Haj tragedy leaves over 700 pilgrims dead

Prime Post News Desk

Saudi Arabia takes pride in hosting lakhs of Muslim pilgrims who converge on Islam’s two holy cities of Makkah and Madinah for the annual Haj. The pilgrimage coincides with Eid al Adha or Bakrid. This year nearly 20 lakh pilgrims from almost all parts of the world have gone on Haj to perform the rituals little realizing that a major tragedy was in store.

The disaster came not in the form of a terrorist attack which Saudi security forces had feared but in the way of a horrific stampede that left 717 Hajis dead and more than 800 injured on Thursday. It was the second tragedy of such magnitude to befall the pilgrimage during this Haj season. On September 11, a giant construction crane collapsed at the Grand Mosque in Makkah killing over 100 people and injuring nearly 400. While expressing its grief over the tragedy, the Saudi royal family said, “It was God’s will.”

Thursday’s stampede occurred at Mina, about 5km from Makkah, where the Saudi authorities had built an ultra modern tent city with all facilities to accommodate lakhs of pilgrims. Mina is the place where Hajis hurl pebbles at three stone pillars in a symbolic gesture known as “Stoning of the devil.” Haj is considered incomplete if the pilgrims fail to stone the devil on the determined day. And, all the Hajis have to perform the ritual before sunset. That means the ever increasing number of pilgrims has to do it in a few hours time and return to their camps. The time limitation puts pressure on the pilgrims and every Haj tries to complete the custom as early as possible, often resulting in stampedes.

According to Saudi Civil Defence Directorate, the tragedy struck the pilgrims during morning rush when they were moving towards Jamarat Bridge, a multi-storeyed structure, from where the pilgrims would throw stones at the devil. Ironically, it was designed to ease pressure on the devout and to prevent stampedes. However, despite posting a lakh of security forces on duty and setting up of surveillance cameras, they proved to be ineffective in the face of a giant human wave surging ahead. Tragedies are not uncommon at Mina but Thursday’s stampede death toll is one of the highest.

For instance, the 2006 stampede killed 360 pilgrims and in 2004 similar rush claimed 244 lives. However, the worst so far was the 1990 stampede  which killed an estimated 1426 pilgrims. On July 31, 1987, Saudi action against rampaging Iranian pilgrims in the holy city left 400 Hajis, including 275 Iranians, dead. When we look at the chronology of Haj tragedies, many more would surface and the culprit in all the cases was poor crowd management. The Thursday’s calamity once again underlines the need to improve techniques to manage crowds of enormous proportions.

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