Hajj is an annual pilgrimage to Mecca for millions of Muslims from all over the world. It is one of the world's largest gatherings on Earth. For Muslims, the Hajj is a central pillar of the Islamic faith meant to cleanse the faithful of sin and bring them closer to God. On the third day of Hajj each year, Muslims celebrate Eid al Adha, one of Islam's holiest festivals. But in last year’s Hajj on the day of Eid the joy and celebration of Muslims turned into grief and sorrow as the deadliest accident in Hajj history occurred when a human stampede caused the deaths of thousands of pilgrims who were suffocated or crushed during the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mina, as pilgrims were en route to Jamaraat to conduct a stoning ritual. Saudi authorities have said the Mina crush and stampede occurred when two waves of pilgrims converged on a narrow road, suffocating or trampling to death those caught in the disaster. Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars on crowd control and safety measures but to no avail. Why was the crowd ushered in the wrong direction? Why weren't they rescued in time? Why wasn't water distributed in the scorching heat? And many more questions regarding Saudi Arabia’s negligence have remained unanswered almost a year on. This documentary looks into the details of the tragic incident with interviews with officials and victims.
TIME CODE: 00:00_05:00
Narration: I’m Mostafa Raja. On September 2015, I set off on a journey I had dreamed of for years for the first time.
Conversation [Persian] Mostafa Raja & someone else: “Be safe and in God’s care.
Thanks. Thanks a lot.”
- Narration: I went on the Hajj pilgrimage…..As a reporter.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Mostafa Raja, Reporter: “Dear viewers, this is the Quba Mosque, a mosque founded on virtue from the very first day, as mentioned in the Quran. We are here in this place and we are going to pray- out of respect for the mosque-on your behalves.”
SOUNDBITE [English] Hajj Pilgrim: “This is my third time of my performing Hajj, but this one is special to me. I lost my wife on 20th of May and five years after, I lost my father. I came here to pray for them and to find peace in my heart.”
SOUNDBITE [English] Hajj Pilgrim: “I get Hajj like a gift from my family, from my wife and my children because today I am 40 years old - it’s my birthday.”
Narration: We were near Zihajjah. The greater pilgrimage was about to begin. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims from around the world descended upon the sacred land to pledge allegiance to God. I was filled with intense excitement. I was stepping onto a land that more than a billion inhabitants of the earth stood in prayer towards every day.
For centuries, this land has played host to millions of Muslim pilgrims; those who come here from far and wide to pay homage to the house of God.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Hajj Pilgrim:“TheDay of 'Arafah is the year’s the most important day and prayers are answered on this day. May God help us finish the rituals of the Hajj pilgrimage!”
TIME CODE: 05:00_10:00
Narration: When I arrive in Saudi Arabia, all my assumptions about this country change instantly. This is a country that would accommodate the pilgrims in caravansaries and old houses in the not-too-distant-past; but now it looks modern and affluent. With big international airports and ritzy hotels.
SOUNDBITE [English] Hajj Pilgrim: “Imagine it will be a situation that you feel like you are between the hand of your creator and this is a moment you cannot describe until you live it.”
Narration: This was to be my first Hajj pilgrimage. I had to do two things: File my reports and carry out the Hajj rituals.
SOUNDBITE [Persian] Hajj Pilgrim:“Across from you, on that hill where those people are standing, that’s Romat Mountain. It goes back to the battle of Uhud. Uhuh! Here, where they turned around. Yes, exactly. The 50 archers that the prophet deployed, took up position right here on this hill.”
Narration: My companions and I, donned our Ihram clothes and set out to become Hajis.
Voice [Arabic] Pilgrims: “Here I am at Thy service O Lord, here I am. Here I am at Thy service and Thou hast no partners. Thine alone is All Praise and All Bounty, and Thine alone is The Sovereignty. Thou hast no partners.”
SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Mostafa Raja, Reporter: “Masjidal-Qiblatayn is the mosque in which the direction of prayer (qibla) was changed toMecca. Yes, that was a command by God which happened in this place, therefore, the Prophet prayed towards theKaaba.”
