Witnesses to a tragedy that took place at the hajj in Saudi Arabia on Thursday blamed Saudi authorities and said they were afraid to continue the rituals. The tragedy left more than 700 people dead.
During the symbolic stoning of the devil at Mina, about 5 kilometres from the holy city of Mecca, the deadliest tragedy in 25 years at the annual Muslim pilgrimage occurred. At least 717 people were killed and 863 hurt. Pilgrims were blamed by one minister for the stampede although worshippers disputed.
A 45-year-old Libyan who escaped the tragedy with his mother said all entrances and exits to the pilgrim’s camp were closed except one. He said this was the cause for the crowding, which was experienced by the pilgrims. He said he saw dead bodies, injuries and suffocation in front of him. Ahmed Abu Bakr, the 45-year-old Libyan, said they removed the victims with the police. He went on to say the police at the scene didn’t know the places and roads around Mina, adding that they appeared inexperienced.
In Mina, pilgrims stay in a complex of white fireproof tents which are big enough to hold more than two million people. 100,000 police were deployed by the interior ministry to maintain safety, manage traffic and crowds and to secure the hajj.
A critic of redevelopment at the holy sites said police were not properly trained and lacked the language skills for communicating with foreign pilgrims despite the large numbers. Irfan al-Alawi, co-founder of the Mecca-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, said, “They don’t have a clue how to engage with these people and “There’s no crowd control.”
Another witness, 39-year-old Egyptian Mohammed Hasan, who also witnessed the stampede, said he was worried that a similar incident would occur. He also pointed that he had been insulted because of his nationality, when security men asked him to “come identify this Egyptian corpse”. He further complained of being humiliated. Hasan also urged security forces to ensure smooth movement of people by organising roads.
It is said that even before Thursday’s stoning tragedy, other pilgrims had complained of a lack of organisation. The stampede, which took place on Thursday, occurred outside the five-storey Jamarat Bridge. The bridge was erected in the last decade at a cost of more than $1 billion and intended to improve safety. The Jamarat Bridge, which is almost one kilometre long, allows 300 000 pilgrims an hour to carry out the ritual, in which they throw pebbles against walls.
Interior ministry spokesperson General Mansur al-Turki said the stampede was caused at an intersection of two streets in Mina when a large number of pilgrims were in motion at the same time. He added that the great heat and exhaustion played a part in the large number of victims.