Over 1,450 pilgrims lost their lives in the Mina stampede on September 24, making it the deadliest tragedy ever to hit the Hajj.
The Associated Press (AP) body count tops the previous deadliest incident in 1990, when a stampede killed 1,426 people. The total figure for this hajj could be even larger as the AP survey covered only 19 of the more than 180 countries that sent some 2 million pilgrims to the five-day annual Hajj.
In this year’s tragedy, Iran says it has lost 465 pilgrims, while Egypt lost 148 and Indonesia 120. The tragedy was the second of the Hajj season after a crane collapse left 111 people dead.
Confusion over death toll
Saudi Health Ministry has yet to update its initial figure of 769 killed. The Ministry’s Communication’s Director, Faisal Alzahrani, said civil defense would announce the final death count after completing the investigation.
The AP count of the dead, which (by October 9) stood at 1,453, includes countries that have offered formal statements through Hajj commissions or in state media broadcasts, saying specifically the deceased were killed in Mina.
Pakistan, India, Indonesia and Iran have all suggested the true fatalities figures is considerably higher than the official figure offered by the Kingdom.
In an attempt to identify some of the dead Saudi Arabia gave both Indian and Pakistani diplomats over 1,000 photographs of the dead.
Tariq Fazal Chaudhry, an MP from Pakistan’s governing PML-N, said Saudi officials gave diplomats “1,100 photos” of the dead. Chaudhry said that the photos could be viewed at Saudi embassies and missions abroad.
“This is the official figure of martyrs from Saudi officials given for the identification process,” Chaudhry said.
His comments echoed those of India External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj: “Saudi authorities have released photos of 1,090 pilgrims who have died in (the Hajj) stampede.”
Indonesia complained that Saudi authorities did not grant it full access to the dead and injured after the crush. Lalu Mohammad Iqbal, an official in Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry, said 46 Indonesian pilgrims died in the Mina crush, but no forensic records were available to see.
Indonesia’s Religious Affairs Minister, Lukman Hakim Saifuddin, said his countrymen did not have free access to hospitals to search for their injured. “The Saudi Arabian Government has its own regulation, tradition, culture and procedures in dealing with such cases,” Saifuddin said. “This has not allowed us enough freedom in our effort to identify the victims.”
Cause of stampede
According to the Saudi Civil Defense Directorate, the tragedy occurred at 9am Makkah time at the junction between street 204 and 223 as pilgrims were en route to the Jamaraat Bridge in Mina.
The Saudi Interior Ministry said the disaster happened as two waves of pilgrims converged on a narrow road, causing hundreds of people to suffocate or be crushed to death.
Lebanon-based 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.
Ad-Diyar claimed the Prince 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 his presence in the area.
Saudi officials strongly denied that a VIP entourage contributed to the fatal crush.
Outcry at African blame
Saudi Arabia’s head of the central Hajj committee, Prince Khaled al-Faisal, had initially blamed the crush on “some pilgrims with African nationalities” behaving irresponsibly. That statement was widely condemned by African leaders and groups who accused the Saudis of passing the buck.
A Lagos-based Muslim human rights group put the blame for the stampede squarely on the Saudi authorities and slammed them for suggesting Africans caused the stampede.
Director of the Muslims Rights Concern (MRC), Ishaq Akintola, said, “As eyewitnesses of the gory stampede incident, we testify that it was caused by security breakdown on the part of the Saudi authorities.” So far, 54 Nigerians are reported to have died in Mina.
MRC officials at the Hajj said that a lapse in crowd control by authorities allowed Egyptian pilgrims, returning from the symbolic stoning of the devil, to take the wrong route back and block the path of those heading in the other direction. This description seems to match the one provided by Saudi authorities that the stampede may have been precipitated by the converging of crowds from two directions as eyewitness said.
“The Saudi authorities therefore lied when they tried to put the blame squarely on African pilgrims,” Akintola says. “This is criminal negligence and the Saudi authorities must be held accountable.”
Iran/Saudi fall out
With 464 of Iranians among the dead, Tehran was one of the most vocal critics of the Saudi authorities handling of the tragedy.
During his speech at the UN General Assembly, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said the Hajj stampede victims “fell victim to the incompetence and mismanagement of those in charge.”
“Public opinion demands that Saudi Arabian officials promptly fulfill their international obligations and grant immediate consular access for the expeditious identification and return of the cherished bodies and remained,” he continued.
While Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, warned Saudi Arabia “the issue will not be forgotten and the nations will pursue it seriously.” “Instead of accusing this and that, the Saudis should accept responsibility and apologise to the Muslims and victims’ families.”
Faces of the tragedy
Nigeria lost a lot of prominent scholars, a journalist and a politician. Among the dead was Nigerian politician Adeola Maurufudeen Adefolabi, who represented Ifako Ijaiye area in the lower chamber of the National Assembly. One of Nigeria’s first female editors, Hajiya Bilkisu Yusuf, is also believed to have perished. She studied political science in Nigeria and the US and journalism in Russia.
Tijani El-Miskin was a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Maiduguri and a former head of special training course for the students of Arabic studies at the University of Maiduguri in Gamboru. He also was the Chairman of the Borno State Pilgrims Board.
Asad Gilani, nephew of Pakistan’s ex-prime minster, Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani, is also among the dead.
Also feared dead is Mufti Mohammed Farooq, a prominent Indian Islamic scholar. Farooq was a prolific writer and has authored over 5 books on a range of subjects, including Hadith and Fiqh, in Urdu and Hindi. He was the Founder and Principal of Jamia Mahmoodia in Meerut which has been running for over 5 years.
Other stampedes and fires fatalities during Hajj:
1975: 200 – tent fire
1990: 1,426 – stampede
1994: 270 – stampede
1997: 343 – tent fire
1998: 118 – stampede
2001: 35 – stampede
2003: 14 – stampede
2004: 251 – stampede
2006: 346 – stampede