FREETOWN/MONROVIA (dpa) – Suliaman Turay diligently set aside a portion of his salary each month for more than a decade, until he had saved enough for the pilgrimage to Mecca.
The school teacher from Sierra Leone was finally going to fulfil his ambition this year, the trip of a lifetime.
But an Ebola outbreak that has killed more than 3,000 people across West Africa thwarted his plans. Saudi Arabia suspended the visas of 7,200 pilgrims from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, the three countries most affected by the deadly epidemic.
“Already, we are suffering because of the outbreak. Instead of showing us their sympathy, the Saudi government is making the situation even worse for us,” Turay said.
“I have planned this trip my whole life, saving the little money I have. Now all my efforts are wasted. Ebola has killed my dreams,” lamented the 35-year-old who lives in the capital, Freetown.
Saudi authorities said they needed to do avoid the risk of Ebola reaching the holy city. Some 3 million Muslims from all over the world converge in Mecca for the haj pilgrimage each year.
The streets are hot and crowded, with an average daytime temperature of 40 degrees Celsius. Ebola, which causes massive haemorrhaging and has a high fatality rate, is transmitted through contact with blood and other body fluids, including perspiration.
Anger and disappointment about the travel ban can be felt across Sierra Leone, where more than 70 per cent of the country’s six million people profess the Muslim faith.
The government pleaded with Saudi Arabia to lift the ban. Officials went as far as proposing to test each pilgrim for Ebola before departure – but Saudi officials stuck to the visa suspension.
“The Saudi government should have found a way to help us fellow Muslims to perform our obligations to Allah. But they abandoned us. Ebola has taken everything away from us, including our religious practices,” said Sheik Lamin Juana, 55, the imam of Fathil Islamic Mosque in Freetown.
“We are now praying to be able to perform the Haj next year,” said the imam, who also had his trip cancelled this year.
In neighbouring Guinea, where the Ebola outbreak was initially triggered by a two-year-old “patient zero” in December, angry Muslims also blame the government for not applying enough pressure to Saudi Arabia.
“Our government should have convinced Saudi authorities that it was possible to put in place screening devices at airports to detect suspect cases,” Siradio Diallo, who had intended to perform the haj this year, said in the capital Conakry.
In Liberia, the National Muslim Council tried to give the travel ban a positive spin by calling it “the will of Prophet Mohammed,” to protect Muslims from other nations from contracting the virus.
“Ebola is a very dangerous disease. It was the right decision to suspend visas as a precautionary measure. We must not endanger the guests of God who come from all around the world,” council chairman
Sheikh Kafumba Konneh told dpa. Muslims from Nigeria and Senegal, meanwhile, count themselves particularly lucky this year since Saudi Arabia issued visas despite small Ebola outbreaks in each nation.
Nigeria reported 20 confirmed or probable cases, of which eight people died, while Senegal recorded one Ebola death.
Health checks were extremely tight at airports across Nigeria, which sent off about 76,000 pilgrims in September.
Travellers who were boarding for Saudi Arabia had to undergo three different health screenings at a special haj departure area at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos.
Africa’s most-populous nation was going to ensure “no Ebola case is exported, but also not imported,” Health Minister Onyebuchi Chukwu said.