An accident or a man-made disaster?
Tragedy has struck the Muslim world again, hundreds of pilgrims perished in a stampede while performing a ritual of stoning the devil at the end of Hajj in Mina near Mecca. The official figure given by the Saudi authorities stands at 769.
At one level, the number of casualties is not important now. It could be higher or lower than 2,000. What is important is that the Saudi authorities show more transparency to the outside world and to the affected families about this incident. This starts from accuracy of the death figures and information regarding why, despite seemingly improved crowd management and crowd control measures taken by the Saudi authorities, such disasters happen. Improved structures and roads cannot alone prevent such accidents or disasters.
Stampedes during Hajj are not new. There were no less than six stampedes in last 25 years, the most disastrous being the one in a tunnel in 1990 when 1,426 pilgrims died. There have been several stampedes since, at Jamarat Bridge, during the stoning of the devil, but with fewer casualties. The last one in 2006 claimed nearly 350 lives.
But the September 24 incident stands out for two reasons; for the number of deaths, and for being the second deadly incident in one Hajj season. The previous incident took 130 lives in a crane collapse in Mecca.
Stampedes are a frequent occurrence worldwide. They can happen in any large gatherings where the crowd becomes unruly or unmanageable. In one of the worst soccer tragedies in history, 100 people died in Sheffield, England, when crowds marched into the stadium. In 2005, more than 960 pilgrims died while crossing the Tigris River near Baghdad. In Cambodia, nearly 400 people died when during a holiday celebration, a bridge started moving and people scrambled to flee from there.
The stampede at Mina is of a different kind. People had gathered for a deeply religious event, a pilgrimage of a lifetime in fulfillment of one's religious obligation. Pilgrims perform this task of stoning the devil as an after-Hajj ritual. What causes the stampede is not the ritual itself, but the passage of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims over a bridge and their disregard of safety for others and their own selves. The passion with which some of them perform this ritual, along with the curiosity of those following them to see what's in front of them, causes overcrowding on the bridge.
To relieve the congestion on Jamarat Bridge and facilitate smoother movement of pilgrims, Saudi authorities had built a five-storey structure to enable passage of 300,000 people every hour. In addition, they had also installed several Closed Circuit Televisions (CCTVs) to monitor people's movement over the bridge. Over the years, the old narrow pillars symbolising Satan were also converted into long elliptical walls so that stone throwing could be an easier task.
Ironically, the stampede did not occur in the Jamarat Bridge or near the pillars, but in an intersection of two roads that would lead to the Jamarat Bridge. When crowds from two ends merged, a commotion of some sort led people to fall, causing a stampede.
Experts on crowd control explain that such stampedes occur when massive crowds of people, in a tightly packed space, attempt to press forward when there is no way to divert or turn back. Saudi authorities have explained the stampede as a fault of the pilgrims not heeding instructions. Others have explained this as a crowd crush as a result of a two-way flow in a confined space. But no amount of explanation will bring back the lives that have been lost or bring solace to the near and dear ones they have left behind.
The authorities, no doubt, will conduct their own investigations. They will provide explanations on what went wrong, and will assure the world that they will take measures to make the pilgrimage safer for the pilgrims. What they cannot ensure, however, is the conduct of the pilgrims themselves and their own adherence to safety. This requires training and self-discipline.
In a situation of life and death, people tend to be irrational. Therefore, it is of major importance to know how to avoid such situations. Our pilgrims are taught rules and rituals of Hajj, but they are hardly trained in personal safety and crowd psychology. Saudi authorities may, and probably will, make more improvements to ensure pilgrim safety, including employment of international experts on crowd management, but the ultimate safety will depend on the pilgrims' education on personal safety. A mandatory training of Hajis after arrival in Mecca should be on safety, how to move, what to do in emergencies and how to avoid crowding. This could be given by the Saudi authorities, with help from governments of the countries that are highly represented in the pilgrimage. This, along with further safety measures, could perhaps save us from another devastating accident or man-made disaster during Hajj.
The writer is a political analyst and commentator.