At least 717 people (and that may go higher) were killed, and 863 injured, today during the Mina portion of the Hajj, when confusion among the massive crowd of pilgrims (around 2 million according to official figures) caused a panic, and people fell to the ground and were trampled. A BBC Hausa reporter named Tchima Illa Issoufou was there, and described what happened:
People were going towards the direction of throwing the stones while others were coming from the opposite direction. Then it became chaotic and suddenly people started going down.
There were people from Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Senegal among other nationalities. People were just climbing on top of others in order to move to a safer place and that’s how some people died.
People were chanting Allah’s name while others were crying, including children and infants. People fell on the ground seeking help but there was no-one to give them a helping hand. Everybody seemed to be on their own.
It affected some members of our group. I lost my aunt as a result of the stampede and at the moment, two women from our entourage – a mother and her daughter – are still missing.
This is the worst Hajj disaster since 1990, when too many pilgrims crowded into an air-conditioned pedestrian tunnel to escape the blistering heat (the Hajj was in July that year) and over 1400 of them were either trampled or suffocated. Weather may have contributed to the disorientation of the crowd in today’s incident; Mecca’s temperature topped out at around 110 degrees Fahrenheit this afternoon. Recall that this Hajj was also marred by that crane collapse at Mecca’s Grand Mosque just before the pilgrimage started, which killed over 100 people and injured nearly 400.
The Saudi government is promising to investigate the disaster, and it may be that what happened today was genuinely nobody’s fault, but the Saudis are already being slammed for it by other Islamic governments. Iran, which obviously has geopolitical reasons for bashing the Saudis at every opportunity anyway, was the first to take Riyadh to task. The Iranians are blaming a Saudi decision to close off a number of paths at the Mina site, which forced the throng of pilgrims together and caused the confusion.
In general, regardless of the specifics of this particular incident, he Saudis are responsible for the safety of the pilgrims; that’s part of what calling yourself the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” as Saudi kings do, entails. Between this and the crane incident, the custodian seems to have fallen down on his job this year. Admittedly, the number of people going on Hajj each year has ballooned to over 2 million (and that’s just the official number), and it’s hard to manage safety for that many people. In defense of the Saudis, who claim to have spent “over £200 billion” over the past two decades on improving crowd safety for Hajj pilgrims, these are ancient sites and it simply may not be possible to develop them enough to accommodate that many people while still leaving the sites intact.
ADDING: If you’re into idle political speculation, try this on for size. The chair of Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Hajj Committee is Crown Prince/Interior Minister Mohammad b. Nayef, who rose to be first in line to succeed his uncle, King Salman, as part of that palace shakeup back in late April. He, along with the Governor of Mecca (who, as of Salman’s succession back in January, is Prince Khaled b. Faisal) is responsible for making sure the Hajj goes well. The Deputy Crown Prince is Salman’s son, Mohammad b. Salman, who is also the kingdom’s Minister of Defense. Mohammad b. Salman was taking some heat for mismanaging the Yemen operation back when it wasn’t going so well, but the Saudi coalition is winning pretty decisively there lately.
Now, I have no deep insight into the inner workings of the Saudi royal family, but if I were Mohammad b. Nayef, I think I might start looking over my shoulder during the investigations into these Hajj incidents. Obviously Salman wouldn’t engineer something like this to give himself an excuse to elevate his son past his nephew, but he might not be above taking advantage of the tragedy to do just that.
EDITS: I revised the final paragraph of the original piece because after re-reading it and reading a little more about the accident, I felt like my tone was unfair to the Saudis, which is probably the first time I’ve ever felt that way but there it is.
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