Why Tragedy Struck the Hajj

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Saudi security officers and rescuers gather by the dead bodies of victims of a stampede in Mina

The Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, was again marred by death and chaos this year as thousands of pilgrims rushed to perform its final ritual: the symbolic stoning of the devil. Saudi officials have confirmed 345 dead so far and hundreds more injured in a stampede as pilgrims rushed to complete the ritual before sunset. Eyewitness reports describe a horrific scene with dead bodies being carried away in refrigerated ambulances, while others lay covered by blankets in the streets amid the injured receiving treatment.

The tragedy occurred despite Saudi efforts to organize and accommodate the more than 2 million people who descend on Mecca every year to perform the Hajj—an obligation for every Muslim who is physically and financially able to fulfill at least once in a lifetime. Every year the Saudis expand their facilities and increase security at the sites of the Hajj, but still stampedes and deaths occur. In 2004 about 255 people were killed in a similar incident, and the worst stampede on record occured in 1990, when 1,426 people were killed.

The site of the stampede, al-Jamarat, is a classic bottleneck point—three pillars representing the devil located on a bridge that stretches over the desert of Mina, outside Mecca. Pilgrims are required to cast stones at the pillars to complete the Hajj, and tens of thousands may rush to do so at the same time.

The Saudis have built four ramps that take pilgrims up to the bridge and have recently replaced the four pillars with four walls in order to expand the target area for the stones and pebbles cast by the pilgrims. Veterans of the Hajj describe this ritual as the most treacherous of the pilgrimage, where the overzealous sometimes throw larger stones that often injure fellow pilgrims. In recent years Muslim clerics have given women the license to commission a male relative to carry out the devil stoning in an attempt to lessen their chances of injury.

This year, Shiite clerics encouraged their groups to carry out the ritual early in the morning to be ahead of the crowds, but Sunni clerics urged their pilgrims to stick to the strict instructions of pelting the devil at midday and to be finished before sunset.

Explanations for Thursday's tragedy differ, and many accuse the Saudi authorities of being slow to intervene. The Saudis, on the other hand, complain that their best efforts are nullified by the ignorance of many pilgrims about the rituals of the Hajj. Some nationalities insist on moving in huge lines with linked arms, and trample on anyone who is in their way, brushing past those who fall in front of them. Other pilgrims camp on the sidewalks hindering the overcrowded passage ways, which are further cramped by merchandise spread by street vendors. Some reports suggest that Thursday's tragedy was when some pilgrims dropped baggage they were carrying, tripping those behind them, many of whom were crushed by the onrushing crowd.

Hoping to curtail the ever increasing number of pilgrims that descend on the Kingdom each year, Saudi authorities have used their control over visas to discourage pilgrims from performing the ritual in consecutive years in order to make space for others , but many find a way around that by going on business visas or coming for the Omra, the mini pilgrimage a couple of months before the Hajj, and then staying on with an expired visas.

This year's hajj was also marred by the collapse of a Mecca hotel on January 5, where 76 pilgrims were killed. The reason for the hotel collapse remains unknown. The latest disaster is expected to prompt the Saudis to enforce stricter controls, in order to do a better job of ensuring the safety of the millions of the faithful who arrive for the Hajj each year.