
  • Nigeria: 199
  • Egypt: 182
  • Bangladesh: 137
  • Indonesia: 126
  • India: 116
  • Pakistan: 102
  • Cameroon: 76
  • Niger: 72
  • Senegal: 61
  • Ivory Coast, Benin: 62
  • Ethiopia: 47
  • Chad: 43
  • Morocco: 36
  • Algeria: 33
  • Sudan: 30
  • Burkina Faso: 22
  • Tanzania: 20
  • Somalia: 10
  • Kenya: 8
  • Ghana, Turkey: 7
  • Myanmar, Libya: 6
  • China: 4
  • Afghanistan: 2
  • Jordan, Malaysia: 1

The AP count of the dead from the Mina crush and stampede comes from state media reports and officials’ comments from 30 of the over 180 countries that sent citizens for Haj.

“The crown prince was reassured on the progress of the investigations,” the SPA report said.

“He directed the committee’s members to continue their efforts to find the causes of the accident, praying to Allah Almighty to accept the martyrs and wishing the injured a speedy recovery.”

King Salman ordered the investigation into the disaster, the deadliest in the history of the annual pilgrimage.

The incident came after a crane collapse in Makkah earlier that month killed 111 worshippers, and the twin disasters marred the first Haj to be overseen by the king since he ascended to the throne at the start of this year.

Also read: At least 717 killed, 863 injured in Haj stampede at Mina

The Saudi king holds the title of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”, and the monarchy’s supervision of the Haj is a source of great prestige in the Muslim world.

Riyadh has rejected a suggestion by Iran to have an independent body take over planning and administering the Haj pilgrimage.

Iran has repeatedly blamed the disaster on the Saudi royal family, accusing it of mismanagement and of covering up the real death toll, which Tehran says exceeds 4,700, without providing evidence.

“The lying and hypercritical bodies, which claim to (be promoting) human rights, as well as the Western governments, which sometimes make great fuss over the death of a single person, remained dead silent in this incident in favour of their allied government,” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Monday, according to a transcript on his website.

“If they were sincere, these self-proclaimed advocates of human rights should have demanded accountability, compensation, guarantee for non-recurrence and punishment for the perpetrators of this catastrophe.”

Saudi Arabia has recently been targeted in gun and bomb attacks by an affiliate of the extremist self-styled Islamic State (IS) group, which holds a third of Iraq and Syria in its self-declared “caliphate”.

Like Al Qaeda before it, the IS group views the Saudi royal family as illegitimate because of alleged corruption and its alliance with the United States.

The previous deadliest-ever incident at Haj was a 1990 stampede that killed 1,426 people. Source

Sharia doesn’t ask women to cover face, hands or feet: CII

ISLAMABAD: The Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) continued its tradition of focusing on issues concerning women at its 200th meeting, on Monday.

The meeting, chaired by Maulana Mohammad Khan Sherani, ruled that covering the face, the hands up to the wrists and feet was not mandatory for Muslim women.

Incidentally, some of the more liberal members of the CII, including Maulana Tahir Ashrafi and Allama Amin Shaheedi, did not attend the first sitting of the two-day meeting.

The session was attended, among others, by Dr Samia Raheel Qazi of Jamaat-i-Islami. The ruling was strongly supported by Ms Samia, despite the fact that she wears a niqab.

Maulana Sherani, who belongs to the JUI-F, also supported niqab for Muslim women to cover their face and preferably gloves and socks to cover their hands and feet.

Talking to the media after the meeting, Maulana Sherani said there was no law in Sharia binding women to cover their face, feet or hands up to the wrist.

“Covering the face and other parts of the body is not mandatory. But still it is good to follow ethics and have a careful attitude in society,” he said.

“But at the same time, it is necessary to cover the face and adopt complete covering attire if there are threats of mischief.”

Maulana Sherani, however, did not elaborate on what he meant by ‘threat’ and ‘mischief’.

While the CII has focused on several issues revolving around girls and women, this was the first time that it took up a matter related to the Sharia interpretation of veil (purdah).

But an official of the CII disclosed that the matter was taken up on the request of the interior ministry as many communities and clerics were still opposing the requirement of women to be photographed for computerised national identity cards (CNIC).

