37 dead in stampede at Hindu festival in India

Updated 11 February 2013
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37 dead in stampede at Hindu festival in India

ALLAHABAD, India: Anxious relatives searched for missing family members in northern India yesterday during one of the world's largest religious gatherings, unsure if their loved ones were caught in a stampede that killed 37 people or had simply gotten lost among the tens of millions of pilgrims.
People thronged to the main hospital in Allahabad to see if their relatives were among 37 dead and 39 people injured in Sunday evening's stampede at the city's train station. Tens of thousands of people were in the station waiting to board a train when railway officials announced a last-minute change in the platform, triggering the chaos.
An estimated 30 million Hindus took a dip Sunday at the Sangam — the confluence of the Ganges, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati rivers — as part of the 55-day Kumbh Mela, or Pitcher Festival. Sunday was one of the holiest days to bathe.
People missing at the Kumbh Mela is the stuff of legend in India and at least a dozen films have been made on the theme. On Sunday, like most other days, volunteers and officials used loudspeakers to give details of children and elderly people who were "found" on the river banks, having lost their families in the crowd.
It was unclear how many people were missing because of the stampede.
On Monday, state government officials and railway authorities told reporters that they had taken all precautions to prevent just such a tragedy.
Stampedes are common during religious festivities in India. During the Kumbh festival, platoons of policemen patrol the specially marked bathing areas to prevent crowding along the river banks in Allahabad.
For the past few weeks, and especially on festival days, authorities made constant announcements asking people to move in orderly lines to the bathing areas.
An official in the Uttar Pradesh state government in charge of the festival arrangements resigned Monday as the death toll mounted.
State minister Mohammed Azam Khan said he had "moral responsibility" for the stampede and submitted his resignation although the incident took place outside the Kumbh festival area.
Witnesses blamed police action for the stampede.
"We heard an announcement that our train is coming on platform No. 4 and when we started moving toward that platform through a footbridge, we were stopped. Then suddenly the police charged us with batons and the stampede started," passenger Shushanto Kumar Sen said.
"People started tumbling over one another and within no time I saw people, particularly women and children, being trampled over by others," Sen said.
Police denied they had used batons to control the crowd.
"It was simply a case of overcrowding. People were in a hurry to go back and there were not enough arrangements by the railway authorities," said Arun Kumar, a senior police officer.
Medical superintendent Dr. P. Padmakar of the main state-run hospital said 29 of the 37 people killed were women.
Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal said an inquiry has been ordered into what led to the stampede. He said the railway station had huge crowds of people wishing to return home after prayers on the river banks.
"There were just too many people on the platforms," Bansal told reporters.
The crowds overran the station, and women, children and old people were pushed aside as people rushed toward the trains. Officials said train services were suspended after the stampede, leading to further crowding of the station.
Indian television stations showed large crowds pushing and jostling at the train station as policemen struggled to restore order.
"There was complete chaos. There was no doctor or ambulance for at least two hours after the accident," a witness told NDTV news channel.
Bansal said overcrowding at the station prevented medical teams from immediately reaching the injured.
Volunteers used stretchers to carry the injured to private vehicles which then ferried them to the hospital.
Bodies of the victims were being handed over to their families, Padmakar said. But 14 bodies were yet to be identified, he said.
The crowding at the station was just as bad Monday, with tens of thousands waiting to catch trains home.
"We just want to get out of here. But the trains are delayed," said Sunita Devi, a woman from neighboring Bihar state.
Officials said railway authorities Monday began running special trains to enable people to return home and help reduce the crowds that were waiting for transport to leave Allahabad.
The auspicious bathing days of the Kumbh Mela are decided by the alignment of stars, and the most dramatic feature of the festival is the Naga sadhus — ascetics with ash rubbed all over their bodies, wearing only marigold garlands — leaping joyfully into the icy holy waters.
According to Hindu mythology, the Kumbh Mela celebrates the victory of gods over demons in a furious battle over nectar that would give them immortality. As one of the gods fled with a pitcher of the nectar across the skies, it spilled on four Indian towns: Allahabad, Nasik, Ujjain and Haridwar.
The Kumbh Mela is held four times every 12 years in those towns. Hindus believe that sins accumulated in past and current lives require them to continue the cycle of death and rebirth until they are cleansed. If they bathe at the Ganges on the most auspicious day of the festival, believers say they can rid themselves of their sins.
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Associated Press writer Biswajeet Banerjee contributed to this report.


