Monday, September 28, 2015

Hajj: Muslim Tragedy in Mecca - Mass Casualties and 2015 Hajj, Cause and Prevention?

[This is an ongoing story, so rather than constantly posting new articles, I will be adding updates as important new information is disclosed.  Come back from time to time!  I am also keeping some of the older inaccurate reports as it is interesting to see how this story is developing.]

Once more the world experiences surprise/shock as another mass casualty event occurs. This time it happened at the annual Hajj event in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.  So terribly sad that this event occurred almost simultaneously with the joy of the Pope's visits.  In the days since this tragedy, there has been little released about the facts in the case or more recent official death statistics given the large number of injured.  Bitterness between Iran and Saudi Arabia is very strong.  Especially as the death toll for Iranians has now risen to at least 228, according to AP.

12-10-15 -  Here is the latest update I could find, which basically reports NO CHANGE in information out of Saudi Arabia.  This Al Arabia live blog reports a number of stories starting back in September 2015.  It includes both articles and comments.

11/10/15 - There is still no official increase in Saudi figures which remain at 769.  This Wikipedia article has a list of 42 countries reporting deaths and missing, now totaling 2,427 dead and 472 still missing.  Since around half the participants were Saudis, the original SA report of 4,000 deaths may indeed be true.  I have seen no figures on Saudi deaths.  There are large percentages of still missing from some of the least developed countries.  This may reflect lack of funds to track down or report victims in SA.  There are statements quoted from 17 countries, and 12 significant individuals.  In addition almost 200 linked references are available for those doing research.  One link reports the Saudi response 12 hours after the tragedy to be an order for the immediate beheading of 28 individuals.

10/6/15 - This more recent report from Lebanese Shiites continues to view this tragic event as a plot to kill high level Shiite figures as the struggle between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran continues.  Iran is still reporting well over 400 Iranian deaths.

On the other hand, Pakistan, which has received much aid from Saudi Arabia is counseling patience.  However, as its citizens become more and more frustrated by lack of information, they may have to be more assertive in confronting this issue.

10/8/15 - The count is now up to 1399 based on compilation of reports from almost 20 countries which are listed in this link from Times of Israel.  The Saudis have still not issued an up to date count, and this evening I heard a report that the king has dementia.  The account will surely go higher, but the early report of 4000 is likely to be too high.  [Subsequent stories say that almost half of the participants were Saudi, thus with the most recent count being over 2,000, then the 4000 figure could indeed be in the ballpark.]

10/10/15 - The Atlantic basing this report on an AP (Associated Press) compilation of death figures from 19 countries now reports 1453 dead, with hundreds still missing.  I used this rather than the AP article because here you can also follow a number of comments.

10/13/15 - Press TV (an Iranian or Russian source) now claims 1674 dead.  Their map shows total counts from 31 countries which I believe is how they established this total.  There are still many missing and unaccounted for.  The map shows Iraq and Jordan with only 1 death each.  There are no figures for Yemen, Qatar, UAE or any of the "stans" except Pakistan.  Suspect this figure will rise.

10/13/15 - The Washington Post says at least 1621 killed which is slightly less than the above 1674 figure.  They used AP figures from state media reports and officials; comments from 19 of the 180+ countries that sent citizens.  Iran says it had 465 pilgrims killed, Egypt lost 182, Nigeria 168, and Indonesia 126.  India also lost 114, Pakistan 100, Bangladesh 92, Mali 70, Senegal 54, Benin 51, Cameroon 42, Morocco 33, Ethiopia 32, Sudan 30, Algeria 25, Ghana 12, Chad 11, Kenya 8, and Turkey 7.  Hundreds are still unaccounted for, so the total will rise.  The Saudis have not updated since Sept. 26th.

[This just in 9/29/15--Don't know if true, but alarming if it is, report that death toll is more than 4,000.  Rumors of plot against Iran, and a number of conspiracy theories in the Comments.  Will keep watch to confirm or cancel.  Don't know reliability of source, "Press TV".  PTV is an English language Iranian source.  See:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Press_TV   Another source Albawaba, also posted:  http://www.albawaba.com/loop/saudi-arabian-health-ministry-statement-said-4000-people-died-hajj-stampede%E2%80%94then-disappeated-74.  This site, described at Wikipedia as "Al Bawaba (البوابة, Arabic for "the portal" or "the gate") is a news, blogging and media website[1] headquartered in AmmanJordan with an office in DubaiUnited Arab Emirates.[2]  ... [with] a full-time staff of journalists and editors covering the Middle East and North Africa region’s events and news."[3]  ]  Another Shia (Iran's version of Islam) take on this issue.  No telling how this highly controversial discrepancy on deaths will turn out.

