Hajj Disaster in Saudi Arabia Claims 244 Lives
Disaster struck yet again early yesterday in Makkah, Saudi Arabia during the Hajj pilgrimage, on the day of the 1424 Hejira year’s Eid Al Adha feast, on the pilgrims’ return to Mina (some 4 miles to the northwest of Makkah) after a night spent in Muzdalifah and standing at the Arafat, 244 people were trampled to death. Several hundreds sustained wounds and others, mild injuries. Saudi officials said the flow had been smooth until the tragic incident 8 a.m. Sunday morning. Pilgrims were performing the “stoning of the devil” ritual, hurling stones at three pillars at Jamarat, when the pressure from behind the crowd increased. A few fell to the ground setting off a massive stampede.
The Minister of Pilgrimage Iyad Madani said, “All precautions were taken to prevent such an accident. This is however God’s will. Caution is not stronger than fate. The condition of all hurt, except 7 or 8 admitted to various hospitals in Makkah, was not serious.” As in the previous Hajj, precautions are in place but do not prevent the wail of sirens as hundreds of ambulances pick up pilgrims suffering from heat or general exhaustion. Special clinics for treatment and evacuation helicopters are on stand-by for any such emergencies. At the site of Sunday’s accident, action was immediately taken by the security forces and health personnel to prevent further casualties. Deployed were 10,000 men in the security forces and emergency teams from a number of agencies, including the National Guard.
The Saudi Arabian Information Office said, “The process of dispatching the pilgrims in groups for the pebble-throwing ritual was halted at around 9 a.m., and resumed at 12:30 p.m. At this point, about half of the million pilgrims scheduled had completed the ceremony.”
The worst in 7 years in the history of the Kingdom’s religious event, the tragedy has surpassed the deaths in 1994, 1998 and 2001 when lives were lost in similar stampedes at the stoning site. In 1997 however, 340 died in a blaze in Mina when a canvas tent caught fire. Prior to the tragic incident, there had been only 272 deaths during the 1424 Hajj, as a result of disease, old age or exhaustion, according to Madani.
He further noted that most of the victims were foreign residents of Saudi Arabia who may have not booked licensed pilgrimages.
Some, identified to be from the Indian Subcontinent, make their own illegal pilgrimages simply because they cannot afford to pay the $530 cost of the religious trip. This year, he explained, nearly 12 percent of the 2.3 million pilgrims who entered the Kingdom to perform the Umrah (or the minor pilgrimage) overstayed their visas. (It takes at least 2 weeks to obtain the special Hajj visa; one must be a Muslim to be granted the entry pass.)
Schedule for the pebble-throwing does not include such non-licensed pilgrims. According to an unofficial source from the US-based HAJJ travel agent Al Hilal, owned and operated by Rajhi Al Mubasalat, few people do not conform with the traffic rules at the Jamarat. “Instead of proceeding to the exit, some would force their way back into the crowd against the flow. The lines are jam-packed and literally body-to-body. “
Fortunately, the 230 U.S. pilgrims who booked with the agency are safe and in good health. The agency started 2 years ago and currently works with partners who have been operating the HAJJ for 14 years in Saudi Arabia. The expertise translates to a rate between $2600 and $4600 for 15-19 nights – far exceeding the victims’ cheap deals. The official count in this year’s 1424 Hajj pilgrimage has been put at 1,892,710 overseas visitors and 473,004 in-Kingdom pilgrims, mostly non-Saudis. The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Fahd bin Abdulaziz and the Deputy Prime Minister and Commander of the National Guard Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz wished the people Eid Mubarak and called on all to bring unity to the Muslim world through good deeds while refraining from extravagance, extremism, and terrorism which, they said are elements of decay on this earth Islam disapproves.
Arriving from Jeddah to Makkah along the superhighways, or by air on the familiar airlines or as exotic Southern China Airlines or Daghestan Air, pilgrims board the fleet of 15000 buses assigned to the HAJJ. Already dressed in the 2-piece seamless white robe Ihram, men go to Mina where they are housed in thousands of apparently fireproof, air-conditioned tents covering the valley. Past sunrise on the 9th of the month of Dhu Al Hajjah, millions walk 8 miles to the plain of Arafat, where they perform the Standing at the Arafat and visit the Mount of Mercy. Later, the sea of crowd passes through Muzdafilah collecting pebbles for Mina. Some perform noon and afternoon rituals, on the side, at the Nimerah Mosque. As people arrive in the valley, they walk along 2-level pedestrian lanes, about 100 yards wide, toward the stone pillars of Jamarat which represent Satan. Pilgrims cast pebbles at the Stone Pillar of Aqabah while singing praises. As they approach the walkway, they join others already at the pillar. After throwing the stones, they circle toward the exit ramp in the direction of Makkah – some 4 miles by foot on designated pedestrian routes. Here, they perform the tawaf while circling the Kaabah 7 times counter-clockwise in the Holy Mosque. When the rites have been completed, after the sa ‘ay, the running between Safa and Marwa in an enclosed space and the animal sacrifices (or meat donations made to 27 needy countries), the pilgrims remove the Ihram and remain at the Mina for the Eid. Over the next couple of days of Eid, until tomorrow, pilgrims stone the Jamarat before performing the tawaf Al Wida or the farewell circum-ambulation on the Kaabah. After the conclusion of the Hajj and the departure of the 2 million tourists, the facilities set up exclusively for the Hajjis are taken down and kept for the next year’s pilgrimage.
In my days covering the Hajj in the early 90s, there had been 4 million pilgrim tourists. Economics has indeed changed the numbers. However the unfortunate incidents have not dwindled.
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