Narration: We arrived in Mecca; the birthplace of Islam, with an ancient history of Abrahamic religions.
And there it was; the Kaaba, a building at the center of Islam's most sacred mosque, Masjid al-Haram; a building that Muslims are expected to face when performing prayer, wherever they are in the world.
Apart from the overwhelming spiritual atmosphere; the glamor and magnificence of this holiest of lands, caught the eyes of any spectator.
The mosque was getting bigger. Everywhere you looked, you’d see signs of massive construction work. Development work aimed at creating more space for worship and hosting more pilgrims.
The month of Zilhajjah is only four days away….more than a million pilgrims have already landed in Saudi Arabia.
SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Preacher: “Names and attributes of Allah; trying to make us realize how great Allah is. Once I realize and recognize how great he is, how should I turn towards him?”
Narration: We were busy carrying out the Umra, the lesser pilgrimage, when……a horrifying sound cut through the peace at Masjidul-haram.
September 11, 2015…it was Friday afternoon….one of the cranes at Masjidul-haram came crashing down….107 people were killed, 238 wounded.
A state of emergency was declared. Both the security and medical establishments were put on high alert.
TIME CODE: 10:00_15:00
SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Victim of Hajj pilgrimage: “I’m content, you know. At first I was... I am upset; I am upset because I just expect my dad to walk through the door. On the way here, it kind of hit me – I don’t think it’s really hit me yet – but it kind of hit me that we are going to do our Hajj without our dad. We came to do Hajj with dad, but he’s not here. But we are not…, so it was accepted here so the best thing we can do is make do without our dad. It’s not how I expected my Hajj to be; but God has something different for me.”
Narration: Things became a bit chaotic. A harrowing experience that took everyone off-guard! A disaster in the heart of the world’s most sacred mosque…a place the security of which has been reiterated by God himself in the holy Quran.
Authorities said a storm knocked down the crane. But there were reports blaming the incident on human error. Apparently, the cranes had been erected there against the contractors’ orders….All construction work was supposed to be halted in the run-up to the Hajj but the cranes continued to work.
Conversation [Arabic] Salman bin Abdulaziz and Hajj victims: “How are you?
King Salman is greeting you.
What’s your name?”
Narration: It was critical time. Everyone tried to restore peace so the Hajj pilgrimage could go ahead as befits this sacred place.
Conversation [Arabic] Salman bin Abdulaziz and Hajj victims: “She is our Iranian guest. God bless you heal you!
God bless you heal you!”
Narration: So the month of Zi-hajjah began, though it got off to a bitter start…
Voice [Arabic]: “I seek forgiveness from Allah for all of my sins.
I seek forgiveness from Allah for all of my sins.
I seek the forgiveness of Allah and I turn to Him in repentance.
Here I am at Thy service O Lord, here I am. Here I am at Thy service and Thou hast no partners. Thine alone is All Praise and All Bounty, and Thine alone is The Sovereignty. Thou hast no partners.”
Narrations: The greater hajj got under way; more than two million pilgrims converged in and around Mecca; young and old, men and women of different colors and ethnicities and from countries far and wide…..
It’s one of the largest religious gatherings on earth and unique among its kind…
On the eighth of Zil-hajjah, we set out….Destination: Arafat and Mash’ar….a time to spend day and night worshipping God almighty…Two days later, after sunrise, on the 10th of Zil-hajjah, we headed out to Mina….a vast plain between two continuous mountains, dotted with innumerable tents housing the pilgrims. It was Eid-al-Adha (The Feast of Sacrifice).
We set off early in the morning to make time for doing the hajj rituals and to file a report on the ceremonies.
SOUNDBITE [English] Hajj Pilgrim: “It is a hard time that the world is going through at the moment. This is a day of peace and we’re all here to do the same thing, to pray to God; and hopefully it is something that everybody is here to do, I mean, I pray that there is no room for hate on a day like this. We are here to pray for everyone.”
TIME CODE: 15:00_20:00
Narration: Ramī al-jamarāt, theStoning of the Devil, a symbolic reenactment of Abraham's hajj, where he stoned three pillars representing the temptation to disobey God and preserve Ismaeel.
