Tuesday, September 29, 2015

I survived Mina Stampede 1994

Majyd Aziz

The writer wrote this narrative on the day of the Mina Stampede, recalling his own experience. The figures of victims are of that fateful day. Moreover, blame game had still not created a storm.

Haj 2015 confronted two tragedies. September 11 was the day when a huge crane belonging to the Bin Laden Group involved in the expansion of the Masjid Al Haram fell due to a severe windstorm. Some 117 pilgrims inside the Grand Mosque died while scores were injured. Then, September 24, the day after Haj, over 720 pilgrims died while in excess of 800 were injured, many critically, during a stampede in Mina where pilgrims perform the ritual of stoning Shaitaan (Devil). Initial reports focused on the area where predominantly the Algerians were based. The figures given are at 6 pm, Pakistan time. The exact casualties may increase by the time all are counted and reported.

This day, being the first day of Eid holidays in Pakistan, I was hooked to the television, watching channels keeping me abreast of the latest figures and showing the visuals. This tragedy brought back memories of 1994 when I accompanied my mother, spouse, and eldest daughter for my second Haj. Our group was fortunate to have our hotel just a block away from the Jamarat, where the three Shaitaan were located. On the first day, we had managed to reach Mina quite early from Muzdalifah after performing the religious requirements at Arafat. There was no rush at Jamarat and we performed Rami (stoning of Shaitaan) at ease. 

I was not comfortable with the bathroom facilities at our hotel, and thus, decided that after the Fajr prayers, I would hire a taxi and leave for Makkah, sleep a couple of hours, shower and hire a taxi for my return to Mina before the Zuhr prayers. On the third day, when I returned to Mina, there was a tremendous rush of people leaving for Makkah after performing the Rami. The cab driver informed me that it was not possible to reach my hotel by taxi and all I had to do was traverse the bridge at Jamarat and walk to my hotel.

I was casually walking on the bridge when I saw a huge crowd running and coming towards where I was walking. I quickly crossed over to the perimeter of the bridge and what I saw was frightening. It was a real charged crowd, shouting, shoving, and going wild. I froze, and for a few moments did not know what to do. After a few deep breaths, I weighed up my options. The first thought that entered my mind was to run towards the crowd and find a gap. That was easier said than done. The other alternative was to run along with them but that was also a difficult choice. The third option was to attempt to go further down on the bridge and gather strength to jump from the bridge and land on an ice-cream truck maybe 20 or 25 feet below. Dangerous, because I was no stunt actor and the fall could injure me or I may lose balance and fall from the truck onto the road.

I looked down from the bridge and saw 35-40 pilgrims lying on the road. Firefighters, police and other pilgrims around them. I had no idea that they were dead and instead thought that they had fainted due to the unbearable heat. There wasn't a moment to lose. I had to make an instant decision. Jump from the bridge. No choice. Miraculously, I saw enough space for me to edge sideways with my back to the perimeter wall. I moved on. The roar of the crowd and the speed of their rush were horrific. I was continuously reciting the Darood (an invocation that Muslims make by saying specific phrases to compliment the Holy Prophet Muhammad [PBUH]). Images of my mother, spouse and daughter worrying about me were on my mind. 

With full faith in Almighty Allah, I picked up speed and, keeping the sideways posture, I commenced my walk. The stampede just would not end. Suddenly, I saw a gap between others and me. I ran as fast as I could. In a few minutes, the unruly crowd had passed by me. I did not stop and kept on running till I reached the stairs and came down on the road. I glanced around and saw the bodies lying on the ground. I saw my hotel and dashed towards it. I entered the building and did not stop till I reached the room where my family was waiting for me. They were relieved to see me and I narrated what had happened.

The stampede scenario occurs every now and then during Haj at Mina. I would not blame the Saudi government because the authorities take steps to avoid any mishaps and tragedies. Today, the facilities are admirable and strategies are in place to deal with emergencies. The real issue is that the over two million pilgrims of different nationalities, sects, and attitude are not properly oriented in behavior, in customs, in etiquette, and in dealing with emergencies. It seems, ironically, that civility and consideration is missing most of the time among the pilgrims. 

The first reports on the Mina stampede 2015 disclose that some aged and infirm pilgrims fainted due to the excessive 44 degrees heat and people trampled over them. This triggered a rush and developed into a stampede. Rapid rescue efforts by over 4000 emergency workers and civil defence personnel and 220 ambulances controlled the situation. Meanwhile, other pilgrims went ahead to perform Rami and other prescribed prayers. Haj 2015 will always be remembered for the two tragedies. Come Haj 2016, another two million will be the fortunate ones arriving in Saudi Arabia to perform the fundamental obligations of being true Muslims. For sure, the facilities would improve and be more safe and tragedy-free. Hopefully, the pilgrims would have learnt lessons from the tragedies too. I did.

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