Some of the deported pilgrims at the Aminu Kano International Airport
By Ibrahim Shuaibu
In a rare twist of fate, 171 female pilgrims from Nigeria who set out to fulfil a cardinal pillar of their faith in Saudi Arabia, ended up, first as detainees and then as deportees, to complete an awful trajectory in a quest to be ‘better Muslims.’
They were subjected to harrowing experience by Saudi authorities in their pursuit of performing a religious obligation to their creator.
Saudi Arabia Wednesday deported the 171 female pilgrims who had gone to the Holy Land from Katsina and Taraba States. They all landed at the Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport (MAKIA), Kano from the Medina Airport, all looking dejected and with tales of woes from an unaccomplished mission. They perfectly cut the image of disappointed pilgrims captured by Kwesi Brew in his poem, “Lest We Should Be the Last.”
The pilgrims were deported aboard Max Air aircraft, with registration number 5N MBB at about 4.58pm Wednesday.
They lamented that for three days, they were detained at the Medina airport under discomforting conditions. Their crime is that they failed to show up at the airport with their guardians (husbands or male partners) described as Muharram.
The Saudi immigration law stipulates that female pilgrims coming to Saudi Arabia who are 40 years and below must be accompanied by their husbands or guardians, failing which they will not be cleared by the immigration at the point of entry, even when they have valid entry visas.
Already, posers are being raised on why Saudi Arabia, which had hitherto granted Nigeria the concession to allow its female pilgrims travel without male escorts as long as they are accompanied by officials of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), withdrew the concession to Nigeria.
According to a source familiar with Nigeria’s preparations for the pilgrimage, “I wonder what triggered this development; the male escort requirement has never been an issue all these years.”
When THISDAY spoke to Alhaji Tasiu Umar Malumfashi, husband of three women among those deported, he merely dismissed the rule as “totally embarrassing, shocking not only to me but to the entire family”. After picking up his three wives, he left the airport in a huff.
But the Kano State Executive Secretary of the Pilgrims’ Welfare Board, Alhaji Laminu Rabiu, who also came to the airport to receive the deported pilgrims, described the action as deceitful, since the pilgrims were in Saudi Arabia for the hajj.
About 1,000 Nigerian women in all were detained in Saudi Arabia over their failure to travel with their approved male chaperons.
One of the deported pilgrims, who identified herself as Aishatu Ismail from Taraba State, told reporters that “we have seen hell because the security people in Medina detained us for three days without food and care.
“The Saudi authorities caged us in one open space without allowing us to move an inch, and we were given no food; neither were we allowed to even buy any with our money. As you can see us now, we spent three days without food at the Medina airport.”
She lamented that all through their detention, “No any official of the Federal Government or state came to our rescue. Nobody attended to us in Medina, partly because the security officials over there just caged us and did not allow anybody to come close to us, all because they say we do not have guardians in our intended hajj exercise. We were terribly humiliated by the Saudi authorities.”
However, their ordeal seems not enough to dissuade Ismail and others from performing the hajj exercise in the future.
“I also hope that if the issue is settled between the Nigerian officials and the Saudi authorities, we may likely be going back for the pilgrimage,” she said.
THISDAY gathered that out of the 171 deported pilgrims, Katsina State has 111 members who were later flown to Katsina airport from Kano Wednesday. The Taraba State contingent, numbering 60, were taken to Kano pilgrims’ camp pending the arrival of their state officials who will take them back to Taraba.
Sources at MAKIA told THISDAY that the deported 171 pilgrims had flown to Mecca through the Katsina airport, while the Taraba pilgrims departed through the Yola Airport.
THISDAY observed that most of the deported pilgrims were in tears, as they wore long faces and looked dejected while recounting the horrible experience they had in the hands of the Saudi Arabia authorities.