Hundreds Killed in Hajj Stampede

CNN reports that dozens of people have been killed in a stampede during the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

[Update (1106) CNN has updated the story below bringing the figure to 100. An emailed news alert from CNN says, “At least 345 people killed in Hajj stampede, according to officials in Saudi Arabia.” Headline changed from “Dozens” to “Hundreds” to reflect this development.]

Photo: Ambulances near scene of the Hajj stampede on Thursday. 2006 Mecca stampede. Dozens of people are reported to have been killed in a stampede during a symbolic stoning ritual at the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. Government officials said the number of people killed in the Muslim holy city of Mecca was unknown, but news agencies put the toll in the dozens — and perhaps higher than 50. Reuters said its journalists counted at least 50 bodies lined up on the ground and covered in white shrouds. The Arab television news station Al-Arabiya reported dozens of pilgrims were killed, according to The Associated Press.

A U.S.-based religious scholar, who arrived shortly after the stampede, said it was a heartbreaking scene. “Looking at the amount of ambulances brings tears to your eyes,” he said.

The stampede, like others in the past, happened during the stone-throwing ritual in which the pilgrims stone a symbolic devil.
Saudi authorities had replaced the pillar, which had represented the devil in the past, with an oval wall with padding around the edges to protect the crush of pilgrims.

Sad as this is, it is an almost routine occurence. Wikipedia lists several of these in recent years:

Failures in crowd control

Sometimes the surging crowds, trekking from one station of the pilgrimage to the next, stampede. Panic spreads, pilgrims jostle to avoid being trampled, and hundreds of deaths can result.

* On January 11, 2006 overcrowding caused the death of at least 50 pilgrims at the stoning of the jamaraat (pillars) ritual.
* On February 1, 2004 251 Muslim pilgrims were killed and another 244 injured in a stampede during the stoning of the jamaraat (pillars) ritual.
* On April 9, 1998, at least 118 pilgrims were trampled to death.
* On May 23, 1994 a stampede killed at least 270 pilgrims at the stoning of the jamaraat (pillars) ritual.
* On July 2, 1990 a stampede inside a pedestrian tunnel leading to the holy sites led to the deaths of 1,426 pilgrims.

Fires

* On April 15, 1997 343 pilgrims were killed and 1,500 injured in a tent fire.

Protests and violence

* On July 9, 1989 two bombs exploded, killing one pilgrim and wounding a further sixteen. Saudi authorities beheaded sixteen Kuwaiti Shiite Muslims for the bombings after originally blaming Iranian terrorists.
* On July 31, 1987 Iranian pilgrims rioted, causing the deaths of over 400 people.
* On November 20, 1979 a group of approximately 200 militant Muslims occupied Mecca’s Grand Mosque. They were driven out by French commandos (allowed into the city under these special circumstances despite their being non-Muslims) after bloody fighting that left 250 people dead and 600 wounded.

The Telegraph describes the 2004 incident:

Photo: Thousands gather for the annual Haj pilgrimage. A huge crowd surge forward for the 'stoning of the devil' rite where many were crushed in the stampede. 2004 At least 244 people were trampled to death by their fellow Muslim pilgrims yesterday when a stampede swept through an immense crowd outside Mecca for the climactic ritual of the annual Haj pilgrimage. The disaster happened as hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, clad in white robes and chanting “God is greatest”, scrambled to hurl stones at three pillars representing the devil. The 58 ft monuments mark the spot beside the Jamarat bridge outside Mecca where tradition holds that Satan appeared to Abraham.

Two million pilgrims from across the world had flocked to Saudi Arabia for the Haj and the event reached its climax yesterday with the onset of Eid al-Adha, the Muslim festival of sacrifice.

The traditional “stoning of the devil” is the pilgrimage’s last and most dangerous rite. A huge crowd gathered near the Jamarat bridge, many of them exhausted, and surged towards the pillars. Nearby is Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Mohammed preached his last sermon in 632 AD.

As the throng drew closer to the monuments, one of which was daubed with “USA”, people gathered seven stones to throw. They were seeking to emulate Abraham, his son Ismail and his wife Hagar, who each threw seven stones at the devil. To cries of “God is greatest” and “Harder, harder”, the crowd pushed and scrambled to hurl their stones. The cause of the stampede is unknown but panic seems to have swept through the crowd, which stretched for a quarter of a mile around the pillars.

Iyad bin Amin Madani, the Saudi minister responsible for the Haj, said the ensuing stampede lasted 27 minutes. The crowd was so large that many pilgrims had no idea what was happening. When the chaos subsided, at least 244 bodies were recovered along with a similar number of wounded. Mr Madani said that eight of the injured were in a critical condition.

BBC has an account of the 2001 stampede:

Photo: Crowds surge forward during a stone-throwing ritual 2001 Mecca stampede. Thirty-five Muslim pilgrims have been killed in a stampede as the annual Muslim pilgrimage, the Hajj, reached its climax. They died during the Stoning of Satan ritual on Monday, near the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, state-run Saudi television reported. It said the pilgrims died as a huge crowd rushed toward one of the three giant pillars representing the devil in the Mina valley, near the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad.

[…]

Tens of thousands of pilgrims from 160 countries took part in the ritual, which marks the first day of the Islamic feast of Al-Adha (sacrifice). Men dressed in seamless white robes and women covered from head to foot each cast seven pebbles at the columns. “Because of heavy congestion and jostling between pilgrims, many pilgrims, especially the elderly, tripped and fell, leading to the deaths of 35 pilgrims of different nationalities,” a civil defence official said.

CNN has this from 1998:

Photo: It is customary for Muslims to throw stones at these pillars (above), which sometimes causes crowding and confusion. 1998 Mecca stampede. At least 107 Muslim pilgrims were trampled to death Thursday afternoon when a panic erupted after several pilgrims fell off an overpass at Islam’s holiest site, the official Saudi news agency reported. The stampede occurred on the plains of Mena outside Mecca, as pilgrims performed a ritual known as “stoning the devil” on the last day of the hajj, which drew an estimated 2.3 million pilgrims. A rush ensued after some elderly and sick pilgrims fell off an overpass, the agency said. The agency said the casualty figure was preliminary, and security officials did not have a breakdown of nationalities.

CNN International Correspondent Riz Khan, who covered the hajj in Saudi Arabia, said that people might have been backing away from the pillars toward which stones were being thrown, pushing the rest of the crowd back, as has happened before. “They start to go into each other and it causes a real crush, and I suspect that’s what happened. I don’t think this was a stampede in the nature of an angry stampede, because one of the key things about this is how calm everyone remains, and how good-natured everyone remains,” Khan said.

Authorities have talked about rearranging Mena’s geography to better accommodate pilgrims, but they go to lengths to let everybody into the area regardless. There are only about 2.5 million meters (3 million square yards) flat enough to be occupied by the millions of pilgrims trying to attend the ceremony.

Horrible.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. McGehee says:

    Funny, but I thought the Hajj Stampede was a scheduled event at these things. Kind of like the running of the bulls.

  2. Jay says:

    Let’s make sure they don’t attend any soccer games.