Alwaght- Thousands of Muslim pilgrims lost their lives in a stampede during Hajj ceremony (Pilgrimage) in the Saudi city of Mina last year; still the Kingdome refuses any official explanation or responsibility on the issue.
On 24 September 2016 thousands of Hajis (pilgrims) were caught in a crowed collapse on their way to Ramy al-Jamarat, symbolic stoning of Satan, and the resulting stampede caused an unratified number of people -from 2411 by AP to 4173 by Iranian media- to lose their lives due to suffocation and heat exhaustion.
Hajj is an Islamic ritual that every Muslim should perform it at least once in his life if physically and financially capable. During the ritual, Hajis denounce Satan by stoning a statue as his symbol.
How many died?
After 12 months, the great gap between the official Saudi number of 769 deaths, internationally counted deaths of 2411, and the highest toll announced by Iranian official of 4173 is not explained.
Saudi Arabia declared the highly unsupported death toll just two days after the tragedy when the rescue mission was still going on and has failed to update the numbers since then, in what many believe is a cover up for its incompetency in managing the five-day Haj rituals.
Iran tolerated the highest fatality with 469 people dead. Mali and Nigeria, 312 and 274 deaths respectively, come second and third among the 38 countries that declared their independent count of the casualties.
Hajjis come from 180 different countries and a sum of these three numbers gives a death toll about twice what Saudis acknowledged. Many believe the disparity could be much bigger since some poor Muslim countries and some regional friends of the Kingdom may have withheld or underestimated their toll to save Riyadh from pressuring criticism or receive financial aids.
Saudi Arabia seems to be reluctant to update the death toll in a bid to save the image of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef.
He is the next to the crown so any blame cast on the Saudi Interior Ministry, which oversees safety during the annual Hajj pilgrimage, could reflect negatively on Nayef, who also serves as the minister, the report said.
What caused the catastrophe?
Saudi authorities initially blamed the accident on first timer Hajjis who did not follow their guidelines, but authorities in many Muslim countries questioned the remarks as unjustified since the number of first timer Hajis are usually higher than others every year so this year was no exception.
Iranian officials, however, blamed the incompetency of Saudi authorities and their politically motivated programs during the ritual as the main reason.
Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei blamed “mismanagement” by Saudi Arabian authorities for the tragedy while his top adviser for international affairs Ali Akbar Velayati called the whole incident “suspicious” considering the high ranking Iranians among the dead.
Another highly popular, officially unconfirmed, reason was the news that Saudis had closed one of the roads for one of Saudi princes to approach the Satan stone with his motorist guards and perform the ritual from the inside of his car. The closure forced Hajjis to enter a wrong route colliding with those walking in the opposite direction.
Apart from the reason for the stampede itself, the ineffective and slow response by Saudi help and recue forces led to the death of many others who had survived the initial shock but died due to several-hour heat exhaustion and thirst. Many witnesses recalled people, still breathing, to be packed as dead bodies by the incompetent Saudi forces on the scene.
Although Saudi’s King Salman ordered an investigation into the tragedy almost immediately, there has been no mention to any possible results yet and the official state-run Saudi Press Agency has not mentioned the investigation since 19 October 2015, when it reported that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who is also the kingdom’s interior minister, was “reassured on the progress of the investigations.”
What should be done?
Though no single number is confirmed as the death toll, but one thing is for sure, this is the deadliest Hajj accident in the history. Considering the high toll many national and international figures called for a global body, Islamic Cooperation Council for instance, to take on the responsibility of managing the ritual or at least supervise its management.
Saudi officials who chose the prestigious “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” as their nickname rejected the demands as unnecessary without proposing any practical plan to prevent such catastrophe which of course was not unprecedented.
On 2 July 1990 a stampede inside a pedestrian tunnel leading out from Mecca towards Mina led to the deaths of 1,426 pilgrims. In 1994 another stampede killed at least 270 pilgrims at the stoning of the Devil ritual. Also in 2004, 251 pilgrims were killed and another 244 injured in a stampede during the stoning ritual in Mina.
National officials and religious leaders have called on the Saudi authorities to take necessary steps to prevent such incidents while Iran has canceled sending Hajis to this year ritual due to safety concerns.
The Kingdome however rejects the demands claiming that any such mass gatherings are inherently dangerous and difficult to handle.
Anniversary of Mina Tragedy
While anniversary ceremonies were held by families and relatives in different parts of the world, Saudis have stopped at taking reconsolidating steps to comfort the families of the dead. The head of Iran’s Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization says Saudi Arabia continues to withhold all cooperation toward compensating the victims.
According to Saeed Ohadi, Iran’s Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization, Saudis “Not only did not pay any blood money, but also, interestingly, they have failed to turn over the bodies of martyrs from many countries other than the Islamic Republic.”