The deadly tragedy at Jamrah
Amidst celebrations of this year’s Eid el-Kabir, Muslims had their festive mood changed to sorrow when over 800 worshippers who were on pilgrimage to Mecca lost their lives and about 900 others wounded in a deadly stampede that occurred at the Jamrah Bridge near Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Several pilgrims are still missing and cannot be accounted for by Hajj officials.
Exactly two weeks earlier, 109 people were killed and hundreds injured when a crane collapsed within the premises of the Grand Mosque in Mecca after a stormy rain on September 11, 2015. About 2 million pilgrims from across the globe were reportedly in Saudi Arabia to perform this year’s Hajj.
The annual Eid el-Kabir which is traditionally observed on the 10th day of the Islamic lunar month of Dhul-Hajj is also the day on which Muslims on pilgrimage to Mecca are required (after standing on mount Arafat the previous day) to perform other Hajj rites including the symbolic stoning of the devil at the site called Jamrah, some few kilometers outside the city of Mecca. It was while pilgrims were heading toward the Jamrah from Mina (where they passed the night) near Mecca that the deadly stampede occurred.
In a recent updated account of the incident, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) announced that a total of 74 Nigerian pilgrims have so far been confirmed dead. While 54 pilgrims of this figure were from various states of the country, the remaining 20 of the figure were pilgrims who travelled for the Hajj using private tour operators. Details released by NAHCON show that about 77 Nigerian pilgrims were injured in the stampede while 240 others are still missing. NAHCON further states that although it cannot account for the missing Nigerian pilgrims, it cannot declare them dead.
While we condole with families of pilgrims killed in the stampede, we also express sympathy with victims who were wounded in the incident. Nonetheless, it was not good enough that it took authorities a long while to disseminate information about the identities of victims. It could have lessened the agony which relations of victims were subjected to if authorities had promptly taken advantage of modern technology by posting portrait photographs of dead pilgrims on the internet.
Although stampede has been a recurring decimal at the Jamrah in Mina, the 2015 incident is the deadliest in a quarter of century. The worst was in 1990 when 1,426 pilgrims were killed in a pedestrian tunnel. The stampede was reportedly caused by a failure in its ventilation system. In January 2006, a total of 364 pilgrims were also killed in a stampede during the stoning at Jamrah. The incident which claimed several lives each time it occurred was also witnessed in 1994, 1998, 2001 and 2003.
Saudi Arabia’s health Minister Khaled al-Falih blamed the 2015 tragedy on indiscipline among pilgrims; saying the incident would have been forestalled ‘if they had followed instructions’. According to him, many pilgrims move without respecting the time table prepared for observing the Hajj rites. The head of Saudi Arabia’s Central Hajj committee Prince Khaled al-Faisal specifically blamed the tragedy on pilgrims with African nationalities. However, eye witness accounts and media reports attribute the incident to blockade of the way to the Jamrah to create way for a Saudi prince to pass. Bickering over what led to the stampede or politicizing is evidence that not much of lessons and crowd-control techniques have been learnt after previous tragedies.
While the effort by Saudi authorities to set up a committee to investigate the incident is apt, we suggest that membership of the probe committee should include nationals of other countries. The committee should not only recommend measures particularly crowd-control techniques that will avert a re-occurrence but should also be thorough in its assignment. The findings and observations of the report should also be made public. The Saudi Arabian authorities which has the responsibility of organizing and coordinating the annual exercise could among other measures re-examine the number of worshippers that should perform Hajj yearly.