“We have heard that some families are not getting their women registered with Nadra only due to the photo issue,” the official said.

A Nadra official added that due to the prevailing law and order situation in the country, getting a photo identity had become mandatory.

Apart from the Sharia description of the veil, the CII reiterated its old stance against co-education and described it as an unhealthy practice for society.

It ruled that education should be imparted to boys and girls separately, even at the early levels.

However, the CII also spoke for the rights of transvestites and criticised the families who discarded such children or left them without inheritance.

In the end, Maulana Sherani stressed the need for maintaining peace during Muharram.

“We all should observe the sanctity of this month,” he added.

Under the law, rulings and observations of the CII are not binding on the parliament or the government. But all the functions of the government and enactments of laws have to be vetted by the CII to ensure that they are not contrary to the teachings of Islam. Text Source

A mob in India beat him to death — for eating beef

By Michael E. Miller September 30 at 6:50 AM

An Indian woman sprinkles yoghurt paste onto a cow’s forehead during a Hindu Bach Baras ritual to bless the animal in the Rajasthan city of Udaipur on September 9, 2015. (Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images)
Mohammad Akhlaq was in bed when the mob arrived.

The commotion began in the distance, but crept closer and closer like encroaching thunder. Suddenly, there was a pounding at the door. Then the door broke inwards and men dragged the 50-year-old farmer from his sheets and into the street, according to the Indian Express.

They beat him with bricks found underneath his own bed; beat him until the bricks broke in their hands; beat him until Mohammad was dead.

Akhlaq’s alleged crime?

Eating beef.

The attack on Monday night in the northern Indian city of Dadri has shocked the country, but it wasn’t exactly a surprise. For the past six months, meat has been a matter of major debate in India.

Eighty percent of the country’s of 1.3 billion inhabitants are Hindu — who avoid beef for religious reasons. Roughly 250 million Indians are not. That tally includes almost 25 million Christians and up to 140 million Muslims, like Akhlaq.

The issue has raged in India for years. Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power last May, however, incidents have increased, as they tend to do whenever a conservative government has been in power.

Cows are seen at the Shree Gopala Goshala cow shelter Sept. 7, 2015 in Bhiwandi, India. Earlier this year the Maharashtra government banned the slaughter of cows and the possession of beef. Since the ban prevents people from selling their aging cows to slaughterhouses, the shelters have had an increase of cows being surrendered. There are an estimated 25,000 cow shelters around India that provide cattle with sanctuary from illegal slaughter and comfortable surroundings in which to spend their last years. (Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
Modi is a Hindu nationalist who, as governor of Gujarat state, presided during religious riots in 2002 in which more than 1,000 people — most of them Muslims — were killed. For years afterwards, Modi was blocked from visiting the United States because of his role in the riots.

[New Indian leader draws cheers, criticism from diaspora as he arrives in the U.S.]

All that changed last year, however, when Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to power. Modi campaigned on a vision of India finally fulfilling its economic potential — a promise highlighted by his recent tour of Silicon Valley.

Yet, critics claim Modi’s tenure also has been marked by a concerted cultural shift that undermines secularism and threatens to drag India back into sectarian bloodshed.

In the past, Modi has complained about India’s “pink revolution” of rising meat exports and backed the idea of a national ban on cow slaughter, according to the BBC.

Since Modi’s election, Muslims have grown worried about a string of inflammatory statements and actions by Hindu nationalist leaders. Accused Islamist terrorists have been executed ahead of non-Muslims, stirring anger. Meanwhile, BJP lawmakers have openly called for Hindus to out breed Muslims to “protect Hindu religion.” That same politician, Sakshi Maharaj, invited outrage when he called Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin a “patriot.” (Nathuram Godse was a militant Hindu activist who killed Gandhi for “appeasing” Muslims.) Finally, India’s foreign minister has called for the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture, to be declared a “national scripture.”

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Saurabh Das/AP)
Hindu leaders have also launched efforts to convert Muslims and Christians to Hinduism and warned against romantic relationships with members of other religions.

It is beef that has drawn the most blood, however.

