The human cost of the Hajj stampede

A lot of theories and rumours have emerged as to how the stampede was allowed to happen.

Basma Hajj
Even the smallest security lapse in one road can have a huge human cost [Basma Atassi / Al Jazeera]

Victims of the Hajj stampede in Mina’s emergency hospital hardly bore any signs of injuries.

The files next to the dead and injured were marked with two red lines underneath one another to indicate that they were casualties of Thursday’s incident.

There were 32 bodies still in the refrigerators by the time I visited the hospital on Friday evening. The rest were transferred to hospitals in Mecca and Jeddah. The majority were diagnosed with heat stroke and suffocation.

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On Saturday, the health ministry put the death toll at 769 and said that 934 people were injured.

Medics at Mina’s emergency hospital said they alone received almost 700 people on the day of the incident, suggesting the overall death toll could be higher.

The eight hospitals around the Hajj landmarks and the six main hospitals in the city of Mecca were operating at full capacity after the stampede, medics said.

The overwhelming majority of the deaths were foreign pilgrims from countries including Iran, Indonesia and Niger.

In Mina’s emergency hospital, several of the casualties were marked unknown. Visitors were allowed to enter the different rooms to try to identify family members. It is expected that more people will be identified as the interior ministry checks their fingerprints.

I was not allowed to film and talk to the injured to get their testimonies about the incident in Mina, a large valley containing 160,000 tents for accommodation about 5 kilometres from Mecca.

Casualties kept arriving at Mina’s emergency hospital till 10pm.

Hajj: A pilgrimage of spirituality and tragedy

The intersection of the streets 204 and 223 is where two waves of pilgrims collided and the stampede unfolded.

One crowd had just finished a ritual in which pilgrims throw pebbles at three stone columns representing the devil – a rite central to Hajj – when it ran into another wave of people heading to perform the rite.

Sources close to the government said that some Hajj tours – which have an assigned time slot for allowing their groups to go to the Jamarat, where the rite is performed – have not abided by the schedule.

A lot of theories and rumours have emerged as to how this was allowed to happen.

It didn’t help that international journalists were not allowed to leave the media centre of the information ministry until 4pm local time, seven hours after the incident had taken place.

Upon our arrival in Street 204, lined from both sides by white tents, we found that security forces had blocked it from the middle as rescue workers were still putting the bodies in large trucks and evacuating the injured.

One witness told Al Jazeera that a vehicle belonging to security forces had left the street it was supposed to stationed in to block two way access. Another said the pilgrims forcefully removed a barrier placed on one side of the road.

The interior ministry blamed pilgrims for not abiding by the rules. An official with the information ministry said it happened due to pilgrim’s “illiteracy” and their inability to understand Arabic or English.

A report published in the UK- based Independent, citing tour operators, said that Saudi security forces had blocked roads ahead of the arrival of dignitaries.

For those who know the area where the stampede occurred, this report seems far from reality.

The relatively humble area is far from the entrance to Mina and houses ordinary pilgrims arriving from outside of Saudi Arabia.

Important personalities stay in areas close to the entrance and their convoys are assigned separate tunnels and roads to facilitate their movement.

What is confirmed is that the interior ministry has a recording of what happened. There are 7,000 cameras that record pilgrims’ movement across all the Hajj landmarks, including Street 204. These cameras can even zoom into faces of people within huge crowds.

Journalists, including me, were given a tour inside the operation room in the ministry’s headquarters in Mina and shown CCTV images from Street 204 after it had already been cleaned up.

What is also clear is that there was a security lapse that overshadowed the huge efforts made by the government of Saudi Arabia to ensure the safety of the pilgrims.

The incident highlights the difficult task Saudi Arabia has at hand. Even the smallest security lapse in one road can have a huge human cost.

Source: Al Jazeera