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Wednesday, 20 February, 2002, 15:38 GMT
Afghan pilgrims arrive after travel chaos
Afghan pilgrims sit aboard a British C-130 Hercules transport aircraft as they prepared to fly to Saudi Arabia
Many waited for days to make the journey
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By Marcus George
BBC News Online's correspondent in Kabul

More than 6,000 Afghans have travelled to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj - the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Islam's holiest sites.

Pilgrims from all over Afghanistan gathered at Kabul's international airport where aircraft from several countries transported them to the Arabian peninsula.

When I return I will be a haji, and everybody will respect me greatly

65 year-old pilgrim
British Royal Air Force planes also carried hundreds of pilgrims - assisting in the backlog of people wanting to make the holy journey.

Many Afghans, who paid $1,500 for the trip, had been forced to wait several days in and around Kabul because there were insufficient aircraft to transport them.

It is believed that two elderly women, waiting for two days in the airport compound, died from the cold.

Some waited for up to five days with only few blankets and provisions, donated by aid agencies and peace-keeping forces, to guard against the freezing temperatures.

Changing room

"It was a priority to try and get them out," said International Security Assistance Force spokesman Jonathan Turner. "It became an absolute priority to take those people where they wanted to go."

"And we will bring them back. The aircraft will be made available for them again."

Pilgrims don white robes
Pilgrims paid $1,500 for the trip to Saudi Arabia
The airport departure lounge was transformed into a large changing room as pilgrims shed their usual clothes for untailored white shawls for their arrival in Saudi Arabia.

Security also delayed the procedure as authorities checked tickets and passports for high-ranking Taleban officials and al-Qaeda suspects.

Attention was drawn to pilgrims when the Afghan interim Civil Aviation minister, Abdul Rahman, was killed as he boarded a flight destined for India.

There have been contradictory reports surrounding his murder, with both angry pilgrims and personal enemies being blamed.

Trip of a lifetime

Pilgrimage is one of the five tenets of Islam that Muslims are expected to accomplish in their lifetime. Pilgrims perambulate the Ka'ba, Islam's holiest site, seven times before visiting Medina and Mount Arafat.

And while they exercise their holy rights, Afghanistan is gearing up for a three-day holiday.

Kabul's bazaars are teeming with people buying food and new clothes which are traditionally worn to celebrate the religious event.

Ranks of waiting pilgrims at Kabul airport
Pilgrimage is one of the five tenets of Islam
On the first day of Eid al-Adha, families throughout the Muslim world sacrifice a sheep - an Islamic tradition. The meat is distributed within the community and gifts are exchanged between family and friends.

After a lifetime of work, 65-year-old Abdul Ghani is finally making the pilgrimage.

His belongings for the next 30 days are packed tightly into a tiny sports bag. Around his waist a belt holds his passport and some money.

"Now I am finally on my way," he told me with a broad grin.

"And when I return I will be a haji, and everybody will respect me greatly."

See also:

20 Feb 02 | Middle East
Muslims mass for Hajj
18 Feb 02 | South Asia
Afghan pilgrims get airlift for Hajj
16 Feb 02 | South Asia
Farewell to murdered Afghan minister
15 Feb 02 | Middle East
Imams call for trouble-free Hajj
05 Mar 01 | Middle East
Pilgrims killed in Mecca stampede
10 Feb 00 | Middle East
What is the Hajj?
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