All the pilgrims have to observe this ritual. For the same reason, a huge crowd had assembled here. I lost sight of some of my friends in the bustle. Tired but happy, we headed back for our tents, after throwing pebbles at the three walls (formerly called the pillars) …... But the return path had changed….
The streets were packed with security forces. We didn’t know what’s going on. The intermittent wail of ambulances and the sound of people yelling and screaming filled our hearts with fear and anxiety. Everyone gave an account of what was going on…..Different and contradictory accounts. It was a tumultuous situation that reeked of a catastrophe. We rushed towards the tents. When we got there, we realized what has really happened. The new hits us like a ton of bricks.
All our attempts to get an accurate line on the incident hit a dead-end. No one answered any questions nor did they allow an investigation. Information was sketchy. We were told part of the massive throng of pilgrims was stuck in street number 204 and that many of them had been killed, injured or gone missing. A number of my friends and colleagues were there when the disaster struck.
Conversation [Persian] Hajj pilgrim: “Mr. Irani been found?
Yeah, yeah. In that same corridor. At the front.
Is he alive?
The next corridor. The next corridor. Make a left.”
Narration: The best trip of my life, came to the saddest of endings….my questions unanswered….my heart filled with sorrow.
My head was buzzing with countless questions…Upon return, I decided to investigate what’d happened….
More than anything, I had to hear the details of the disaster straight from the mouth an eyewitness. The first name that came to my mind: Hamid Dashti, one of my colleagues, who was in the middle of it all.
SOUNDBITE [Persian] Hamid Dashti, One of the victims of Hajj Pilgrimage: “We entered the street. Street number 204. Nothing looked out of the ordinary. As we walked towards the Jamarah, the sun continued to rise higher in the sky. We could feel the heat on our heads and faces….The heat was getting to us. We were busy talking with our friends. But as we moved forward, I recall when we got to the first intersection, we were joined by pilgrims from other countries. More and more pilgrims continued to blend into the already massive crowd. And as they did, they came between us and our friends. Some cut into the line from here. They didn’t join in at the beginning of the street. That made the crowd grow in size and become denser. I felt someone shove himself against me, which is natural when you are among a crowd that size. I didn’t turn to see who it was. There was a wheelchair-bound pilgrim next to me. When he joined the moving crowd, I felt like I saw his wheelchair overturn.”
TIME CODE: 20:00_25:00
SOUNDBITE [Persian] Hamid Dashti, One of the victims of Hajj Pilgrimage: “At the same time, the pressure from the crowd got more intense. I felt like something strange was happening. So I walked close to the wall to steer clear of the crowd surge. The crowd was getting bigger by the second. Later I found out they had blocked off the street. To be honest, the more the pilgrims screamed, the more anxious I became. I decided to run away, but I realized it was impossible to go back. I had perspired so much in that short time, I sensed my towel get soaking wet and stick to my skin. All of a sudden, I felt there was no oxygen for me to breathe in. You’d have been hard-pressed to find even a single molecule of oxygen in that situation.
On the one hand, I wanted to save that old man or that kid. They weren’t too far away from me. I mean I could've picked up the kid if I’d bent over and put my handout. But there is no telling if I myself would’ve survived if I had done that.
It all came to a head when the pilgrims turned into one big huddle….Forcing me to bend over more by the second.
Seriously, in the middle of Mina Street, I saw my life flash before my eyes. I mean the faces of my wife, mother, and daughter. I was on the verge of passing out. But I remember vividly the dumpster fit for carrying 50 kg weights. I thought to myself maybe the only place where I could find some oxygen and be safe from the looming crush would be those dumpsters, one of which was there. I jumped headfirst into the dumpster. It was filled with trash and filth.”
Conversation [Persian] Victims of Hajj: “Feeling better sir?
Put a wet towel or something over his head.”
SOUNDBITE [Persian] Hamid Dashti, One of the victims of Hajj Pilgrimage: “When I came to, I didn’t remember anything. Then I saw my Ihram clothes were covered in filth, blood and so on. Because my own towel had come off, they covered me with another towel.
