Post link 28 September 2015, 14:14
One survivor of a stampede near Mecca in Saudi Arabia said people toppled “like dominoes” before being trampled or suffocated.

By Adam Taylor September 24

Tragedy on the hajj: They fell ‘like dominoes’

Over the past hundred years, technological and economic changes have deeply affected how people undertake the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that devout and able Muslims are required to make at least once in their lives. Generally, these changes have made things safer: Pilgrims no longer have to make lengthy treks through the desert or perilous boat journeys, for example, and modern medicine is available to treat those who may fall ill.

However, despite all these positive changes, a remarkable number of people still die making the pilgrimage. On Thursday, Saudi officials revealed that more than 700 Muslim worshipers were killed in a stampede in Mina, a desert plain near Mecca that serves as a temporary encampment for a large number of pilgrims and is the site of one of the pilgrimage's most important rituals. Hundreds of others were injured, and the death toll may rise.

[Stampede near Saudi holy city kills more than 700 on hajj pilgrimage]

Tragically, this is far from the first recent disaster at the hajj. The incident comes just two weeks after a crane collapsed on the main mosque in Mecca, killing 100 before the pilgrimage even started. While these incidents were the most serious in nine years, all in all, thousands of pilgrims have been killed in incidents since 1990, including one accident in 1990 when about 1,400 pilgrims died during a stampede in a pedestrian tunnel leading out of Mecca.

Part of the problem is a phenomenal growth in the number of people participating in the pilgrimage. It's believed that just 60,000 foreigners performed the hajj in 1920. In 2014, a total of 2.1 million people made the pilgrimage, according to Saudi government figures, with 1.39 million coming from outside Saudi Arabia. (Around one in five pilgrims had journeyed from Indonesia last year, for example.) The growth in the number of pilgrims is logical: More Muslims have become financially able to undertake the pilgrimage, which is now just a relatively short plane ride away. (1)

However, the pilgrimage sites remain largely the same as ever and often are relatively confined spaces. The valley at Mina, for example, is just 1.9 miles by 1.9 miles, yet is the location of the important final ceremony at the hajj – the stoning of the devil ritual (known as the Jamarat), where pebbles are thrown against three stone columns. Confounding the overcrowding, the pilgrims speak different languages and often have different customs. Unless they are wealthy, it is an arduous journey: Walking for miles in a punishing heat, many will grow tired. Some are being pushed in wheelchairs, others bring luggage.

As Dirk Helbing, a German academic who studies crowds and panic, put it after visiting in 2006, Mecca is "the biggest pedestrian problem in the world."

Saudi officials have not been complacent. The country has spent hundreds of billions on making the hajj safer, building special bridges and tunnels and recruiting experts to help them devise better crowd-control measures. Schedules were imposed on ceremonies most prone to overcrowding, such as the stoning of the devil ritual, which has spawned a number of deadly stampedes in recent history, and other rituals were changed to be more symbolic. The numbers of foreign pilgrims are limited by a quota and lottery system. (In fact, the number of visitors has been cut since 2012, when 3.16 million Muslims made the pilgrimage.) This year, 100,000 Saudi forces have been roped in to help guide crowds and prevent potential terror plots. Measures are in place to prevent infectious diseases, such as MERS, from spreading among pilgrims.

[Glance at major hajj-related incidents in Saudi Arabia]

Despite these measures, countries that send large numbers of pilgrims to Mecca, such as India and Indonesia, have complained of the safety risks posed during the hajj. In response to Thursday's tragedy, the head of Iran's hajj organization blamed Saudi “mismanagement” for a crush of pilgrims. Saudi officials, in turn, have responded that the crush was the result of pilgrims ignoring the timetables, the BBC reports.

Perhaps at an event the size of the hajj, there will always be the risk of accidents, but given that the number of pilgrims is likely to grow considerably in the future, that's hardly reassuring. More and more of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims are financially able and willing to undertake the journey to Mecca each year, and Saudi Arabia hopes to accommodate far greater numbers in the future. According to reports in the Saudi press, Hajj Minister Bandar Hajjar recently said that in 2016, the number of pilgrims allowed would increase to 5 million, with plans for 30 million in five years.

Saudi Arabian authorities say a stampede among Muslim worshippers killed more than 700 people at the height of the hajj pilgrimage in the holy city of Mecca. (Jenny Starr/The Washington Post)

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