India’s 36 states and territories have long been a patchwork quilt when it comes to their laws regarding beef. Some said that only old cows could be killed. Others allowed only bulls or bullocks to be sent to the butcher.

In the past 15 months, however, many states have tightened their laws — with encouragement from Modi’s political party.

The most prominent example is the western state of Maharashtra, home to the bustling metropolis of Mumbai and many of the country’s Muslims. Under BJP leadership, the state passed the Maharashtra Animal Preservation Bill back in 1996 but it was blocked from becoming law because president Shankar Dayal Sharma of the Opposition Congress Party refused to approve it.

With Modi’s election last year, however, times have changed. And in March of this year, BJP members in Maharashtra convinced the current president to approve the law.

The move effectively banned beef overnight, putting thousands of predominantly Muslim butchers out of a job and putting anyone eating beef in the state at risk of arrest.

A woman packages toothpaste made from cow waste at the Keshav Srushti cow shelter on September 7, 2015, in Thane, India. (Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
Despite legal challenges to the ban, the new law immediately brought results. Just days after the law’s implementation, two people were arrested for allegedly slaughtering two calves, the BBC reported. Last month, four more people were accused of smuggling beef into Mumbai, according to the Indian Express.

The crackdown on cow-eating is driven by a desire for religious/national purity, but critics point out that it’s already creating political and practical problems.

“Some Hindu hard-liners insist the idea of eating beef was introduced by Muslim invaders, despite references to its consumption in ancient texts like the Vedas, written more than a millennium before the time of Muhammad. By eradicating this ‘alien’ practice, they hope to return the country to values they hold dear as Hindus,” wrote novelist Manil Suri in a New York Times op-ed.

Suri said it was part and parcel of a broader conservative cultural shift under Modi and the BJP.

“With the recent re-criminalization of gay sex, bans on controversial books and films and even an injunction against the use of the colonial-era name ‘Bombay’ instead of ‘Mumbai’ in a Bollywood song, the new laws join a growing list of restrictions on personal freedom in India,” he warned.

Since his election, Modi has said he is committed to secularism at the same time members of his party openly push to outlaw beef, the BBC’s Justin Rowlatt pointed out in April.

“That’s why while the idea of cow mug shots may be amusing, the beef ban is deadly serious,” he said. “India’s triumph has been forging a nation in which Hindus and Muslims can live happily together. The fear is that the beef ban is part of a process that is gradually undermining the compromises that made that possible.”

Kashmiri Muslim protesters and Indian police and paramilitary soldiers during protests after the Eid al-Adha prayers in Srinagar, India, on September 25, 2015. Indian Kashmir witnessed restrictions with the government cutting internet services and placing separatist leaders under house arrest fearing anti-government protests over the decision of the Jammu Kashmir High Court calling for implementing a ban on the sale of beef in the state and stopping of cow slaughter. Muslims on Eid al-Adha slaughter cattle, sheep and goats as a part of the Prophet Abraham’s tradition. (Farooq Khan/EPA)
Rowlatt’s words proved prescient when protests erupted earlier this month in India-administered Kashmir, where the Supreme Court suddenly enforced a 83-year-old beef ban on the Muslim-majority state.

Beef again became a pretext for violence during Monday’s mob attack in Dadri, a city of roughly 60,000 near New Delhi in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where a near-total ban on beef is in effect.

The attack allegedly came moments after an announcement at a nearby Hindu temple that Mohammad Akhlaq had slaughtered a calf. The calf had gone missing several weeks earlier, according to the Indian Express. Rumors quickly spread around the neighborhood that Akhlaq was the culprit.

Incited by the announcement, the mob broke down Akhlaq’s door and dragged him into the street, where 100 men beat him to death with bricks, his family members told the Express. The invaders also dragged Akhlaq’s 22-year-old son, Danish, outside, beating him until he was close to death as well.

“They accused us of keeping cow meat, broke down our doors and started beating my father and brother,” Akhlaq’s daughter, Sajida, told the Express. “My father was taken outside the house and beaten to death. My brother was dragged to the courtyard downstairs and they used bricks to hit him on the head and chest, leaving him unconscious. They also tried to molest me and hit my grandmother on her face. They threatened to kill me if I said a word to the police.”