One of those ladies who was a medic with the Tunisian caravan said that when I heard the wailing, the moaning and the screams behind my tent, I went there to see what was going on. When I saw all those dead pilgrims just dumped on the ground there, I said to my colleagues, “This one is still alive. He isn’t dead yet.” That was while, in her words, I myself was fighting for my life under the weight of many other people. They were all squirming over me.”
SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Reporter: “Has the civil defense made any changes in its programs?
-Yes, the general director of the civil defense has announced that during the first hours after the accident, some groups belonging to the passive defense were summoned in the Jamarat area to handle the situation.”
Narration: On that day, I set out for the Jamarah just a few minutes ahead of others. And those very few minutes saved my life. My companions and I took the main route. A wide street with all the conveniences and modern medical centers. But the fate of thousands of others unfolded differently.
SOUNDBITE [Persian] Victim of Hajj Pilgrimage: “On our way, we were going under that bridge, where there was a flight of stairs. From there, we’d move towards the main route that took us to the Rami al-Jamarat.”
TIME CODE: 25:00_30:00
SOUNDBITE [Persian] Victim of Hajj Pilgrimage: “When we went passed this spot, they didn’t guide us to that street. They showed us to a narrow path, with stairs….A crowd that big….Then they ushered us into that tunnel.”
Narration: I couldn’t comprehend how and why hundreds of caravans took a detour from the main route and stepped onto a path with no return. Without a doubt, the movements of more than two million pilgrims had to have been done according to an accurate plan. Before setting off for Mina, the paths that our caravan and thousands of other caravans had to take, had been specified. But why did such a large number of pilgrims change course?
SOUNDBTIE [Persian] Saeed Ohadi, Head of Iran’s Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization: “Of our 453 caravans, 33 were escorted by the Saudi police to street number 204. We trust the police when they send us to a certain street and tell us to go that way. So 33 of our caravans took that street, because they had to, because there were conducted there by the police and because they trusted the police. But street 204 wasn’t the one allocated to our pilgrims. They wouldn’t allow us to deploy any of our rescue team members along the street.”
SOUNDBTIE [Persian] Victims of Hajj Pilgrimage: “I didn’t see anyone wearing clothes different than those by the pilgrims…Neither the guides, nor the paramedics, nor the police. No water cannons to cool off the air, no water-coolers…There was nothing on that street.
We were on our way when we saw a barricade at around a hundred meters ahead of us. I mean the path had been completely blocked off. None of the pilgrims could go passed it.
Well, a massive crowd floods into an area and closes the path. If they keep the path closed for ten minutes and if there’s no water for those trapped to drink, it’s going to turn ugly.
It was the same with the entrances to the tents of pilgrims from different countries. This door was closed or had been closed on purpose. If they’d left those doors open, a lot of people could have gone into those corridors…..Even in their tents because they were going to stay in them temporarily.
Those who wanted to save their lives would step onto our heads and go into their tents.
One of the reasons why all these dead pilgrims are laying in a pile along these railings is that they tried to escape by climbing up the railings, the railings came off and they came crashing down along with them.
All our bodies…All these dead bodies kept piling up on us until the weight became impossible to bear. God! It was horrible.
Some could still breathe under all those bodies, they were fighting for their lives. Still, the dead bodies were piled up,one on top of another. They lay next to me for hours. I was there for at least two hours.
For two hours, everybody there tried to survive, despite the lack of water and despite the suffocating heat.”
Narration: During my investigation I realized the Hajj incidents were as old as the ritual itself. Every-time for a different or the same reason. Incidents such as fire in the tents, the failure of the ventilators in the tunnels, the collapse of hotels, human crushes, and so on. In the past 40 years alone, more than 35-hundred people have lost their lives during the Hajj, and several times that number have been injured.
SOUNDBTIE [Arabic] Mansour Al Turki, Spokesman of Saudi Ministry of Interior: “Of course, in addition to that, part of our responsibility to secure Hajj and pilgrims is really to make sure that we monitor the situation all over Mecca al-Makarrama and this includes of course the Holy Mosque - it includes every location where Hajj is performed.”
