October Issue 2015

By | Arts & Culture | International News | Published 4 years ago

To cry or not to cry? To mourn or not to mourn?  Accidents during Haj can be brought about by the callousness, the carelessness or the incompetence of man or the vagaries of nature.  However, for Muslims, it is an article of faith that if a pilgrim dies at any time during the process, you are automatically granted the status of ‘Shaheed’, one of the Blessed Ones. There can be no greater honour. Hence the conundrum, the not knowing how to react, how to grieve?  Which does not detract from the tragedy. Or the resulting questions. As one of the five pillars of Islam — obligatory for every Muslim to perform at least once in a lifetime if financially and physically able to — going for the Haj pilgrimage is the culmination of many Muslims’ lifetime dream.

The two tragedies during the Haj season this year — the crane collapse on September 11 in the Great Mosque at Makkah, in which nearly 109 people were killed, and the collision between two waves of pilgrims on September 24, while en route to symbolically stoning the Shaitan (Devil) at the three pillars at Jamarat in Mina, (the ritual known as Ramy) which resulted in the stampede and deaths and injuries, highlights the problem inherent in the situation.

According to recently released official figures, 1,952,817 pilgrims performed Haj this year, including 1.4 million foreigners.  In recent years, the Saudi authorities have spent billions of dollars on expansion of the holy sites and facilities to accommodate the growing numbers of pilgrims — during Haj and, now, also during Ramzan. A massive new bridge, air-conditioned tent cities and a new train system have all been put in place. Because of the Mina area’s narrow roads, this part of the Haj journey is one of the most dangerous. Most of the accidents and fatalities, over the years, have taken place during this phase of the ritual. To improve access and mobility, huge structural improvements have been made. The Jamarat bridge, for example, is said to be one of the largest pedestrian bridges in the world and gives multi-tiered access to the pillars for stoning. To ease congestion, the old pillars have been replaced by larger, elliptical ones. But as the numbers performing Haj continue to increase every year, accidents can and do happen.

In the stampede this year, revised figures on September 29, showed that 1100 pilgrims are thought to have died. Initially, the number of injured was put at 863. According to the Pakistan Religious Affairs Minister, Sardar Muhammad Yousuf, the confirmed death toll of Pakistani pilgrims had risen to 42, while 62 were still reported as missing on September 28.

Similar tragedies have taken place over the past quarter century.  After 1990 when more than 1400 pilgrims suffocated in a crowded tunnel near Makkah, also on the day of Ramy, September 24 this year was the deadliest day. Hundreds more have been killed during the stoning ritual over the years with incidents occurring in 2004, 2003, 2001, 1994 and other years.

The flow of people is unimaginable, even television does not capture the scope of it. Only when you are there on the ground, do you realise how overwhelming — and sometimes even claustrophobic — the experience can be. The weather this year was also a contributory factor. The temperature recorded that fateful Thursday was 46°C. That, coupled with the high humidity and the crush of people, is a combustible combination.

Different theories have been doing the rounds. One report in the Arabic-language daily al-Diyar said that the entourage of Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, son of the present king (which apparently included 200 army personnel and 150 police officers), arrived in Mina early Thursday morning, and this may have played a part in the deadly crush, as roads were blocked to apparently allow the entourage easier access. This necessitated a change in the direction of the movement of the pilgrims. One crowd wave was moving southwest on Street 223 and the other crowd wave was moving northwest on Street 204. The collision between these two waves of humanity at the intersection and the resulting chaos and stampede led to the — preventable? — accident. A video clip aired here locally by a TV channel, shows the prince throwing stones at Jamarat from the open sun-roof of his vehicle!

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An eye-witness account given by a Nigerian survivor of the stampede, Hamza Musa Kabir, in an AFP report in Dawn, September 28, says: “We set off at sunrise from Muzdalifa toward Jamarat… (but) halfway through, the road was blocked by the police which led to the build-up. The situation worsened when the police allowed people returning from the Jamarat to use the same route back (which is never allowed)…because those returning were moving in the opposite (direction) of the surging crowd, there was a stampede. People suffocated from the heat…many collapsed. I was pinned down by this huge man..I had to strip myself of my garments which had become an obstacle to my escape.” The 55-year-old tall and thin Hamza then passed out and regained consciousness some hours later. Meantime, he was offered a garment by another pilgrim. Undeterred, he said he returned, with assistance, to complete the stoning ritual. “I just saw countless bodies lying on the floor covered in white shrouds, and I knew I could have been one of them… (but) I know I will not die until the appointed hour.”

