Five hundred more Ghanaian pilgrims left the Kotoka International Airport for Jeddah yesterday to perform the holy pilgrimage (Hajj) in Mecca.
That brings to 1,130 the number so far lifted from among the 2,700 pilgrims who have been stranded at the airport for the past 10 days. As of press time another 360 pilgrims were going through departure formalities to undertake the trip.
Yesterday's arrangement involved four flights, including two 747 KABO Airlines and two Tristar jets, while another flight, a Tristar, with a 360-passenger capacity, was expected to arrive in the country late yesterday night and fly out the remaining pilgrims this morning.
Earlier on Friday, two aircraft of ALAMA Airlines which had been contracted by the Interim Hajj Management Committee airlifted 630 pilgrims — 295 at 3:10 a.m. and an additional 335 at 4.00 p.m. — to Jeddah via Dubai.
If the arrangements proceed according to schedule, an estimated 2,350 out of the 2,700 Ghanaian pilgrims would have been airlifted to Jeddah since the emergency airlifting of the stranded Muslims began last Friday.
However, members of the Hajj Committee and government officials insisted that the four flights could clear all the 2,700 Ghanaian pilgrims.
The pilgrims stayed for about 10 days at the Aviation Social Centre under refugee conditions, following the inability of the Hajj Committee to secure flights for them.
This year's Hajj starts on Tuesday, December 18 and the Jeddah Airport was expected to be closed by last Friday, but following a plea for an extension from the Ghana government, the deadline was extended for Ghanaian pilgrims.
One of the three flights of KABO Airlines took off at 4.00 p.m., while prospective pilgrims for the other two flights were having their documents examined by immigration officials by press time.
There is, however, a dispute between the government and officials of the Hajj Committee over who chartered the three aircraft that arrived yesterday.
While the Minister of the Interior, Mr Kwamena Bartels, told journalists at the Aviation Social Centre that the aircraft had come at the instance of the government, through the assistance of Ghana's Ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Mr Rashid Bawa, the aircraft liaison officer of the Hajj Committee, Alhaji Shams Kwakwa, insisted that the three aircraft had been contracted by the Hajj Committee and that they were part of the fleet acquired by the directors of ALAMA Airline.
Mr Bartels, who was at the Aviation Social Centre with the Minister of Water Resources, Works and Housing, Alhaji Saddique Boniface, and other government officials to monitor the departure procedures of the pilgrims, said 1,360 pilgrims were to leave yesterday and that the 360-passenger Tristar aircraft was expected by the end of the day.
He said the Tristar aircraft was expected to airlift the remaining pilgrims by Monday morning to bring the number of pilgrims airlifted by the four flights to about 1,700, saying that “by tomorrow all of them (the pilgrims) will be gone”.
Mr Kwakwa, however, gave the capacity of the flights as 747 KABO Airline, 540, 747 KABO Airline, 508 and Tristar, , 360, and said the fourth flight expected to arrive by the close of day was a 747 KABO Airline with a 540-passenger capacity.
However, he said, following the government's insistence that it had contracted an aircraft, he had asked the operators of ALAMA Airlines not to bring the fourth aircraft.
Mr Kwakwa said he might reconsider his decision to let the fourth aircraft in following pleas from some pilgrims.
The situation at the Aviation Social Centre could be described as survival of the fittest and “lucky ones”.
The luck came with the acquisition of the boarding pass, as the Hajj agents were given a few slots for their clients, so only the lucky ones were given the slots.
There were, however, allegations that some people were selling the boarding passes for between GH¢100 and GH¢150.
Fitness came to play where some of the travellers, including the old and feeble, were made to stand in meandering queues for hours, anxiously waiting to be bussed to the aircraft.
The strong ones forced their way through but some of the old enjoyed some special privilege. The issue of the slot was later resolved when government officials insisted that all the agents should be given the boarding passes to cover all their pilgrims.
Mr Bartels said the government's intention was to ensure that all the pilgrims left to perform the pilgrimage.
He said when the pilgrims returned, the government would investigate the circumstances leading to the chaotic situation and apply the appropriate sanctions if anyone was found culpable.
Thereafter, Mr Bartels said, it would consider how to restructure the body organising the Hajj to be able to organise “problem-free Hajj”.
Story by Musah Yahaya Jafaru