SOUNDBTIE [Arabic] Khalid Al Falih, Former Saudi Health Minister: “In addition to skilled effective medical personnel in Mecca and Medina, the Ministry of Health sought help from 25,000 medical personnel from other countries in the region.””
Narration: For Perhaps the main reason many of the incidents that have occurred throughout the history of the Hajj can be sought in the lack of sufficient supervision and logistics support. But nowadays, the Hajj is supported by state of the art monitoring equipment and thousands of security forces. How could a disaster like this happen?
SOUNDBTIE [Persian] Saeed Ohadi, Head of Iran’s Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization: “The disaster hit at around a quarter to nine. Saudi relief and rescue teams arrived at the scene at around 11:30.”
SOUNDBTIE [Arabic] Mansour Al Turki, Spokesman of Saudi Ministry of Interior:- “The monitoring room’s main duty is to monitor all places during the Hajj rituals via 7000 CCTVs. In addition, we monitor the situation through helicopters.”
TIME CODE: 30:00_35:00
Narration: The thousands of security cameras watching over all the routes day and night, renders null and void the notion that the catastrophe escaped the attention of the monitors. But here’s the question, “Why were the first measures to rescue the victims taken three hours after the stampede?”
SOUNDBTIE [Persian] Saeed Ohadi, Head of Iran’s Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization: “Look, the catastrophe happened when 200 thousand individuals were trapped standing on their feet. The consequent crowd surge that came about at 53 degrees, for which as I said, they’d thought of no provisions, in a street that was only 14 meters long. They rolled in 10 ambulances pretending they were there to help…How can you possibly relocate a crowed that big? It was impossible for the ambulances to move about.”
SOUNDBTIE [Persian] Victims of Hajj Pilgrimage: “I don’t know if he was a soldier or what he was. He grabbed me by the arm and dragged me to the front. I don’t remember anything else. I passed out. When I came to, I was lying on a hospital bed. Many have lost their husbands. Some their brothers. There’s no news of them. His wife is stricken with grief. When I came to at the hospital, I realized my wife wasn’t there. I should’ve heard from her by then. It’d been two days.”
SOUNDBTIE [Persian] Saeed Ohadi, Head of Iran’s Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization: “When the incident happened, we sent our relief and rescue teams to help. Our 20 relief teams went in to help, carrying ice, water and first aid equipment with them. The Saudi army came in at five in the afternoon and threw out all the paramedics from other countries. And then they made that inhuman move. In order to reopen the way for the Rami al-Jamarat to go ahead as planned the next day, that is day eleven, they loaded the bodies of our dear brothers and sisters onto refrigerated trailer trucks used for transporting meat. The temperature inside those trailers was above zero, itself another tragedy.
If only Saudi Arabia’s medical centers had had enough resuscitation equipment, believe me, more than 50 percent of those pilgrims could have been rescued.”
Narration: For the organizers of the Hajj, who’d managed to maintain the status quo by blaming a storm for the crane disaster, the Mina stampede offered no excuses. Wiping out all signs of the disaster was a fast move to regain control over the situation.
TIME CODE: 35:00_40:00
SOUNDBTIE [Persian] Ali Ghazi Askar, Head of Iran’s Hajj Mission: “They brought eight containers and left them outside the MaisemMorgue and said they contained dead bodies. Those bodies were kept in those containers for three days and at temperatures running up to 50 degrees. The stench from the bodies permeated the whole area. It was a harrowing situation. When the health minister showed up, he didn’t expect to see that. He saw all the blood on the ground. When a dead body enters a morgue, it has to be identified first. Well, now we want to ID our loved ones. How are we supposed to do that when there are seven or eight thousand other bodies? If they’d had some kind of identification, we’d have known which ones were Iranian and separated them. Our research teams really made a lot of sacrifice. They spent seven or eight hours every day going from one morgue to another trying to identify our dearly departed.”
Narration:For weeks after the stampede, large number of the victims were on the missing persons’ list. Many of them were later found in mass graves and subjected to complicated DNA tests.