A cow looks on with coloured dyes and paste on its forehead after being blessed by Indian women during a Hindu Bach Baras ritual in the Rajasthan city of Udaipur on September 9, 2015. The annual festival for cow worshipping, also known as Vatsa Dwadashi, is observed by Hindu women in parts of northern India and is intended to seek good fortune for a male child. Cows are considered sacred in Hindu-majority India, and their slaughter is illegal in several states. (Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images)
Sajida said her family had never suffered from Islamophobia in the past.

“Every time there was a feast in this house, Hindu residents of the village would attend such functions,” she said, standing in a ransacked house littered with bricks and blood splatter. “Even on [Muslim holiday] Bakr-Id, we had guests. But suddenly they started doubting us.”

Police appeared to confirm the account.

“Preliminary investigations revealed that an announcement was made from the temple” about the family consuming beef, senior superintendent of police Kiran S told the Express. “We have been told that a group of people entered the temple and used a microphone to make the announcement. However, investigations are still underway. We do not know if any of the accused are associated with the temple.”

When police detained six people, including the temple’s priest, on Tuesday, protesters set fire to two police cars. One person suffered a gunshot in the riot, although the priest was released after questioning, according to the Express.

In a cruel irony, Akhlaq’s family insists that the meat in question wasn’t even beef.

“There was some mutton in the fridge which was taken away yesterday,” Sajida told the Express. “They thought it was beef.”

“The police have taken it for examination,” she said. “If the results prove that it was not beef, will they bring back my dead father?” Source

GB administration accused of allowing banned groups to collect hides

Gilgit’s deputy commissioner says no outlawed organisation among groups collected hides.—AP/File

GILGIT: Despite a ban on collection of hides by banned organisations, different groups affiliated to outlawed sectarian outfits freely collected a large number of hides in Gilgit-Baltistan during Eid holidays.

Sources said the Gilgit administration allegedly allowed some clerics having affiliations with banned organisations to collect hides and instructed police not to take action against them.

They said that no case had been registered against any individual or organisation for collecting hides during the holidays.

Police officials told Dawn that some banned religious and sectarian organisations and seminaries had registered themselves as welfare organisations and freely collected hides. They accused the GB administration of stopping police from taking action against such groups.

The officials said that because of administration’s mismanagement the National Action Plan could not be implemented in Gilgit, the city which has witnessed many sectarian clashes in the past.

Gilgit’s deputy commissioner says no outlawed organisation among groups collected hides

They said police arrested three people for collecting hides in Gilgit city on the first day of Eid. One of the arrested men, Qari Hedayatullah, was once associated with a banned sectarian organisation but now runs a seminary. But, on the same day the administration asked police to release the arrested people and issued permits to them for collecting hides, the officials added.

An official said the GB police could not register cases without the permission of a magistrate.

Deputy Commissioner of Gilgit Rana Rizwan Qadir told Dawn that there was a ban on collecting hides by banned organisations.

Defending the release of Hedayatullah, the deputy commissioner said the cleric was no longer associated with a sectarian organisation. He said the security agencies had cleared the cleric.

Mr Qadir also said that Hedayatullah and the two other men were released because their arrest could have created a law and order situation in the area.

He said that when police began acting against people collecting hides on the first day of Eid the administration asked seminaries and other organisations to take permission for collecting hides to avert any clash. Permissions were issued to some groups on the same day, but none of them was a banned organisation, he added. Source

Why Saudi Govt. is responsible for the Catastrophic Stampede

PILGRIMS cast pebbles around Jamarat in a symbolic stoning of the devil in Mina, near Makkah, in 2012.PILGRIMS cast pebbles around Jamarat in a symbolic stoning of the devil in Mina, near Makkah, in 2012.

MAKKAH: Hamza Musa Kabir from Kano in northern Nigeria survived the massive stampede at the Haj by shedding his pilgrim’s garments after he was pinned under a man in the crush, which killed 769 people.

Reflecting on the shocking events that unfolded on Thursday in Saudi Arabia, the 55-year-old tall, thin trader told his dramatic story to AFP’s Kano correspondent Aminu Abubakar, who also performed the pilgrimage:

“We set off at sunrise from Muzdalifah and marched towards the Jamarat,” the place in Mina where pilgrims ritually stone the devil, Kabir recounted.

