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Hajj Mayhem Claims Two Macedonian Lives, Injures Three Others

January 17, 2006

(Balkanalysis.com Research Service)- Two Macedonian Muslims lost their lives in what has become an annual bout of anarchy in Mecca, Skopje’s Makfax reported today. In all, over 350 pilgrims lost their lives during the penultimate moments of a devil-stoning ritual. Makfax confirmed that the two Macedonians “died in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, during devil-stoning rite at [the] climax of Hajj pilgrimage.”

According to Bloomberg, “crowding has been a factor in many deaths during the annual event, including the 1990 Hajj, when more than 1,400 died, and in 2004, when about 250 were crushed in Mena.”

The news of the Macedonian deaths contradicted an earlier statement; Haxhi Jakup Selimovski, a representative of Macedonia’s Islamic Community, had originally told Makfax that no pilgrims from the country were among the dead or wounded.In its 7 PM news update tonight, A1 TV reported that the first returning planeload of Hajj pilgrims arrived today, and that three other injured pilgrims were to arrive on the third planeload tomorrow. Worries of potential bird flu being imported with them from the Middle East were unsubstantiated, the station reported.

The victims were identified as Shadije Canoska and Kaplan Canoski, aged 50 and 57 respectively. Residents of the ethnically-mixed Struga-area village of Oktisi, the former was of Turkish origins and the latter, from the small and marginalized Macedonian Muslim community centered in that area of the country.

However, while the two had the same last name, they were not related, reported A1. Both were buried in Saudi Arabia.

The son of Shadije Canoska told the television station that despite his sadness, he was “proud” that his mother had died at Mecca, “while fulfilling the fifth pillar of Islam.” According to the station, the woman had run a small shop in Oktisi. Relatives of Kaplan Canoski, however, did not want to talk to the media.

The victims were two out of a total of 53 pilgrims from the Struga area, and their travel had been arranged by the Struga mufti’s office. On December 29, they left Skopje for Saudi Arabia by plane. All in all, over 1,700 Muslims from Macedonia, predominantly Albanians made the trip of a lifetime this year to the Islamic world’s holiest place.

The tragedy was compounded by its improbability; while the number of pilgrims from Macedonia rose noticeably this year, the chances of anyone from the country dying were still statistically infinitesimal. On Dec. 27, IslamOnline reported that “the number of Macedonian pilgrims has increased by hundreds this year.” This means that the Saudi government, which tightly regulates the number of Hajj visas it gives per country, saw some strategic value in bolstering the flock in Macedonia.

Still, Macedonia’s total representation of around 1,700 pilgrims is a tiny number compared to the more than 2 million Muslims who descended on Mecca for the Hajj.

For a poor country like Macedonia, the trip is not cheap. According to IslamOnline, “Hajj costs range this year between 1200 euros for land travel to Makkah, while it costs 1950 euros for air flights.” However, the Muslims of southwestern Macedonia are not as poor as it might seem; the long-standing tendency for young men to work in countries such as Italy, Austria and Switzerland means large remittances as well. The streets of Macedonian Muslim-majority villages like Labunista, just a few miles from Oktisi, are filled with BMWs and Audis with foreign license plates.

Over the past couple years, Western and local intelligence agencies alike have also been paying more attention to the possibility of terrorist collaboration between a handful of local extremists – the famous “Wahhabis” with their long beards, short pants and suspicious sources of income – and foreign organizations, the latter of which are believed to have been involved in funding for mosque construction there. According to local sources, in fact, Oktisi has a higher percentage of radicals, though it is much smaller than the sprawling Labunista (8,000-9,000 inhabitants).

However, in neither places have the extremists gotten much of a foothold: “even the old men sometimes beat them in the streets, and yell at them for not practicing Islam correctly,” stated a Labunista resident on Saturday. As elsewhere in Macedonia, the Wahhabis remain furtive and suspicious, not wishing to speak or associate with those not of their kind.

In an attempt to avoid future repeats of the endemic carnage that has plagued the Hajj year in and year out, the Saudi authorities are investing $1.2 billion to improve infrastructure for the safety of pilgrims. However, these efforts are not expected to be finished for three years. The contractors are the Saudi Binladen Group– the family that disowned Osama.

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