10/4/15 - Finally an eye witness account that makes sense, from a Nigerian professor who saw the conditions developing that caused this disaster.  Apparently, security personnel were lax or absent in their duties.  Since the 2006 disaster, pilgrims at the stoning of the devil have been required to exit by a different route.  When a large group of Egyptian pilgrims finished stoning, they made a U-turn and no officials stopped them.  Pilgrims had already walked 13 kilometers that day in temperatures above 110f, and the Egyptian camp was near the entrance but far from the exit.  People, including the professor, urged them to use the exit but these Egyptians refused and the terrible crush began.

I found several unusually thoughtful ideas in the comments at this site regarding accident prevention at all mass crowd events: 
http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/09/saudi-arabian-hajj-stampede-death-toll-rises-150926130030311.html
There are also lively and even vitriolic competitive comments here. Also as an Al Jazeera site, there are numerous cross comments by Muslims and non-Muslims.  The first quoted comment is by a participant in the deadly 2006 Hajj.

MUHAMMED KAHN
     "By the grace of Allah (SWT) I performed Hajj in 2006 when same type of incident happened causing death of nearly 400 and injured 700 , most of the injured had permanent disability. As an eye witness of 2006 catastrophe I want to share my experience as follows.
     After finishing the rituals at Arafat and Muzdalefa we planned to start stoning at the biggest Zamarat at about 8.00 AM . When our team reached the place close to the starting point we were stopped due to the fact that a group of dignitaries from some Muslim countries as royal guest of KSA were stoning and a barricade was created by Saudi police. I observed from the distance that STOP sign with different language including Bangla was flushing.
     After about three hours , when a huge crowed of Hajjis gathered , the barricade was withdrawn and suddenly a big crowd jumped into towards” One pathway” ignoring the Stop sign ( Subsequently it was increased to 3/4 levels pathways ) to perform the ritual and within few minutes hundreds of people were stampeded and injured. Even in my team some Hajjis was so enthusiastic and emotional to start running but by the will of Allah, with my intervention they were finally stopped. After further few hours when the bodies of deceased and injured were removed we finished stoning and went to Mecca for Towaf e Ziarat safely.
     Now I find a relationship between these two catastrophes that “ halting the flow of Hajjis for any reason ( as happened during 2006) created panic among them due to the time constraint of finishing stoning and going to Mekka for Tawaf within stipulated time was a great factor causing these two saddest incident.
     Whatever comes out of the investigation , as a normal Muslim, it is my humble suggestion that if the Hajj authority can not avoid stoning at Zamarat separately by the so called high profile dignitaries , ( though , I am not sure permissibility of such in Islam ) they can make an alternate Entry and Exit for them either by constructing Rope way/Gondola or a hanging Helipad , so that those people can perform the ritual without closing any Entry or Exit point to the Zamarat. Even a separate level designated to those type of Hajjis, on safety reason, may be created.
     In addition a awareness training has to be made effective at all levels involving the Hajj pilgrims so that this Fard ritual is performed in safe and logical way to ensure acceptance of Allah (SWT). May Allah bestow His profound mercy to the deceased , the injured and consolation to the members who lost their nearest and dearest one. Ameen."

JOE SOPRANO to Muhammed,
     "if I summarize your point, you associate the risk of stampedes with two main factors:
1) privilege given to dignitaries to execute the stoning before the others;
2) strong excitement and a general lack of discipline or self-control of the pilgrims.
     However substantial these points are (and precious, since they come from your direct experience of the Hajj), we are forced to acknowledge that both are quite difficult and sensitive to handle:
1) would require to change UAE into a liberal democracy with no political and social privilege and with a global equality of people, included in the religious domain;
2) would require a global improvement of education standards in the Muslim world.
     The first point should involve a political reformism or a factual revolution in the Saudi kingdom.
     The second point would imply higher rates of access to education in Muslim world, which could not go without the spread of gender policies and a global improvement of women social conditions in the same countries.
     Both are real needs; both are unfortunately not ready to occur within a short space of time.  But let’s hope that progresses will move on, while gradual political and social improvements will follow."

CHRIS LEWIS (starting with 2nd paragraph)
     "Your first point - special casing for dignitaries is fairly simple to fix. The organizers set up their plan for the day, visually check that all the barricades/signs/routing are in place each day, and don’t change them for any reason whatsoever. If a dignitary wants to participate, they must either be in the same crowd as every one else, be able to access/egress without interfering with the crowd in ANY way, OR, you book it well ahead of time and integrate it with the daily plan.
     There simply is NO WAY you can change plans mid-stream with that many people. Doesn’t matter whether it’s a stoning ritual in Mecca, or letting people into a stadium to watch a soccer match. You just do NOT change plans once they’re running. If you do, people die. Full stop. Doesn’t matter what religion or what government they have.
     Your second point misses the point entirely. This has nothing whatsoever to do with Muslims. It’s the same “enthusiasm” you see in a lineup for the first showing of a new Star Wars movie, a black Friday sale, or a new iPhone launch. The only reason why they don’t turn into huge disasters is because the number of people is hundreds or thousands of times less. These don’t just happen in Muslim countries. They happen in the US, in England, Singapore, India etc. During the coronation of Czar Nicholas II, 1400 people died in the crush of gifts being given out. During new years fireworks in Singapore, 250 people died. During a soccer game in Hillsborough England, almost 100 people died.
      Each a result of poor planning, plans that weren’t verified, or plans that were changed mid-steam. Hillsborough happened because the crowd was directed through an access tunnel, and the access tunnel gate at the far end was closed and they didn’t get it open in time."