“We were more than halfway through the procession when the road was blocked by the police, which led to the build-up [of pilgrims].

“Then the police blocked all the roads, leaving us with only one route. The situation became worse when the police allowed people returning from the Jamarat to use the same route back to their tents” where the pilgrims stay.

“From where I stood, I could see a police officer on a raised platform at a nearby control post beckoning at pilgrims returning that they should move on.

“Because those returning were moving in the opposite [direction] of the surging crowd, there was a stampede.

“People became weak from suffocation and heat. People couldn’t breathe [in the crush]. Many collapsed, mostly women and the old and disabled on wheelchairs.

“I also was pinned down by this huge man I believe to be an Asian. I had to strip myself of my garments which had become an obstacle to my escape.

“I raised my hand and grabbed the garment of another pilgrim from Nigeria who was already standing on a fence. He couldn’t pull me up because I was pinned down by this huge man.”

‘Countless bodies’

In an act of desperation, Kabir grabbed the man … “and squeezed … , which made him jump off me.

“This enabled me to use my other hand to reach for the metal bar of the fence, and grab it. I then pulled myself up with the help of another young Arab man who was standing on the fence,” reaching safety inside one of the camps where Kabir then passed out.

“I was so dizzy and too weak to walk. I was spread on the floor and another pilgrim, seeing that I had regained consciousness, offered me his other garments.

“People offered me drink and some food. I then realised that I had been bitten [on] the side, by a young man from underneath.

Kabir lost his backpack and most of his belongings except for a small bag around his neck.

“I spent, like, two hours sitting down recuperating,” he said.

“After that, I was assisted by another pilgrim from Niger to make it to the Jamarat and carry out the stoning rites.

“What I saw on my return to the scene of the stampede frightened me, because I just saw countless bodies lying on the floor covered in white shrouds, and I knew I could have been one of them.” Still, he is not too frightened to return.

“I know I will not die until the appointed hour. Haj is very important to my faith, and no obstacle will discourage me from seizing another opportunity to come back.”

Published in Dawn, September 28th , 2015

236 Pakistanis Died in Macca Stampede…Is Saudi Mismanagement is Responsible?

Saudi authorities have yet to provide a breakdown of the nationalities of the 717 victims, but several foreign countries have announced the deaths of nationals. Death tolls given by foreign officials and international media so far are: Pakistan, 236; Iran, 131; Morocco, 87; India, 14; Egypt, 14; Somalia, 8; Senegal, 5; Tanzania, 4; Turkey, 4; Algeria, 3; Kenya, 3; Indonesia, 3; Burundi, 1; and Netherlands, 1.

Macca stemped

Iran’s national hajj organisation said 60 Iranian nationals were injured in addition to the 131 killed. The Fars news agency said Tehran had summoned the Saudi chargée d’affaires to lodge an official complaint over the disaster.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, blamed the Saudi government for the disaster. In a statement, he said: “The Saudi government should accept its responsibility in this bitter incident. We should not overlook that mismanagement and inappropriate conducts caused this disaster.”

The Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, who leads the world’s most populous Muslim nation, said “there must be improvements in the management of the hajj so that this incident is not repeated”.

King Salman called for an improvement in the management of the pilgrimage, but some members of the Saudi government appeared to blame the victims. In a TV address, Salman said: “We have instructed concerned authorities to review the operations plan … [and] to raise the level of organisation and management to ensure that the guests of God perform their rituals in comfort and ease.”

Emir of Kano Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, head of the Nigerian delegation in Mecca, said Saudi Arabia was wrong to blame the pilgrims. “We are urging the Saudi authorities not to apportion blame for not obeying instructions, they should instead look into the issues of this disaster,” he told BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme.

Iran’s attack on Saudi Arabia was met by angry responses on social media. A UAE cartoonist depicted an Ayatollah Khamenei figure stabbing King Salman in the back. And Saudi Twitter users set up an Arabic hashtag complaining of an Iranian “conspiracy to light the fuse of sectarianism”.

