Last of stranded Muslims leave Bangkok airport for Haj

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Muslims prepared to leave Bangkok’s besieged international airport on Sunday, six days after they were stranded by anti-government protests.

They had been treated well by the PAD, who gave them meals, water and blankets. “It touched my heart and the hearts of my people,” Yusuf said

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Muslims on a once-in-a-lifetime haj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia prepared to leave Bangkok’s besieged international airport on Sunday, six days after they were stranded by anti-government protests.

“But the pilgrimage is a test of our faith, and this is a test of our faith.”

The final group of 460 pilgrims, who had slept on straw floor mats and luggage conveyor belts in a corner of Suvarnabhumi airport’s massive departure hall, were relieved that their ordeal was nearly over.

“We are leaving today, finally, inshallah (God willing),” said Yusuf Waedaramae, 33, a Thai living in Australia, who was escorting his 57-year-old mother to complete one of Islam’s most important pillars of faith.

Members of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) stormed the new $4 billion state-of-the-art airport on Tuesday, stepping up their fight to unseat the government.

Suvarnabhumi and another older airport, Don Muang, have been shut, leaving thousands of tourists stranded and threatening further pain for an economy already hit by a global slump.

The group, many of its members elderly and frail, were from Thailand’s deep south.

On Sunday the pilgrims received word they would be driven by bus to the naval air base at U-Tapao, 150 kms (90 miles) east of Bangkok, where airlines are picking up stranded travellers.

Their IranAir charter flight was due to leave after 3 a.m. on Monday, bound for Tehran and then Saudi Arabia, an airline representative said.

“God willing, they will not have any problems,” S.M. Ghaffar, IranAir’s general manager in Thailand, told reporters.

Islam requires all able-bodied Muslims to undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once if they can afford it. The cut-off date this year is Tuesday, Dec. 2.

The pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam, which include the declaration of faith, praying five times a day, giving alms and fasting during Ramadam.

Most of the pilgrims stranded at the airport were the beneficiaries of Muslim charity drawings or savings clubs, which raise funds to send a fortunate few to Saudi Arabia every year.

On Sunday, a call to prayers echoed through the departure hall, temporarily drowning out the din of PAD speakers outside the terminal. The Muslim men then gathered at check-in row “T” for prayers as PAD members looked on.

Yusuf said they had been treated well by the PAD, who gave them meals, water and blankets.

“It touched my heart and the hearts of my people,” Yusuf said as his fellow Muslims rolled up mats or packed their belongings.

“We did not want to get stuck here, but we have to accept the will of our creator,” he said.

But others said they were puzzled by the long-running political crisis, which has not reached the deep south and pits Bangkok’s middle-class and elites who support the PAD against a government backed by the rural northern poor.

“I think they don’t understand each other. If they did, there would not be a problem,” said Roryalee Seng, a 45-year-old teacher from the southern province of Narathiwat.

REUTERS

 

FURTHER READING

Thai haj pilgrims find airport chaos a test of faith / REUTERS

With matching luggage lined up neatly in front of deserted check-in counters, the pilgrims sat chatting in small groups or sleeping, the men loosely separate from the women.

They appeared tired, but cheerful and friendly.

“It isn’t too bad here,” Yusouf told Reuters. “Conditions are quite tough on the haj anyway, so we are just getting used to it. Actually I’m getting fat from all the food I’m eating.”

The PAD activists, who have unfurled banners apologising for the disruption they have caused but insist it is necessary to remove the government, have been supplying the pilgrims with regular meals and water.

“They are helping us, but at the same time they are responsible for us being here,” said Noor, a teacher from Pattani.

“But the pilgrimage is a test of our faith, and this is a test of our faith.”

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