By Dr Mahjabeen Islam
October 09, 2015
The world is already forgetting the hundreds (thousands) dead and the thousands injured during the hajj stampede at Mina this year. We must not move on so soon and specifically we must not allow the disaster to recur.
Many, especially governments, have a callous attitude towards other people’s losses. But the world of survivors does not just dramatically changed; the angst and the pain live on. It has been decades since I lost my brothers and my father but not a day passes that I do not miss them. I know the colour and joy of life would have been different if they had not died so young.
Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, among many other countries, have placed blame for the deaths squarely on Saudi mismanagement. Pakistan interestingly is silent regarding this. Its leader is indebted to Saudi hospitality during his exile, so forget objection, even regret is not forthcoming from the Pakistani government. The Saudi government loses credibility when it refuses to acknowledge the true death toll and remains stuck at 769 dead. Diplomatic representatives from Pakistan, Indonesia and Nigeria among others have confirmed that over 1,100 died. Compilations from several sources reveal 1,413 dead with the highest toll from Iran of 465 followed by Egypt at 148. There are an estimated 1,398 missing with Mali and Nigeria reporting the highest numbers at 271 and 241 respectively. Saudi Vice Minister of Health Hamad bin Muhammad Al-Duweila said the death toll in the tragedy had reached 4,173. However, the Saudi health ministry later denied this. Even if the 1,100 number is taken, this makes it the deadliest hajj in recent memory. This year other challenges were the highest temperatures in Mecca in 20 years, the MERS infection and the ongoing Saudi offensive in Yemen.
I went for hajj in 2005 and again in Mina 250 people died. In those days, the entry and exit to Jamarat, the devil stoning area, had not been separated. My friend almost died that day. Despite admonition to not reach down for a lost sandal, she did and suddenly I saw her being swallowed up by a vortex of people. My screams alerted others in our group and we extricated her. That day gave me Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); after returning to the US, I would wake up night after night with that recurrent nightmare. International outrage after that year’s deaths forced the Saudi government to separate the entry and exit areas for Jamarat and the death toll fell dramatically. Till this year.
Accounts vary: Lebanon-based Arabic-language daily Ad-Diyar alleged that the convoy escorting Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, comprising 200 soldiers and 150 police officers, played a central role in the incident by making some pilgrims turn around against the flow, which triggered a stampede. Saudi authorities state that a group of pilgrims was not authorised to use the Jamarat bridge at that time and that created the overcrowding while other accounts state that pilgrims turned back from a road closure and walked into a rush of people.
I have travelled to several countries and remember their ambience. My two umrahs and one hajj gave me some amazing memories of Medina, the Kaaba and Arafat, and I deeply treasure them. The one nagging constant in all those trips was the hostility of the Saudis, especially government officers, soldiers and police. Saudi arrogance is omnipresent and their paradoxes pathetic. With their distorted and literalistic interpretations of Islam, the Saudis have razed Muslim landmarks like Hazrat Khadija’s house and built public bathrooms over it, but while you are standing in line at the airport or other public place, a Saudi, any Saudi, not necessarily a VIP Saudi, gets to cut the line and go right up to the counter with nary a word of excuse or explanation. The Saudis give lessons in Islam to pilgrims but hajj and umrah are based on their VIP culture and deference, to the point of worship of the Saudi royal family.
Calling the dead shaheed (martyrs) with a sure heavenly destination and throwing a few thousand in compensation to the families cannot be used as an ‘oh never mind’ for the horrific loss of life. Cause and effect are strongly reverberated in Islam; physical laws will always apply. Pray but make sure you tie the camel says a hadith. Qadr or fate and predestination cannot be used to explain away entirely preventable tragedies and human error.
Hajj is meant to simulate the Day of Judgment and ihram, the two sheets that drape the pilgrim, are meant to resemble the shroud that Muslims are buried in. Instead of being hung up on bidaa or innovation and disciplining pilgrims for how they behave at Masjid Nabawi or Jannatul Baqi, the Saudis need to put the stark equality that Islam preaches into their daily as well as their umrah and hajj practice. And dispense with their VIP culture as well as their contempt for Africans, Shias and all things non-Saudi. The Kaaba, Masjid Nabwi, Arafat, Mina and Muzdalifa belong to the Muslim world and for a harmonious hajj it is best that Saudi Arabia accept this and the Muslim world own it.
The planning of the Olympics and similar huge events occurs years in advance. The Muslim world must create an international organisation for Hajj and Umrah. Contingents from every Muslim country should be sent to Saudi Arabia at least three months before hajj and trained at all of the sites where the rituals of hajj occur. They need to be familiarised with the geography and the processes that are to happen there. During hajj members of these contingents should be placed at each of the sites where the rituals are to occur. They should wear colours or bands for the countries they are from or the languages they speak. The boy scouts and soldiers in Saudi Arabia who currently monitor pilgrims do not even speak English, so any non-Arab is out of luck. Organisers from the different countries present on the ground will make a huge difference in crowd management. Physicians should be part of these contingents and placed in all areas for quick treatment.
Saudi Arabia made $ 8.56 billion on the hajj in 2014 and spent about one billion dollars on arrangements. An impartial inquiry regarding this year’s disaster is necessary. And active international involvement during hajj is vital to prevent a repetition of the tragedy. It would be naïve for the Saudis to think that Muslims will not boycott hajj if this Saudi monopoly and mismanagement continue. They will really need to tap their other treasure or the billions from hajj will whittle down dramatically.
The writer specialises in addiction and family medicine. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org