Saudi officials have denied reports that the stampede was linked to the arrival in Mina of Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud and his large security entourage. Reports first published by the the Arabic-language daily al-Diyar said the prince arrived at Mina for a meeting with his father the king accompanied by 350 members of the security forces. It said the stampede occurred when the one-way traffic directions were reversed to allow the prince’s convoy to get through.

Saudi Arabia said the report was “incorrect”.

Mohammed Jafari, an adviser to Haj and Umrah Travel, the first hajj tour operator in the UK, claimed the alleged road closures were a contributory factor to the crush.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: “The Saudis say after every disaster ‘it is God’s will’. It is not God’s will – it is man’s incompetence. Talking to pilgrims on the ground yesterday, the main reason for this accident was that the king, in his palace in Mina, was receiving dignitaries and for this reason they closed two entrances to where the stoning happened … these were the two roads where people were not able to proceed.

“You have a stream of people going in and if you stop that stream, and the population builds up, eventually there is going to be an accident.

Mohammad Jafari, an adviser to the UK’s oldest hajj travel company, criticises the Mecca authorities on Friday
“It is the fault of the Saudi government because any time a prince comes along, they close the roads, they don’t think about the disaster waiting to happen.”


Jafari called on the British government to use its influence with the Saudis to improve safety at the pilgrimage. He said: “They have to change their ways and have proper disaster planning and proper crisis management. They have CCTV and in this investigation they should look at the CCTV footage. If someone caused this accident, they should be fired. There should be a proper investigation, a criminal investigation.”

Liaqat Hussain, a trustee at Bradford central mosque who has been on the hajj, said: “There is total lack of crowd management.”

He told Good Morning Britain that there was no proper guidance and no proper directions for the people there. Hussain said there needed to be improvements and that the British government should set up an inquiry into the incident.

The Saudi health minister, Khalid al-Falih, claimed the pilgrims had been undisciplined. He told local television: “The accident, as most know, was a stampede caused by overcrowding, and also caused by some of the pilgrims not following the movement instructions of the security and hajj ministry.”

High temperatures and exhaustion may have contributed to the disaster, the military spokesman Maj Gen Mansour al-Turki said, but he said there was no indication the authorities were to blame. He was quoted by Associated Press as saying: “Unfortunately, these incidents happen in a moment.”

Prince Khaled al-Faisal, the head of Saudi Arabia’s central hajj committee, was criticised on social media after reportedly blaming the fatal crush on “some pilgrims with African nationalities”. Jafari accused the Saudi government of making racist statements by suggesting that the stampede was caused by African pilgrims.

An interior ministry spokesman said the investigation would look into what caused an unusual mass of pilgrims to congregate at the location of the disaster. He told a press conference in Mina: “The reason for that is not known yet.”

Pope Francis touched on the pain felt in the Islamic world during his address to both houses of the US Congress on Thursday evening. He began his homily by telling his “Muslim brothers and sisters” that they were assured of his prayers for “the tragedy they have suffered at Mecca”. Source

Travel: Swimming in paradise

The 6,000-metre high Passu Cathedral reflects on the mirror surface of Borith Lake. Almost 60 tourists have a merry chat and a laugh with each other on the terrace of the nearby hotel while a few guests sit apart and admire the white walls of the 7,000-metre high mountains on the opposite side. Amidst all this is the 68-year-old hotel owner Mr Khan dancing to Wakhi tunes in his own distinct style. He and the other hotel owner in Gojal have every reason to be delighted because, after years of waiting, the tourists are back! But these tourists are not from America, Australia or Europe like the travellers of yesteryear; they are Pakistanis discovering their own country. Every year the Pakistani authorities promise to make it easier for foreign guests to get a visa, so they can visit the 130 of the 7,000-metre peaks, uncountable glaciers and mountain lakes, and be astounded. But every year, it becomes even more difficult for a foreigner to visit Pakistan. The fear of terrorism is more of an excuse than an argument in places like Gojal where the new generation has a 100 per cent literacy rate and where there is zero crime.

At Borith Lake the jolly banter continues till 2.30 in the morning and a mere two hours later the owner and his sons are up again, because the first domestic tourists are going today to the northernmost point in the country — the 4,700-metre high Khunjerab Pass.

