The Hajj Tragedy and Saudi Responsibilities

Photo Credit to Flickr User marviikad

Photo Credit to Flickr User marviikad

I performed the hajj in 2002, and this year my elder brother and two relatives from Bangladesh are doing the same. I became very concerned about the pilgrims and my brother and relatives when I heard that 244 hajjis [pilgrims] died in stampede at the jamarat or devil-stoning site. In this little piece, I would like to point out some key problems with the Saudi hajj management and provide suggestions for change.

Based on what I observed and experienced in 2002, I strongly believe that the Saudi authorities are 99% responsible for the violent death and unusual sickness of pilgrims at the hajj sites for many reasons.

First, the Saudi authorities have little or no control over the “infiltration” of a huge number of unauthorized Saudi citizens and residents who perform hajj almost every year. During the hajj in 2002, I met several Saudi citizens/residents who said they didn’t miss performing the hajj over the past 10 to 17 years. While ideally the authorities should not interfere in personal devotional matters, they should control the chaos for the benefit of the larger community.

Second, the Saudi authorities have a nominal crowd control arrangement at the jamarat or devil-stoning site. In 2002, I saw policemen announce instructions over a a couple of loudspeakers that we could not hear at all in the crowd. Following a stampede in which dozens of pilgrims died the first day of stone-throwing, the Saudi police formed a human chain allowing trickles of people into the jamarat site. After that, I believe, few people died in a stampede.

Third, as I saw in 2002, there were no special passage-ways for the emergency vehicles to rush in or out of the jamarat site. If people felt sick or became struck in a stampede, they could expect help only from God. Emergency vehicles could not rush to the site because all streets leading to site are overcrowded by pilgrims. I believe that situation hasn’t changed still today.

In fact, I didn’t see any reserved lanes, tracks or flyovers for the movement of emergency vehicles along several roads linking Makkah and the other hajj sites [Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah]. When thousands of buses started moving from one site to another, they clogged the roads in a few minutes and filled the air with smokes. It took us about six hours to move several kilometers from Mina to Arafat, where we were to spend the whole day praying. At Arafat, I witnessed an awful scene. The buses haphazardly jammed the roads, and it was extremely hard for people to walk to their tents or prayer sites. By the time we crisscrossed the buses and reached our tent, more than half the day had passed. Moving from Arafat to Muzdalifah at the end of the day, however, was fairly easy for us, but I am not sure how it was like for others.

After midnight, my hajj group bus left me behind in Muzdalifah in a rush to avoid traffic when I was standing queue in front a toilet. We were supposed to stay the whole night over there, but our group scholar gave an opinion to go early after midnight in view of the traffic situation and the fact that we had women pilgrims with us. As I walked later in the night from Muzdalifah to my tent in Mina, I waved at many buses to pick me up, but none did. I sought the help of the hajj volunteers on the road, but they could not convince a bus to pick me up. Finally, after walking about two and half kilometers, I could get into an old and dirty bus, which came to a halt because of traffic jam after moving forward a few hundred yeards, and in the end I ended up walking to Mina.

Another day, it took me and a friend about five hours to travel by car some seven or eight kilometers from Makkah to Mina. After spending three and half hours on the way to Mina, we tried to walk but could not because there was no footpath along the road. Then, our rented minivan took a detour to Muzdalifah, where it came to a complete stop behind heavy smoke-releasing buses. Finally, my friend and I walked from Muzdalifah to Mina.

On the way, we found several ambulances on call, but they could barely inch forward in the traffic jam. One ambulance driver desperately tried to cross the island in the middle of the road and got stuck. We joined a number of people who lifted the ambulance on to the other side of the road, allowing it to go against a light moving traffic.

At the Ka’aba, too, it was go-as-you-please chaos, and there was no crowd control or direction for pilgrims to move in an orderly fashion. Some people seemed to stay in the Ka’aba for ever, causing others to move only with tremendous hardship. Around the Ka’aba, the streets were extremely narrow for the sea of people who came to pray and do tawaf [circling the Ka'aba] at a time. They were filled with shops and hotel buildings some of which were had ’19th century’ structures and elevators. We felt scared when moving up and down in our hotel elevator, which would not be allowed to operate by any responsible people today.

Earlier on arrival at the airport, I witnessed another horrible scene. I came with a group of pilgrims from United Arab Emirates, where I was a visiting professor at a university for the academic year. While I did not expect any special treatment because of where we were coming from, I was surprised to see that we had to wait about six hours in the room where we disembarked from the plane and three more hours outside in the camp before being allowed to move on to Medina. The toilets adjacent to the waiting room were broken and dirty as if they were never cleaned over the past year or so. The conditions of the toilets outside in the towering tents were almost the same.

