Portugal Colonial - Mourning their dead, Gazans take solace in hajj pilgrimage

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Mourning their dead, Gazans take solace in hajj pilgrimage
Mourning their dead, Gazans take solace in hajj pilgrimage / Photo: FADEL SENNA - AFP

Mourning their dead, Gazans take solace in hajj pilgrimage

Months after losing her husband and children in the horrors of the Gaza war, Douaa al-Massarii is doing her best to find peace in the ancient rituals of the hajj.

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The 33-year-old Palestinian, who has been living as a refugee in Egypt since February, is happy to now find herself in Mecca, Islam's holiest city, for the sacred rites.

"But my happiness is incomplete without my children, without my husband," she said, choking back tears.

This year's hajj is shot through with sadness after eight months of the Israel-Hamas war, which started on October 7 when the Palestinian militants' assault on southern Israel resulted in the deaths of 1,194 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

The militants also seized 251 hostages. Of these, 116 remain in Gaza although the army says 41 of them are dead.

Israel's retaliatory offensive against Hamas has killed more than 37,000 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-ruled territory's health minstry.

Although political activity is forbidden at the hajj, in western Saudi Arabia, many of the pilgrims are praying for Gaza, a raw topic for much of the Muslim world.

Massarii said she felt her children with her as she joined the crowds walking in circles around the Kaaba, the giant black cube at Mecca's Grand Mosque.

"As I turned, I saw my three children in the sky, I prayed for them," she said. "When I touched the Kaaba, I felt comfort."

However, nothing will erase the "wounds" of October 31, when an Israeli strike destroyed the house where she lived with her family.

"When I woke up under the rubble, I no longer felt my body. I only heard my eldest daughter crying," she said.

Taken to hospital with a broken back, she was told her eight-year-old son and 18-month-old daughter had both been killed.

Her husband, seriously wounded, died a few days later. Their eldest daughter, aged nine, joined her father's family in an area of the Gaza Strip that was thought to be safer.

But she did not survive long. In an Israeli bombardment, she was killed along with everyone else in the house.

"(She was) the only child I had left... the one who helped me hold on," sobbed Massarii.

- 'Feeling of hope' -

After so much pain, Massarii said her joy was "indescribable" when she was one of the 2,000 Palestinians invited by Saudi Arabia's King Salman to perform the hajj, including 1,000 bereaved Gazans.

Another invitee, Khalil al-Rahman Jaber, was also thankful to be in Mecca as he struggles with grief.

The 27-year-old is praying for his sister, killed in an Israeli bombing with her husband and two children, and the many uncles and friends who shared their fate.

"I was at her house an hour before," said the lawyer, who fled the Gaza Strip in March.

He said he searched for her under the rubble, using his bare hands. Later that day, he was lucky to survive when another strike hit his building.

"I would have preferred not to escape it," he sighed, describing how thoughts of funerals and mangled bodies have haunted him since the start of the war.

"Thank God we have faith," said the young man.

"The hajj, the presence in these holy places instils a feeling of hope... the feeling that it is possible to regain our life, even if it takes a long time."