Mr Khan’s son having his morning swim, before serving breakfast to touristsMr Khan’s son having his morning swim, before serving breakfast to tourists

Suddenly there is a loud clutter in the kitchen, and shortly afterwards one of the sons is carrying Mr Khan out on the terrace. The other son quickly comes to assist and lays the good soul of Borith Lake in a car. In the 8-km away Gulmit Hospital no doctor is available, so Mr Khan is put into a boat that sails for half an hour over the Attabad Lake. A telephone call to find a doctor in Karimabad also goes in vain. So he is taken a further 105km to the army hospital in Gilgit. It later emerges that he has suffered a stroke.

A swimming competition brings together rivals in Pakistan’s picturesque Northern Areas

The next day at Borith Lake appears a Pakistani intelligence worker; for two weeks there have been strange buoys on the lake, and every day youngsters and men from the surrounding villages take part in a so-called qualification swimming, while a suspicious foreigner and an equally odd Pakistani sit on one side of the lake with stopwatches. One could easily look at the placard on the terrace that says “Borith Lake Tashi Cup —The First Gojal Swimming Championship” and figure out what’s happening, but the sleuth is unconvinced.

The name Borith is not as much of a nuisance to the agency workers as it is to the influential people from the neighbouring villages of Ghulkin and Hussaini. They and the Mir of Hunza have for decades demanded that the lake be named theirs. That the citizens of the picturesque villages of Ghulkin and Hussaini have been unable till today to open a hotel, and apart from this, also have the 4,000-metre high Patundas meadows and the famous 200-metre long Hussaini suspension bridge to their name, is something long forgotten by the said influential people.

A Hussaini woman poses with a tourist from KarachiA Hussaini woman poses with a tourist from Karachi

Normally they would know how problems are solved in Gojal: during the qualification swimming, some youngsters from a nearby village go out of control and cause a major disturbance. It seems that they believe that even a sports event would be a tool for political propaganda. The organisers approach not the police but the elders of the village that these youngsters belong to. And so after this, these youngsters behave like “little angels”. The suspicion of the Pakistani agency workers regarding the event as usual falls to the somehow blatantly obvious foreign conspiracy. Gojal is a part of Gilgit-Baltistan and consequently a part of the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan. In contrast to India-occupied Kashmir, the only gunfire in Gojal comes from illegal ibex hunters. The citizens of Gojal feel themselves to be Pakistanis, and hence want to be treated as such. They want to have a say in who runs the country, and to have their problems voiced at a higher platform. They want doctors and not secret agents; they want to be informed of what lies in the contracts of the Pak-China economic corridor.

One week later, the supposedly suspicious foreigner and the Pakistani are rowing around in the lake in a rubber raft. The start / finish line that consists of two car tires, a few empty canisters and a banner has come apart. Agency workers stand apart, while a crowd of around 400 people cheer and applaud from the steps of the hotel; the first semi-finals of the swimming competition are done. An elderly Gojali with a smiling weather-beaten face and a flat Hunza hat on his head says to his neighbour: “This is crazy; I’ve never seen anything like this”. The next swimmers are already prepared, the swimming cap on one of their heads crafted out of a football bladder and all the swimming shorts are … let’s just say … original.

Mostly locals cross the Hussaini bridgeMostly locals cross the Hussaini bridge

Two hours later, Mr Ali Rehman holds high above his head the Tashi Cup, the trophy for the highest swimming competition in Pakistan, and perhaps the highest one in all of Asia.

Mr Khan can be seen as well, still a little weak in the legs but already with a smile on his face again. The year before, he had fallen three metres from the roof onto the hard ground due to a broken rung on a ladder, but a mere shrug was enough to forget this. For his stroke the week before, he would need a few more shrugs to put it behind him. Down at the lake, a respected person from Hussaini gives an impressive speech: he has fully comprehended the purpose of this swimming competition. He proposes that all the different villages of Gojal work together. He is of the notion that people should appreciate the sport for what it is and promises that they, the Gojalis, would organise the second swimming championship at Borith Lake themselves next year — and one day the best swimmers of the world will join hands. As high as Borith lake is, the Gojalis aim higher.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 25th, 2015


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