The tragic deaths of 250 hajjis [pilgrims] due to stampede at the Jamarat [temptation-stoning] site at this years Hajj and the previous accidents that have occurred require a serious analysis. We must ask why they perished and what can be done to prevent such unfortunate deaths in future.
Based on what I observed and experienced when performing the Hajj in 2002, I would like to identify some key problems with the Saudi Hajj management and provide some suggestions for improvement.
Although the Saudi authorities have done a lot to improve the logistics of Hajj, I still believe that they are accountable for the death of the hajjis. The Saudi authorities need to take full responsibility for the stampede and admit their mistakes instead of shifting the blame to fate.
First of all, the Saudi authorities have little or no control over the "infiltration" of a colossal number of Saudi citizens and residents who perform Hajj almost every year without authorization. During the Hajj in 2002, I met several Saudi citizens and residents who mentioned that they had been performing Hajj every year for the past 10 to 17 years.
In 2002, I saw a few policemen announce instructions over loudspeakers that people could not either hear or understand in the crowd. Following a stampede in which dozens of pilgrims died the first day of stone throwing, the Saudi police formed a human chain allowing trickles of people into the Jamarat site. Even after this, I believe few people died in a stampede that year.
As I saw in 2002, no special passageways were created for emergency vehicles to rush in or out of the Jamarat site. If people felt sick or happened to get caught in a stampede, they could expect help only from God. Emergency vehicles could not rush to the site because pilgrims overcrowded all streets leading to site. I believe that this situation has not changed even until today.
In fact, I didn't see any lanes reserved for the movement of emergency vehicles along several roads linking Makkah and the other Hajj sites [Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah]. When thousands of buses started moving from one site to another, they clogged the roads within a few minutes and filled the air with exhaust fumes. It took us approximately six hours to move a few kilometers from Mina to Arafat, where we were to spend the whole day praying. At Arafat, I witnessed a scene of confusion as the buses haphazardly jammed the roads. It was extremely hard for people to make way to their tents. By the time we crisscrossed the buses and reached our tents, more than half the day had passed.
At the end of the day however, getting from Arafat to Muzdalifah was relatively easy for us, although I am not sure how it was like for others.
After midnight, my Hajj group's bus left me behind in Muzdalifah in a rush to avoid traffic. As I walked later in the night from Muzdalifah to my tent in Mina, I tried to hail many buses to give me a ride but none stopped. I ended up seeking the help of the Hajj volunteers on the road, but they also failed in trying to convince a bus to stop to pick me up. Finally, after walking for approximately two and a half kilometers, I managed to get into a ramshackle bus. After moving a few hundred yards, that bus came to a halt because of the traffic jam, and in the end I ended up walking to Mina.
The next day, it took my friend and me approximately five hours to travel by car and some seven or eight kilometers from Makkah to Mina. After spending three and a half hours on the way to Mina, we tried to walk but found it extremely difficult, as there was no designated walkway. Finally we managed to rent a minivan. After moving a small distance the minivan took a detour to Muzdalifah, where it came to a complete stop behind buses that were emitting strong exhaust fumes. Finally, my friend and I ended up walking again from Muzdalifah to Mina.
On the way, we found several ambulances on call, but they could barely move forward in the traffic jam. One ambulance driver desperately tried to cross the island in the middle of the road but got stuck. As my friend looked on, I joined a number of people who lifted the ambulance on to the other side of the road, allowing it to go against light moving traffic.
At the Ka'aba, too, it was go-as-you-please chaos; there was no crowd control or direction for pilgrims to move in an orderly fashion. Around the Ka'aba, the streets are extremely narrow for the sea of people who came to pray and do tawaf [circling the Ka'aba]..
In several of the hotels winning the elevator contest requires a high degree of skill and patience. The hotels are either ill equipped with the number of elevators or the ones they have are in poor working condition. I believe no responsible authority would allow these elevators to operate in such conditions.
Earlier, when I arrived at the Hajj terminal with a group of pilgrims from United Arab Emirates, where I was a visiting professor at a university for the academic year, I was surprised to see the dysfunctional procedures at the airport. While I did not expect any special treatment because my group sponsors were well connected to the Saudi Hajj managers, I was surprised to see that we had to wait approximately six hours in the room where we disembarked from the plane and three more hours outside in the camp before being allowed to move on to Medina. The toilets adjacent to the waiting room were broken and dirty as if they hadn't been cleaned for ages. The toilets outside in the towering tents were equally unclean.
At the check-in counters, only three uniformed men were keying in passport records of approximately a thousand people, one at a time. No scanning devices were attached to their computers. The security officials were lining us up, allowing two or three people to come out at a time while my co-travelers were growing impatient, trying to push hard in the lines from behind. On the way out of the waiting room, eleven different security officials checked my passport, one after another, making me feel like a criminal when I was coming for this blessed journey of a lifetime.
This is just a brief outline of the experience that the pilgrims go through while performing the Hajj. They endure such hardship out of a deep faith in God, as part of the experience of performing the Hajj.
With such an experience I am forced to question whether the Saudi authorities actually care about the pilgrims at all or are just there to take advantage of the people coming for the Hajj. The Saudis definitely benefit from the billions of dollars the pilgrims pump into their economy every year, but they don't do enough to see to their welfare. There is no doubt that they have done a lot, but compared to the technology and know-how that is available today, their current Hajj management is extremely unacceptable.
Approximately 10 years ago, a prominent American Muslim had an experience of the Hajj similar to what I have described above. He then wrote to the Saudi government and the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C., suggesting that they install a subway system connecting the Hajj sites, expand the precincts of the Ka'aba, and train their security workers in the way of manners.
The subway system coupled with controlled entry limits for the resident Saudi pilgrims would solve the traffic problem of the pilgrims. Subway trains have solved the mass transportation problems in European or American cities and airports. In 2002, I asked some Saudis why subway trains were not available for the hajjis. They replied saying that they couldn't answer me but did speculate a reason that made sense to me - that a subway system would put the bus services owned by the Saudi businessmen and princes out of business.
It baffles me that the Saudis are keen on rescuing ailing European and American companies with their fortunes, but they would block an infrastructure development that would benefit Muslims who perform the Hajj and the Umrah [rites of visit at the Ka'aba any time during the year]. They could still generate profit by investing in a project for expanding the precincts of the Ka'aba and building underground railways connecting the Hajj sites.
All that is needed on the part of the Saudi authorities is to realize and act on the premise that Muslims come from all corners of the world to spend the savings of their lifetime providing lifeblood for the Saudi economy. They deserve better treatment-treatment that doesn't result in their being trampled to death or fumigated by the gases released by buses in transit.
I am happy to note that the Saudi government has now appointed a commission to recommend a plan for the development of the Hajj sites. The Saudi government should recruit international Muslim experts for the commission so it can develop better, creative, high-tech solutions to the Hajj problems, and the commission should open its report to international public debate before finalizing the recommendations, allowing other Muslim experts to share their ideas and critiques. Global Muslims have stakes in the development of the Hajj sites, and their possible contributions should not be ignored.
In the end, the Saudi government must promptly implement of the recommendations of the commission to prevent any unfortunate death of pilgrims. In the absence of a rapid implementation of a well-studied development plan, the current commission will go down in history as a public relations ploy of the Saudi government to offset criticism of their failed Hajj management.
Mohammad A. Auwal is an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at California State University, Los Angeles
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