As Hajj Nears, Questions About Deadly 2015 Stampede Remain

The stampede on 24 September 2015 on the outskirts of Mecca, killed at least 2,400 people.

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World
4 min read
People at the Grand Mosque during Hajj. (Photo: Reuters)

Marching with thousands of other pilgrims at last year’s hajj in Saudi Arabia, 23-year-old Sobia Noor of Pakistan felt the crowd get tighter and the air grow thicker in the scorching heat. Suddenly, there was shouting and crying along the narrow street bordered by tall metal barriers.

She was holding hands tightly with her mother and aunt, but her grip was broken as a crowd of people struck her like a giant wave. She lost sight of her father. Thrown to the ground with others on top of her, she couldn’t breathe.

The next thing she remembers was being sprinkled with water and pulled from the pile.

Then she saw a scene that still haunts her: “There were heaps of bodies all around, and some injured were crying for help,” she said.

Saudi Arabia Reported Only a Quarter of the Deaths at Hajj Stampede

The stampede and crush on 24 September 2015, along Road 204 in Mina, a pilgrimage route on the outskirts of Mecca, killed at least 2,400 people — a disaster that the kingdom is yet to fully acknowledge or explain.

More than 2 million Muslims are expected at this year’s hajj that begins Saturday, and Saudi authorities say they have done all they can to prepare for the five-day pilgrimage. They are reducing the density of crowds where the crush took place, widening narrow streets in Mina, and introducing some high-tech measures.

But survivors and relatives of the dead, still angered by the tragedy and bewildered by what they perceive as a lack of an adequate response by the Saudi authorities, fear the plans won’t be enough to prevent another catastrophe.



Bodies of people who died during hajj stampede, 24 September, 2015. (Photo: AP)
Bodies of people who died during hajj stampede, 24 September, 2015. (Photo: AP)
Saudi Arabia’s official death toll from the crush is 769, a figure that has not been updated since 26 September 2015. But an Associated Press (AP) count, based on media reports and officials’ comments from 36 of the more than 180 countries that sent citizens to the hajj, found that at least 2,426 people had been killed.

Fingers Pointed at Authorities’ Competency

Saudi authorities have yet to offer families of victims any financial compensation. No officials have been held accountable and no findings from their investigation have been issued.

Asked about the status of the Saudi inquiry, Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki told the AP that a committee including engineers and security and health officials “is still working and didn’t release any statement yet.”

Initial statements by Saudi police said it appeared that two large crowds heading in opposite directions intersected on Road 204. Crowds in the back, unaware of the congestion ahead, kept pressing forward.

An Egyptian survivor told the AP that poorly trained Saudi troops refused to open one of the gates along Road 204 to help those who were suffocating. The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he lives in Saudi Arabia and feared repercussions, said the troops did not know what to do and appeared to be waiting for orders as the bodies piled up.

Stampede during Hajj in Mecca. (Photo: <a href="https://twitter.com/KSA_998/status/646875501085224960">Twitter.com/@ksa_998</a>)
Stampede during Hajj in Mecca. (Photo: Twitter.com/@ksa_998)

Iranian teacher Masoud Taghiyani cited Saudi “incompetency” for the death of his 76-year-old father, saying his parents had saved for 30 years to perform the hajj.

Saudi Arabia should accept that they were responsible for the safety of pilgrims. Then, they should pay blood money to the families of victims.
Masoud Taghiyani, son of one of the victims

Saudi Arabia Refuses to Share Management of Hajj

Saudi Arabia’s regional foe, Iran, has said that almost 500 of those killed were Iranian pilgrims — the most of any country — and blamed the disaster on Saudi negligence.

Iran is not sending its citizens to hajj this year and has called on Saudi Arabia to share its prestigious custodianship and management of the hajj with other Muslim nations. That notion is rejected by the kingdom’s Sunni rulers who accuse Shiite-led Iran of playing politics with the pilgrimage.

In recent decades, Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars to improve hajj safety and accommodate more people. It built the massive, multi-story Jamarat Complex with large pedestrian paths in Mina, where pilgrims throw pebbles at columns in a ritual stoning of the devil. Many of the pedestrian roads leading to the complex are narrow, however.

The government also is working to create a National Centre for Joint Security Operations to centralise oversight of the video feed from more than 5,000 cameras along hajj routes.

One significant change is the expansion of Road 204 to ensure it’s at least 12 meters wide (39 feet) in all areas.

Muslim pilgrims pray around the holy Kaaba at the Grand Mosque, during the annual hajj pilgrimage in Mecca 27 September, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)
Muslim pilgrims pray around the holy Kaaba at the Grand Mosque, during the annual hajj pilgrimage in Mecca 27 September, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

Hisham Al-Falih, head of the Hajj Preparatory Committee, told AP that 12 projects costing about $53.3 million were implemented to improve the hajj this year. Some tents in Mina on streets that were previously blocked have been relocated to open roads, and some paths were widened, he said.

But al-Falih added that there is only so much his committee and others can do to prepare for dealing with crowds of up to 3 million people.

We are humans at the end of the day. We are doing all that we can do, and the rest is with God.
Hisham Al-Falih, Head, Hajj Preparatory Committee

The hajj has always been risky, requiring long travel, physical stamina and patience. A 1990 stampede killed more than 1,400 people. Days before last year’s disaster, a crane collapse killed 111 people inside Mecca’s Grand Mosque housing the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site.

(The article has been edited for length. Published in arrangement with AP.)

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