Friday, 2 October 2015

STUPIDITY: The Hajj disasters

Every year in September, Saudi Arabia invites Muslims from around the world to attend the holy city of Mecca. The Day of Arafat is an important Islamic observance which occurs during the Islamic month of Hajj—subsequently bringing about the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.  Every follower of Islam is required to visit Mecca during the Hajj at least once in his or her lifetime, if they are financial and/or physically able to do so.  The pilgrimage is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. During the month of the Hajj, Saudi Arabia must cope with as many as three million pilgrims.

Mina is a town that is at the outskirts of Mecca. While in Mina, the pilgrims will throw stones at three pillars (which is now a large stone wall) representing their symbolic rejection of the devil and the three temptations of Abraham who was an Old Testament prophet idolized by Muslims, Jews and Christians alike. 

Nearby is a tent city in which there are as many as 100,000 air-conditioned tents on the Plains of Arafat outside Mina in which the pilgrims will bed down for the three nights of the Hajja.  At the tent city, men and women are not allowed to sleep together. The tents are not placed helter skelter but in rows.              

On day One, the pilgrims walk to Mina (and the tent city) where they will spend the day and night. On Day Two, they will walk to and climb Mount Arafat where Abraham gave his last sermon. On Day Three, they will stone the three pillars (wall). On Day Four, they will walk to Mecca and walk around the huge Kaaba at the centre of the Grand Mosque.  

When you have three million people in large groups following close behind one another, it is a recipe for disaster and as surely as God made little apples, if one person stumbles to the ground, those immediately following behind that person will trip over the person lying on the ground and then the disaster grows as more people fall down and are trampled. Stampedes are tragically simplistic. When people are pushed together  (seven people per ten square feet of space) it is vital that those people in the front of a column of people keep moving and not stop suddenly. In doing so, the people that are out of sight of them and are behind them, will keep moving forward. When that happens, the column becomes comes compressed and when that happens, people begin tripping over one another.

All such tragic incidents in Saudi Arabia occurred on Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice), Islam's most important feast and the day of the stoning of the devil ritual.

In 1990, a stampede occurred inside a 600-yard-long and 35-foot-wide pedestrian tunnel (the Al-Ma'aisim tunnel) leading out from Mecca from  towards Mina and the Plains of Arafat. The tunnel had been worked on as part of a $15 billion project around Mecca's holy sites started two years earlier by the Saudi government.

While pilgrims were traveling to perform the Stoning of the Devil ritual, the stampede started when a pedestrian bridge railing was bent, causing seven people to fall off a bridge and onto people exiting the tunnel.  The tunnel's capacity of 1,000 soon filled with up to 5,000 people.  With outside temperatures of 44 °C / 112°F degrees, a failure of the tunnel's ventilation system was also blamed for many of the deaths.  Some witnesses claimed they believed a demonstration was occurring, others reported that the power to the tunnel was cut.  Saudi officials concluded that crowd hysteria occurring from the falling pilgrims was the cause.

Immediately after that disastrous event, King Fahd stated that the disaster was “God's will, which is above everything,” adding that "had they not died there, they would have died elsewhere and at the same predestined moment.” That is truly one of the stupidest statements ever made anywhere and at any time. It is also the weakest excuse for human error.                                                            

The disaster wouldn’t have happened at all if the pilgrims walking towards Mina were in controlled groups separated by enough space not only between the groups but also between the pilgrims themselves. When you have thousands of people walking close behind one another and they don’t know what is happening up ahead;  like dominoes, they will fall over each other when the front of the column stops suddenly.      

Of the 1426 people who died in that disaster, as many as 680 of those who died were Indonesians.

On May 23, 1994, as many as 270 pilgrims, most of them Indonesian, were killed in a stampede in Mecca as worshippers surge toward the cavern for symbolic ritual of stoning the devil in Mina. On April 9, 1998, as many as 180 pilgrims were trampled to death when panic erupted after several fell off an overpass (Jamaraat Bridge) .during the stoning of the devil ritual in Mina. On March 5, 2001: 35 were killed in a stampede during stoning of the devil ritual in Mina. On February 1, 2004: as many as 244 pilgrims were  killed and a similar number injured, some critically, in a stampede during the devil-stoning ritual.

On the 24th of September 2015, at 09:00 Mecca time, an overcrowding situation caused at least 1,100 people to suffocate and be crushed to death while injuring 934 others during the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mina. It is also the deadliest stampede of the 21st century.

Now here is where the stupidity of the Saudi Arabia officials stands out like a boil on one’s face. They didn’t stop two columns of pilgrims walking towards one another. The incident happened at the intersection of streets 204 and 223 leading up to Jamaraat Bridge. What Saudi Arabian official dimwit was responsible for this fiasco?

The cause of the tragedy has angered Iran since it has the highest number of victims. Iran has strongly criticized Saudi Arabia for mishandling the annual pilgrimage and has threatened to press the case against the Saudi rulers in international courts.  I think that Iran has a good case to prosecute.

The incident has inflamed sectarian tensions between these two regional rivals—Saudi Arabian Sunni  and Iranian Shia.

It has been alleged that the convoy escorting Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, comprising of 200 soldiers and 150 police officers, played a central role in the incident by making some pilgrims turn around against the flow of the other pilgrims which then triggered the fatal stampede. It has also been stated that Mohammad and his huge entourage swiftly abandoned the scene, adding that the Saudi authorities sought to hush up the entire story and impose a media blackout on reporting Mohammad's presence in the area.  If King Fahd was still alive, I have no doubt that he would have repeatedly blamed this latest disaster on God again like he did in 1990.

The haj, the world's largest annual gathering of people, has been the scene of numerous deadly stampedes, fires and riots in the past, but their frequency has been greatly reduced in recent years as the government spent billions of dollars upgrading and expanding haj infrastructure and crowd control technology.

Safety during haj is a politically sensitive issue for the kingdom's ruling Al Saud dynasty, which presents itself internationally as the guardian of orthodox Islam and custodian of its holiest places in Mecca and Medina. However no matter how much is spent on technology to reduce the chances of accidents occurring when large numbers of people gather at a particular location, it will be for naught when stupidity is the direct cause of the tragedy.

I think that the authorities in Saudi Arabia have to take better precautions when controlling columns of men and women during the Hajj. The columns should be no more than thirty deep and each of the columns should be separated by at least a hundred feet. Further, they should begin in one location and not in two or more locations. This way, there will no direct collisions. 

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