Another report said that the main reason for this accident was that the King and his palace were receiving dignitaries and members of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), and therefore two of the entrances to the Jamarat were blocked, which created the bottlenecks.

Meanwhile, these reports have been angrily denied by the Saudi officials as ‘incorrect’. However, Iran, who lost the largest number of pilgrims in the stampede, reportedly 130, has accused Saudi Arabia of indifference and irresponsible behaviour. Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, Leader of the Islamic Revolution, declared three days of national mourning in Iran and urged the Saudi government to “shoulder its heavy responsibility and meet its obligations in compliance with the rule of righteousness and fairness.” This has now become a hugely politicised issue, with Saudis and Iranians playing the blame game.

The Saudi Health Minister, Khaled-al Falih, blamed the pilgrims for the tragedy saying that “had the pilgrims followed instructions, this type of accident could have been avoided.” Despite the anger this statement generated, there is some truth to it. People behave strangely in crowds, particularly in compressed surroundings, and hysteria always seems to hover just below the surface, so anything can act as a trigger.

Which is why, simply focusing on the physical infrastructure is not enough. The human support and security infrastructure also needs to be upgraded, starting with multi-lingual personnel. There may have been 100,000 police posted at Mina but, as one witness reported, the police were hampered by lack of language skills in dealing with the mainly foreign pilgrims, who make up the majority in Haj, and seemed to be inexperienced. “They didn’t even know the roads and the places around here. They were not properly trained in crowd control.”

As someone who performed Haj several years ago, in 2007, what I recall is the huge influx of local and Gulf pilgrims who poured in, in the last days of Haj.  The less said about the standard of driving and the devil-may-care attitude of local drivers, the better. The wonder is that there are not more fatal incidents.  Overall, the foreign pilgrims groups seemed, surprisingly, more structured and organised — they have to be, by law. The Indonesians were particularly admirable — and peaceful.

For the rest, it sometimes seemed that we forget why we are there. The spiritual aspect seems to get submerged somewhat. The spirit of accommodation and brotherliness seems to be generally forgotten in the rush and the press to get ahead, whether circumambulating the Ka’abah or walking from Mina to Muzdalifa or — the most precarious — the stoning ritual at the three pillars known as the Jamarat.

Perhaps, the short time frame in which the rituals need to be done, the sheer numbers trying to get it done (from 200,000 pilgrims in the 1960s to nearly 3 million in 2012), it is mostly seen as a battle for survival, a test of endurance. There is little time, and even less thought, spared for the safety and comfort of others. Individually and collectively. And this, I feel, is the core issue that leads to so many preventable tragedies. Yes, Haj is a logistical challenge, and despite all the conveniences and amenities that have been added over the years to make it easier, it is still arduous, unless you are a VIP.

It is hard to understand why children under 12 are allowed to be brought for Haj and also the very elderly and infirm. They are more vulnerable and a hazard to their caretakers as well. Also, although a ban has been in place for some time restricting anyone repeating the Haj within five years after completing the last one, how stringently is this law enforced — particularly for the locals and the Gulf pilgrims? As the Muslim Ummah increases, perhaps the ban will need to be extended to give more would-be Hajis a chance to fulfil their obligation in reasonable comfort.

All said and done, it is not enough to put the responsibility and blame on the ‘authorities’ alone — pilgrims need to help other pilgrims. This is in their  own best self interest. Although systems are in place, nevertheless, a 10 -day event with 3 million (set to rise every year) people in a limited space, with everyone hurrying from place to place to complete the rituals on time, is a massive logistical challenge — for the pilgrims as well as for the authorities.

However, above and beyond what the authorities should and should not do, is what we (as pilgrims) can and should do for ourselves. That starts by taking control of our own actions, showing patience and compassion for those in need and in trouble, and using our brains! We are not supposed to walk over others in our rush to complete the rituals; that is against the very spirit of Haj, something we, as pilgrims, tend to forget.

Haj is a holy pilgrimage that is supposed to be undertaken purely for extolling Allah’s glory and to give thanks for all that He has bestowed on mankind. As such, it behoves us to cherish and protect the greatest gift of all that He has bestowed on us — Life. Our own and as well as others’.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s October 2015 issue.