SOUNDBTIE [English] Ban ki-moon, Secretary –General of the United Nations: “I join the president of the General Assembly in expressing my deepest condolences to the many hundreds of people who died; and my deepest condolences to the families and friends and governments and people of those affected. And I sincerely hope that under the leadership of Saudi Arabia there will be immediate and necessary assistance for those people and hope that injured people will get a speedy recovery.”
SOUNDBTIE [Arabic] Salman bin Abdulaziz, King of Saudi Arabia:“Researches show that the optimization of the Hajj rituals will never stop, with God’s help, and the authorities all have to act according to the program.”
SOUNDBTIE [Persian] Saeed Ohadi, Head of Iran’s Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization: “When something happens in a country, the human rights community rises up and does a thousand things about it. But nothing of the sort happened when a disaster like that befell more than 70 thousand pilgrims from around the world, people who had paid for their journey. Rights groups chose to remain silent. Where was the catastrophe ever discussed? In which of the UN meetings? In which of the meetings of human rights groups? The UN could have intervened!”
Narration: Sending the pilgrims down a narrow street with no amenities during a ceremony that’s held every year at a specified time and place, with careful planning and according to a specified order, is an unforgivable blunder…although no one ever took responsibility for it. Media around the world sufficed to a brief story….which was at times contradictory and was soon buried under an avalanche of other stories. A few condolence messages was all that came from the international community to heal this deep wound on humanity, not to mention the formation of a fact-finding commission whose findings were never released.
SOUNDBTIE [Persian] Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, Professor of International Law at Tehran University: “On the international arena, there’s a lack of a unified mechanism for dealing with the actions and violations of different governments. At any rate, the Mina stampede which was a human catastrophe, was both a violation of human rights and a breach of contract by the Saudi government. It is also a human disaster irreconcilable to the public opinion. Unfortunately, when the Mina disaster took place, international bodies and countries with influence in and over Saudi Arabia kept mum about it. And that goes to show that the human rights issue is a merely political tool in the hands of certain governments.”
TIME CODE: 40:00_43:59
Narration: 42 countries were affected by the Mina catastrophe. The official figure released by the Saudi government put the number of the dead at 800. While 465 of those who died were people from my country alone. Among them a number of my friends and companions. Colleagues I had spent many a night and day working with. With whom I had unforgettable memories. And whose deaths have broken my heart for good.
Conversation [Persian] Mostafa Raja & Ms. Abtahi: “Hello Ms. Abtahi. How are you? I hope all’s well. How have you been? I’m fine. Thanks for asking.
Thank you for taking the trouble of coming here.
Don’t mention it. I was glad to do it. We should have come to see you in other places, too. Anyway, it’s a pleasure to see you here.
Thanks a lot. Thanks for coming.
- My pleasure.”
SOUNDBITE [Persian] Hamid Mizadeh’s spouse: “It was very difficult to come to terms with it. I was going to call Hamid two hours later and tell him, “Happy Eid, Hamid.” “May God accept your pilgrimage.” Then I turned on the TV and saw the names of the first forty martyrs written at the bottom of the screen. I didn’t know what to do at that moment. I didn’t know if had to be happy that Hamid’s name wasn’t on the list because I thought that would be selfish. I couldn’t cry. And I couldn’t grieve either. “Hamid knows Arabic”. I kept thinking, “It’s impossible for him to get lost. It’s impossible that anything would happen to Hamid.”“Hamid is tall!”“Hamid is strong.” I kept thinking that to myself.
Whenever we had an argument over something trivial or important, he’d say, “Embracing reality is the biggest freedom.” I’ll let you define that for yourself. He would let the kids define that statement on their own. “Embracing reality is the biggest freedom.” And I actually came to that conclusion after losing Hamid.”
Narration: The Mina catastrophe, is an open-ended story. Perhaps over time historical amnesia will consign it to oblivion. Yes, the Hajj will continue to happen just like it has for centuries. And tragedy might rear its ugly head again. Perhaps the man of today has gotten used to such disasters, or perhaps we haven’t learnt our lessons from history.