Emotional Muslims return to Christchurch mosque as New Zealand works to move on

Updated 4 min ago
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Emotional Muslims return to Christchurch mosque as New Zealand works to move on

  • Al Noor was handed back to the local Muslim community on Saturday and began allowing small groups onto its grounds around midday
  • “We are allowing 15 people at a time, just to get some normality,” said Saiyad Hassen, a volunteer at Al Noor

CHRISTCHURCH: Muslims held emotional prayers inside Christchurch’s main mosque on Saturday for the first time since a white supremacist massacred worshippers there, as New Zealand sought to return to normality after the tragedy.
The Al Noor mosque had been taken over by police for investigations and security reasons after alleged gunman Brenton Tarrant gunned down Muslims gathered there and at a smaller mosque for Friday prayers on March 15, killing 50 people.
Al Noor was handed back to the local Muslim community on Saturday and began allowing small groups onto its grounds around midday.
“We are allowing 15 people at a time, just to get some normality,” said Saiyad Hassen, a volunteer at Al Noor, adding that there were no plans yet to fully reopen.
Among the first to enter was massacre survivor Vohra Mohammad Huzef, who said two of his roommates were killed and that he managed to live only by hiding under bodies.
“I could feel the bullets hitting the people and I could feel the blood coming down on me from the people who were shot,” said Huzef, a Christchurch civil engineer originally from India.
“Everyone wants to get back in again to give praise and to catch up. This is the central point of our community.”
The attacks shocked a country of 4.5 million that is known for its tolerance and prompted global horror, heightened by Tarrant’s cold-blooded livestreaming of the massacre.
New Zealand came to a standstill on Friday to mark one week since the bloodshed, with the Muslim call to prayer broadcast across the country followed by two minutes of silence.
The ceremonies saw poignant scenes of Maoris performing the traditional haka war dance, and non-Muslim New Zealand women donning makeshift Islamic headscarves in solidarity.
A day earlier, the country outlawed the military-style rifles used in the assault with immediate effect.
But one of four concert sites at a music festival in the capital Wellington was evacuated on Saturday night just before a planned minute of silence for Christchurch, underlining lingering apprehensions.
Police cited unspecified “concerns about a person,” but later called it an “innocent misunderstanding” and the concert was slated to proceed.
In Christchurch, police also handed back Linwood Mosque, the second killing zone several kilometers away from Al Noor, but no plans to allow visitors were announced.
An armed police presence will remain at both mosques, as well as others around New Zealand.
Workers have rushed to repair the mosques’ bullet-pocked walls and clean blood-spattered floors.
At Al Noor, visitors knelt at a garden tap to wash their feet and faces in ritual pre-prayer ablutions.
Some wept quietly inside the mosque, where bright sunlight streamed through windows and the air smelled of fresh paint. No bullet holes were seen.
Men and women then knelt and prayed on a padded carpet underlay taped to the floor, still awaiting replacements for the mosque’s blood-stained rugs.
Several members of Christchurch semi-professional football club Western A.F.C. arrived in team colors to honor three victims who were known to the team due to their interest in the sport. The players left a bouquet of flowers outside the entrance to the mosque’s grounds.
The victims included 14-year-old Sayyad Milne, who dreamed of playing in goal for Manchester United, according to his father.
“We all love playing football and the best thing we can do is just to go out and enjoy it really, and obviously play for those guys that have been lost and think about them while we are doing it,” said team member Aaron McDonald, 20.
The mosque’s imam Gamal Fouda arrived draped in a New Zealand flag.
The day before, Fouda delivered an impassioned memorial service at a park next to the mosque that was watched globally and in which he praised “unbreakable” New Zealand for uniting in the tragedy’s wake.
Around 2,000 people gathered Saturday at the same park to join a “March for Love” procession through Christchurch.
Officials and police said two relatives of victims had died, with New Zealand identifying one as 65-year-old Suad Adwan, who had arrived from Jordan for the burial of her son Kamel Darwish, 38.
The grief-stricken mother was found Saturday morning having apparently died in her sleep, just hours after her son’s burial, of what police called a “medical event.”
No other details on the deaths were given.
But normality slowly returned to Christchurch as children played cricket near Al Noor and a previously scheduled 100-kilometer (62-mile) cycling race went ahead as planned.
New Zealand, which has already charged two people for distributing the gruesome livestreamed video of the attack, has now also made it a crime to share the alleged killer’s “manifesto,” local media reported.
In the document, Tarrant says the killings were in response to what he termed a Muslim “invasion” of Western countries.
“Others have referred to this publication as a ‘manifesto’, but I consider it a crude booklet that promotes murder and terrorism,” Chief Censor David Shanks was quoted as saying.