A descriptive and critical account of the Hajj stampede on September 24, 2105 which led to the deadliest tragedy in 25 years
TIME CODE: 00:00_05:00
SOUNDBITE [Persian] Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s President: “I have to express deep regret for heartrending incident that happened for thousands of Muslims including Iranians in Mina on Thursday and to offer my condolences to families mourning for those lost their lives in this tragedy.”
Narration: It’s Thursday, 24, September 2015. A dark day in Mecca. Just a few miles away from the city, hundreds of pilgrims lie lifeless in the streets of Mina. A cacophony of shouts amid the chaos. Medics and ambulances arrive but too late. This is the horrific aftermath of a stampede that happened during a ritual known as “the Stoning of the Devil.” Saudi Arabia's top religious leader, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, says that the Hajj stampede was an act of fate and beyond human control, exonerating the Saudi king and princes of any blame. Maj. Gen. Mansour Al-Turki, the Saudi Interior Ministry's security spokesman, hints that the problem may have stemmed from some pilgrims not following established guidelines. Rushing to complete the rituals, extreme heat, throngs of worshipers pushing against one another, and even confusion among the many first-timers have been among the suggested causes of the stampede. On the other hand, some believe that the tragedy occurred after the roads had been closed for a ministerial event or a dignitary’s convoy. Whatever the causes might been, it’s not the first time lives have been lost during the hajj. Nearly 10,000 Muslim pilgrims have been killed since 1985. The recent incident, however, has been the deadliest in 25 years. According to the official account, the pilgrims fell and were crushed due to a sudden movement in the crowd. Those who survived have yet another story to tell, a story in full detail.
SOUNDBITE [Persian] Survived Hajj Pilgrim: “There are several pathways to the Jamarat Bridge from the tents. We reached a place and the police guided us to a certain direction. The other pathways had been closed and we had to move from a specific direction guided by the police.”
Narration: On Thursday morning, the third day of the hajj, two waves of pilgrims on their way to and from the stone-throwing ritual collided in the bottlenecked footpaths between the holy sites.
SOUNDBITE [Persian] Survived Hajj Pilgrim: “It was less than ten minutes that way got crowded. We thought it was quite natural. We moved on for a while. All of a sudden, the crowd rushed back.”
SOUNDBITE [Persian] Survived Hajj Pilgrim: “There was a narrow street that couldn’t accommodate the crowd moving towards.”
SOUNDBITE [Persian] Survived Hajj Pilgrim: “They said the way was closed.”
SOUNDBITE [Persian] Survived Hajj Pilgrim: “Though we were supposed to move from three pathways, there was only one pathway open. They closed the only pathway open too.”
SOUNDBITE [Persian] Survived Hajj Pilgrim: “As a distance of 200 meters, I could see officers standing on top of a vehicle to close a road that more than 100, 000 people were walking through.”
Narration: In the ensuing chaos, hundreds suffocated or were trampled underfoot.
SOUNDBITE [Persian] Survived Hajj Pilgrim: “The crown started to panic. Some began to climb up; others wanted to escape to nearby alleys.”
SOUNDBITE [Persian] Survived Hajj Pilgrim: “I got near the wall and took the railings and began to climb up and then I threw myself on top of a tent. Right then, I was knocked unconscious.”
TIME CODE: 05:00_10:00
SOUNDBITE [Persian] Survived Hajj Pilgrim: “I was under bodies. Only my head and one of my hands could be seen.”
SOUNDBITE [Persian] Survived Hajj Pilgrim: “A railing three meters in width and five meters in length had fallen on a crowd. The crowd had been crushed under the railing …”
SOUNDBITE [Persian] Survived Hajj Pilgrim: “There, two people who had passed away had fallen on me, on my legs. I couldn’t get my legs out so as to save myself.”
SOUNDBITE [Persian] Survived Hajj Pilgrim: “Though I am a chemically – injured war veteran, I gave my own spray to each and every person there.”
SOUNDBITE [Persian] Survived Hajj Pilgrim: “Many African women died in the first ten minutes.”
Narration: For some survivors, Saudi guards were just the onlookers of the event and for others they only exacerbated the stampede by refusing to open nearby gates that could have relieved the crush.
SOUNDBITE [Persian] Survived Hajj Pilgrim: “When I got up and regained my strength, there were some people dying and the police were just looking them.”
SOUNDBITE [Persian] Survived Hajj Pilgrim: “The intense heat, lack of water and the absence of the police to open the area resulted in more and more casualties.”
SOUNDBITE [Persian] Survived Hajj Pilgrim: “No help was offered to us from the Saudi forces until some five hours later.”
SOUNDBITE [Persian] Survived Hajj Pilgrim: “The police officers had each a walki-talki watching the whole event. Up to the last moment in these three hours, the officers didn’t get out.”
SOUNDBITE [Persian] Survived Hajj Pilgrim: “Sad to say, in front of me, I saw some Iranians lost their lives. The soldiers told each other, “If he’s an Iranian, let him die.”
Narration: Discrimination and hatred against some pilgrims are in direct contradiction with the hajj principles. The simple white clothes the pilgrims assume on entering Mecca are meant to symbolize first of all equality between all humanity. The pathways between Mina’s tent city and the Jamaraat have now hosted seven deadly stampedes since 1990 when 1,426 pilgrims lost their lives. Other notable stampedes happened in 1994: near Jamarat Bridge that killed 270 pilgrims. 1998: the year at least 118 pilgrims were trampled to death. 2004: with the death toll standing at 251 pilgrims. 2006: on the last day of the Hajj in Mina that at least 346 pilgrims were killed. And the most recent one, 2015: with more than 4173 pilgrims dead. All the disasters have been almost identical: crushes and collisions of unguided masses of people. Thursday’s tragedy occurred after the Saudis spent roughly $1.2 billionon safety measures and upgraded capacities at the site. Still, the spaces are too small, and the faithful are too many. Despite all the improvements and constructions, 100,000 police and several hundred cameras installed to help manage the flow of pilgrims this catastrophe keeps happening. And strangely enough, despite deadly accidents that have happened during the hajj, the nearest hospital to the Grand Mosque has only 52 beds. Against exorbitant expenditures, Saudi Arabia’s construction priorities appear out of touch with the needs of pilgrims.
Stampedes and failures to control crowds have made up just part of the deadly events during the hajj. Fires, protests and violence, diseases and construction failures are other fatal accidents that have been claiming and threatening lives over past years. The Mecca crane collapse on September 11, 2015, just a few days before the beginning of the hajj, in which 118 people died and 394 were injured, is just a case in point.
This year, the largest gathering of human beings on the planet came to an end without hundreds of fellow worshipers; many families spent the morning of Eid al-Adha watching the death toll rise as messaged and called relatives and friends."Where is he?""Has she called?""Are you OK?" The same conversations would have been repeated in Muslim homes all around the world. How long is the birthplace of Islam going to be the deathbed of Muslim pilgrims? “The Custodian of the Holy Sanctuary” has repeatedly failed to safeguard the teeming masses of the faithful who go, year after year, to the holy sites around Mecca. But, it seems that with dogged determination, the Saudis are going to hold the monopoly on every single aspect of the Hajj pilgrimage, come hell or high water.