Libyans who were deprived from participating in hajj during Muammar Qaddafi’s rule were on Sunday among the millions of Muslims in Mecca to begin the annual week long pilgrimage.
On the sidewalks of the Arab Jewel street in the Saudi Arabian city of Mina you could easily distinguish the Libyan camps from the hundreds of others. This year, the National Transitional Council flag has replaced the green flag of Qaddafi for the first time in 42 years, and a celebratory atmosphere has dominated the Libyan tent leading up to Eid al-Adha.
Mohamed Souihi, a leading delegate for the Libyan hajj campus, said that for most pilgrims from Libya this year, being able to attend hajj has been nothing short of a miracle.
In an interview to al-Riyadh newspaper on Sunday, he said, “Until mid-Dul Hija (October) we didn’t have a glimmer of hope about any of us performing Umra or hajj this year due to the political unrest in Libya, but with the help and persistence of the head of the NTC, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, we overcame these obstacles and were able to realize our dream. The transitional government has facilitated free hajj for as many as 7,500 Libyans, among them families and relatives of fighters killed during the war to oust Qaddafi. At that time we were also consulting with the Saudi embassy in Tunisia in order to get our visas.
He added that between 2009 and 2010, the cost of hajj was around $5,500.
Saudi authorities say that this year the number of pilgrims reached three million. Their prayers united for peace and solidarity at a time when the region is faced with an unprecedented wave of anti-government protests that have seen the ouster of leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and shaken regimes in Syria, Yemen.
Abdul-Hamid Kashlaf, a 45-year-old building inspector from Tripoli, and his wife were just one of the Libyan couples who had lost a loved one in the conflict and were attending hajj free of cost. He told the Associated Press that he lost his 17-year-old son, Abdul- Bari, who was part of a secret cell in Tripoli that was helping revolutionary forces overrun the capital in late August; his son was killed when pro-Qaddafi forces opened fire on him and his fellow fighters at a mosque.
When Qaddafi was in power, authorities had a strict control on the 7,000 seats allocated by Saudi Arabia to Libyans for hajj. “It was very hard for people to get a spot for hajj because places would always be given to Qaddafi’s henchmen, relatives and government officials,” said Kashlaf.
Escorted missionaries at Libyan camps said that pilgrims this year were much more sociable and mingled freely with others without fear or hesitation, unlike the past. Many of them narrated their personal stories of the horrors they endured under Qaddafi.
In related news, Muslims back in Libya thronged to mosques to celebrate their first Eid al-Adha in a newly liberated country.
Nowhere was the emotion and religious integrity more acute than in Misrata, the city that suffered heavy losses fighting Qaddafi loyalists.
Men streamed away from dawn prayers at the imposing mosque in Misrata's Zorugh neighborhood, preparing to feast on sheep slaughtered in a ritual inspired by Prophet Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to God.
(This story was written by Ikram Al-Yacoub.)