At the check-in counters, only a few uniformed men were typing in passport records of about a thousand people, one at a time. They had no scanning devices attached to their computers. The security officials were lining us up, allowing two or three people to come out at a time, while my co-travelers were becoming impatient, pushing hard in the lines from behind. On the way out of the waiting room, 11 different security officials checked my passport, making me feel like a criminal when coming for the blessed journey of a lifetime.

This is just a snapshot of the horrible experience the pilgrims go through while performing the hajj. They accept all hardships, out of their deep faith in Allah, as part of the experience of the hajj.

I wonder if the Saudi authorities care at all or take advantage of the pious endurance of the pilgrims to give them this kind treatment. The Saudis definitely benefit from the billions of dollars the pilgrims pump into their economy every year, but they haven’t done enough to see to their welfare. Yes, they have done a lot, but compared to the technology and know-how that is available today, their current chaotic management style is shameful at best.

About 10 years ago, a prominent American Muslim had an experience of the hajj similar to what I described above. He then wrote to the Saudi government and the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C., suggesting that they install a subway system connecting the hajj sites, expand the precincts of the Ka’aba, and train their security workers in manners. I received a copy of his letter via email.

The subway system coupled with controlled entry limits for the internal Saudi pilgrims would solve the problem of hajj traffic. In 2002, I asked some Saudis about why they didn’t have the kind of trains that provide fast mass transportations in European or American cities and airports. They said they did not have the answer to my question but speculated the reason that made sense to me–that a subway system would put the bus services owned by the Saudi princes out of business.

t befuddles my mind that the Saudi princes are keen on rescuing ailing European and American companies with their fortunes, but they would block an infrastructure development that would benefit Muslims who perform the hajj and the umrah [rites of visit at the Ka'aba any time during the year]. They could still make money by investing in a project for expanding the precincts of the Ka’aba and building underground railways connecting the hajj sites.

All it needs on the part of the Saudi authorities is to realize and act on the premise that Muslims come from all corners of the world to spend the savings of their lifetime, and they deserve better treatment–other than being trampled to death or fumigated by the bus-released gas in transit. If the Saudi authorities cannot deliver better services, they should step aside and let Muslims from other countries do the job.

Author: Dr. Mohammad A. Auwal

Originally Posted: Islam Online Forwarded o

1 Response

  1. Rahim says:

    Comment by: Mohammed Ahsan

    Hajj, one of the major pillars of our religion, is a symbol that depicts to the world the strength, unity, and simplicity of our religion. People from all over the world, saves their last penny with a hope to perform their long cherished desire. There are people, who even sell their only belongings at the last phase of their life to be able to participate in such an event and be in the mosques that were frequented by our Prophet (SAWS). The beauty of Mecca and Medina are no more than the beauty of two mosques that hangs over the vast Oasis. The modernization of these two mosques has been very critical to the security and sanctity of the two most holy sites.

    Saudi Arabia is the proud and lucky owner of these two very holy sites. They have the full authority over these sites and they have remained to be the proud caretakers and custodians of these two paramount symbols of Islam. Saudi Arabia does deserve credit for being able to modernize these two sites improving the general logistics of the place. I was lucky to have had the honor of performing Hajj in 1987 and a number of visits for Umrah with an elite group of Bangladeshis along with His Excellency, the Bangladeshi Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Mr. Hedayet Ahmed. The whole event was a great success for me personally and for the others who were in our Group. As Bangladeshis, we were proud to have had the company of many distinguished guests in the Group including the One of the Ex Chief of Navy, and the Ex Chief of Air Force, Film Actor Mr. Razzaque and many other public and private figures..

    We had many a night just talks about Hajj and our well being during the rituals. At the end, we went to perform the rituals at the notoriously dangerous sight of the stone throwing at the devils. There are so many souls who have perished time and again in this location owing to the crowd and its mismanagement. The problem is very simple and can be stated in very simple terms. There are two corridors that lead up to a raised platform at the second floor level. People use both the corridors for access and return as well thus it creates tremendous opposing jet streams at the points of contact between the incoming and outgoing streams. If there are old people at the jet stream, it is very likely that they would fall creating a domino effect taking other people down as well in the process. Once down, there is no way to come up because of the space constraints and they would be stampeded to death.

    Should there be a careful planning, these precious lives could have been saved In 1987, along with the Ambassador, we came to a recommendation and submitted to the authorities there in Mecca. The recommendation was quite simple.

    1. Use one of the corridors for access and the other for return thereby avoiding the jet streams that are the causes of the stampede.

    2. Organize Groups by countries and set time for their visit to the site. This will manage the traffic at a better pace without causing any clogs.

    3. Provide lead and recess times between the Groups

    4. Create a Hajj task force from various countries to oversee the implementation of such regulations during hajj.

    It would a good example set, should the Saudi government take responsibility for the deaths of these innocent victims and pay damages to the families of the victims and take action that it would be repeated in the future. It would also be great gesture that the Hajj Minister take the responsibility and stand down for other more effective person to fill the position.

    A Disillusioned Observer

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