Lessons From Mecca Stampede
‘‘We have rendered the shrine (Ka’aba) a focal point for the people and a safe sanctuary. You may use Abraham’s shrine as a prayer house. We commissioned Abraham and Ismail. You shall purify My House for those who visit, those who live there and those who bow and prostrate.”
–From the Quran on Haj
One of the five tenets of Islam is that it is the duty of every able-bodied Muslim with the means to make the Haj pilgrimage once in their life time to go to heaven. Tragically, this time, the 717 Hajis, who went to Mecca, never returned. It is reported that 863 have been injured and the death toll of Indians has gone up to 45. The twin tragedies–the crane tragedy on September 11, which saw 111 people dead, followed by September 24 stampede–have shocked Muslims all over. This, however, is not the first accident to occur during Haj. In 1990 1, 426 pilgrims perished during Haj. In 2006, 362 pilgrims were crushed at the Jamarat bridge during the stoning ritual. The Saudi Civil Department has said that a predawn fire in a hotel in Mecca during this Haj season forced the evacuation of 1,500 pilgrims and due to fire four Yemeni pilgrims had suffered minor injuries.
Significantly, the image of Saudi Arabia as the custodian of the holiest sites in Islam–Mecca and Medina–has taken a blow. The Saudi government is facing flak for being plush with oil money and revenue from religious tourism and yet being unable to provide safety measures to its pilgrims. The Saudi government blames the disorderly pilgrims for the tragedy. According to Health Minister Khaled al-Falih, ‘’Many pilgrims move without respecting the timetables established by authorities, which was the principal reason for this type of accident.” According to Al-Jazeera, the head of the Central Haj Committee, Prince Khaled-Al-Faisal has found a scapegoat and blames “some pilgrims from African nationalities” for the stampede. The number of Hajis is swelling every year. The Saudi authorities knew this. This year alone about two million pilgrims had assembled in Mecca. When pilgrims from different nationalities all over the world, speaking different languages, from different socio economic backgrounds, assemble under one roof, disaster management has to be highly efficient. The Saudi government has failed here, say many. Says Said Ohadi, the head of Iran’s Haj organisation, “for unknown reasons two paths had been closed off near the site, where the stampede occurred, which caused the tragic incident”.
According to media reports, the main reason for the tragedy was the emergence of bottlenecks after two roads around the Jamarat bridge–the largest pedestrian bridge in the world–which was closed to pilgrims as dignitaries. According to a BBC Radio 4 report, talking to pilgrims they said that the main reason for the tragedy was the King and his palace, who were receiving dignitaries including the Minister of Defence and members of the GCC (Gulf Co-operation Council). The police had closed all entrances and exits to the pilgrim camps, leaving only one. The closing of the two entrances and two roads, where the stoning of the Devil ritual takes place, created bottlenecks, which eventually led to the stampede.
Another angle given to the tragedy is that the Saudi family was exploiting the real estate boom, which began a decade ago in Saudi. According to Professor Rashid in a Times of India report, the Saudi government had undertaken “the renovation and expansion under the pretext of creating more space for pilgrims but it actually masks land grabs and vast amounts of money being made by the Princes and other Saudis”. Many pilgrims believe it was the hectic construction activity around the Circular Mosque, which was responsible for the crane tragedy. The stopping of construction activity a few weeks ahead of the Haj season could have prevented the disaster, say the pilgrims.
It is said that a large majority of pilgrims were not from Saudi Arabia, so not enough pressure was put on the Saudi government to improve the conditions of crowd management for public safety during Haj.
The accident has notably widened the already existing rift between the Shias and Sunnis even more. Iran with a Shia majority has blamed Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia for the loss of lives of 131 Iranian citizens, believed to be dead. According to Said Ohadi, “The Haj accident shows mismanagement and lack of serious attention to the safety of pilgrims” by the Saudi government. Iran has threatened to take legal action against the Saudi government through International courts and organisations. The truth, however, is that neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia is a state party to the International Criminal Court and only the Court’s prosecutor can file charges. Saudi has hit back at Iran by calling it all “an Iranian conspiracy”. Saudi authorities have accused Iranians of ignoring safety instructions and chanting Shia slogans.
Meanwhile, Mumbai Mirror has reported the first person account of the travails of a Haj traveller, who says that in Mecca and Medina pilgrims were treated with scant respect. He said that it was painful to see the treatment meted out to the poor Hajis, sleeping on the pavement near Masjid-e-Kheef in the South of Mina. What is surprising, said the Haji, is that Saudi Arabia with all its oil wealth does not have the wherewithal to streamline mob management. Even an economically backward and war-torn country like Iraq exceptionally handles a crowd of 30 million pilgrims in Karbala every year, whereas Saudi Arabia has to deal with only about two million pilgrims during Haj. According to Allama Syyed Mohammed, a senior Shia cleric, who spoke to Times of India after he escaped death at the Haj stampede, “Lives could have been saved, had medical help and enough water reached the pilgrims on that mercilessly hot day. Water was not available in shops. There was no arrangement made for water on a day when mercury touched 50 degrees.” That the Saudi government was not able to provide its pilgrims even the basic amenities like water has caused outrage in many Islamic quarters. Meanwhile, the Islamic doctrine that anyone who dies during the Haj pilgrimage goes to heaven may not compensate for the irreparable loss of lives to those who lost their loved ones in the Haj stampede.
By Indira Satyanarayan