My thoughts: We have just seen huge crowds greeting the Pope in an atmosphere of love and caring for one another—no significant crowd incidents. On the other hand, examples are given of significant numbers of deaths at the stoning of Satan (significant pent up anger), sports events (anger and booze?), and a coronation with gifts distributed (poverty and greed)—negative emotions set the stage for significant death toll. More love and understanding needed worldwide.

http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/hajj-stampede-death-toll-rises-1100-saudi-arabia-faces-criticism-over-safety-record-1521334
     This article quotes an anonymous medical source saying that the actual death toll is at least 400 more than the "official" toll.  A list of known casualties by country is given with 140+ for Iran and 55 for Egypt.  Iran is very angry about this.  Pakistan has announced a variety of benefits for the victims and their relatives including, cash payments, hospital care, and Hajj trips for relatives of deceased.  10/20 now totals 102 for Pakistan.

10/1/15 - Iran claims at least 464 of their pilgrims are dead.  This figure is so much higher than what any other large country is claiming that I wonder if some Iranians have used the Hajj as a way to escape living in Iran.  This article quotes various problem for Iranians wishing to travel include passport problems.  245 as if 10/10,

10/4/15 - Five more victims raises Indonesian deaths to 100.  126 total 10/13.  10/20 no change.

10/5/15 - With 92 still missing, Egypt now counts 146 deaths.  182 on 10/13.  10/20 unchanged.

10/5/15 - Latest figures on deaths of Indian Pilgrims is 74.
10/12/15 - India now reports 114 dead with 10 still missing, and 11 more dead from the crane collapse a week earlier.  10/20 total now 116.

10/5/15 - Nigeria mourns at least 74 dead, with 244 more still missing.  168 total 10/13.
10/11/15 - With their death count now at 145, Nigerian officials explain how pilgrims living and dead are being handled and helped.  10/20 total is 199.

10/19/15 - Mali reports 198 dead.  10/20/15 raises figure to 254.

10/20/15 - Cameroon lost 76, Niger lost 72, Senegal reports 61, Ivory Coast and Benin both lost 52.

10/20/15 - Bangladesh lost 137, other countries are Ethiopia 47, Chad 43, Morocco 36, Algeria 33,  Sudan 30, Burkina Faso 22, Tanzania 20, Somalia 10, Kenya 8, Ghana and Turkey 7, Myanmar and Libya 6, China 4, Afghanistan 2, and Jordan and Malaysia 1 each.

10/20/15 - While Saudi Arabia has not issued new figures since Sept. 26, the AP continues gathering data country by country as each one updates it's death figures.  For example reports on 10/19/15 total 2,110, but an additional 56 for Mali and several others now has the total at 2,177.  New figures for 10/20 added above.  You can see by the changes over the days that some countries were much more efficient in identifying their losses.  The previous most deadly hajj stamped in 1990 killed 1,426 people.  DNA may be needed for some identifications, this may be harder for poor countries to facilitate.  Here is how one country, Nigeria, is dealing with the terrible aftermath.

http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/26/middleeast/hajj-pilgrimage/

As the crowds at Hajj have grown, performing all the rituals required in a limited time as Mr. Kahn  pointed out above increases anxiety and tension.
http://www.islam4theworld.net/islam/pillars/hajj/5days_of_hajj.htm
In addition, since the date of Ramadan and the Hajj changes each year because these events follow a lunar calendar, a wide range of climate conditions can be experienced.

At this article you can see that the distance from the many tents at Mina to the pillars where the devil is stoned ranges from 1 to 3 miles.  It was over 100 f that day.  Al Jazeera now reports "Saudi Arabia has given foreign diplomats approximately 1,100 photographs of the dead from last week's Hajj crush and stampede, Indian and Pakistani authorities said, an indication of a significantly higher death toll than previously offered by the kingdom."  Saudi Arabia is claiming that this 1100 number includes other deaths from natural causes and possibly the crash of a crane weeks earlier that killed 111.

The total number of miles/kilometers the pilgrims must travel ON FOOT is extensive and particularly hard for the sick and elderly who often are desperate to complete the obligatory Hajj before they die.
The map at this site along with the 5 day schedule of events shows the extent of what is involved. Eight kilometers equals 5 miles, so the 12 kilometer black and white bar on the left side of the map equals 7.5 miles. Imagine doing all that walking at 100f + temperatures.  In fact, some reports seem to indicate that temperatures were above 110f that day.  Dehydration can be a serious health concern during the heat and fasting of Ramadan and the Hajj.

Perhaps it is time to think of having two Hajjs a year when the event occurs during the hottest months, with one at a cooler season especially available for the elderly and sick.