Hujjaj deaths due to Saudi incompetence

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Dhu al-Hijjah 17, 1436 2015-10-01

Main Stories

by Zafar Bangash (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 44, No. 8, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1436)

The Bani Saud have once again shown they are totally incompetent and callous. The horrific deaths of 4,173 pilgrims in Mina on September 24 is proof of their crimes. They should be put on trial for crimes against humanity.

The Saudi regime has become synonymous with death and destruction, especially for the hujjaj (pilgrims). Those planning to go for Hajj or Umrah often go mentally prepared for some disaster to strike. While such awareness is part of a Muslim’s belief, this year the traditionally incompetent and callous Saudis surpassed their own pathetic record. It was reflected in the horrific death of some 4,000 pilgrims in Mina on September 24.

This is by far the worst disaster to strike the hujjaj in living memory. While the Saudi regime and its apologists have admitted to more than 770 deaths, the real death toll is 4,173, according to Hamad bin Muhammad al-Duweili, Deputy Health Minister of Saudi Arabia, as reported on September 29 although the Saudi regime quickly denied the figure.

The aftermath of the disaster has been marred by equally callous behaviour of the Saudis.

When the news first emerged, the Saudi regime mentioned a figure of 310 deaths, not 300 or 350. Perhaps the 310 figure was meant to lend authenticity to their claim. Informed observers were convinced this figure would soon be surpassed but nobody had imagined it would reach 4,000, much less exceed it.

Eyewitnesses have narrated the sequence of events. The disaster occurred at 9 am local time. Pilgrims traditionally try to complete the first day of stoning ritual as early as possible to be able to shower and change from the ihram (two pieces of unstitched cloth) that they don for the three days of Hajj, into regular clothes. During the three days in ihram, they cannot shower or change clothes. They set out from Mina to Arafat and spend the day there in supplications and ibadat. Before offering Maghrib salat, they begin the short journey to Muzdalifah to offer Maghrib and Isha salat together and then spend the night there under the open sky. The pilgrims also collect pebbles for the next three days of stoning the devils in Mina. Immediately after Fajr salat, they head back to Mina for the first of the three-days of stoning of the Shayateen (devils).

Rush on the first day of stoning the biggest Shaytan is heaviest because every pilgrim is heading for the same ritual. This is also the day that disasters frequently occur. Saudi Health Minister Khaled al-Falih blamed the pilgrims for the tragedy. “If the pilgrims had followed instructions, this type of accident could have been avoided,” he said, without explaining what those instructions were apart from blocking their passage.

What happened and why has been pieced together from eyewitness accounts. They reported that two streets leading to the stoning site were blocked off. Saudi policemen closed all the gates except one leading to the stoning site creating a bottleneck. Further, the policemen held their arms creating a human chain further restricting the area for pilgrims to move in the scorching heat (it was 46 degrees centigrade in Mina!). Also, pilgrims were directed into small alleys through which other pilgrims, also directed by Saudi policemen, were coming to the stoning site.

Muhammad bin Salman has become a symbol of disaster for the Saudis as well as pilgrims.

The Saudi regime and the police have not explained why the other gates were closed. There have been reports (in the Lebanese daily Al-Diyar, for instance, as well as from Nigerian pilgrims) that Saudi deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s presence in Mina caused the tragedy. He was travelling with a security detail of some 350 personnel. A video has also emerged of his presence there just prior to the stampede. Whenever a Saudi ‘royal’ appears anywhere, the surrounding streets are immediately blocked off. The policemen do not give any reason why they are blocking the streets nor do they bother to inform pilgrims further back not to keep moving toward the bottleneck. Pilgrims remain in the dark about what is happening.

While the Saudi regime called the story of blocking streets for ibn Salman as “inaccurate”, it did not deny his presence in Mina. Further, it is customary for the king to receive ‘dignitaries’ in Mina [Hajj is supposed to obliterate all distinctions of class or status yet the Bani Saud reinforce it by their antics]. Whenever any ‘dignitaries’ are moved through Mina, traffic is blocked for them. This naturally causes problems for pilgrims because they cannot move to their intended destination.

Muhammad bin Salman has become a symbol of disaster for the Saudis as well as pilgrims. It is under his command as defence minister that the Saudi regime has continued its murderous assault on Yemen even in the sacred months—Dhul Qa‘adah and Dhul Hijjah and the attacks are likely to continue in Muharram. Even the mushriks of Makkah of the Prophet’s (saws) time had more regard for the sacred months but not the uncouth Bedouins from Najd.

This year’s Hajj has been an unmitigated disaster from the beginning. It started with the crane disaster in al-Masjid al-Haram, the most sacred site in Islam, on September 11 when a huge construction crane collapsed killing 115 people and injuring 398 others. This was followed on September 17 by a fire in a 1,500-room hotel in Aziziya where mercifully no pilgrims died but several suffered burns and other injuries. This was followed by the largest disaster in living memory of Hajj pilgrims: more than 4,000 pilgrims dead and hundreds injured. Several hundred, perhaps a thousand are still missing and unaccounted for including hundreds of Iranian diplomats. The Saudis have refused to provide any information about them leading Dr Ali Akbar Velayati, advisor on foreign affairs to the Rahbar, Imam Seyyed Ali Khamenei, to call the Mina deaths “suspicious.”

For several years now, the Saudi regime has embarked on a furious construction binge in the name of “providing better facilities” for hujjaj. What they mean by better services in unclear but if the disasters are anything go by, the hujjaj would be better off without such “services”.

The Masjid al Haram in Makkah resembles a huge construction site these days. It will remain this way for the foreseeable future under the Najdi Bedouins that have embarked on a 30-year construction spree (more like demolition derby) that will allow nothing to stand in its way: mountains or historical sites dating back to the early days of Islam are being dynamited or bulldozed. The Najdi Bedouins consider nothing sacred except their own primitive artefacts.

There are giant cranes everywhere, their long arms hanging over the Haram courtyard like the scaffolding of a hangman’s noose. And it was one of these cranes that brought death to more than 100 pilgrims inside the Haram on September 11. The crane tipped over and collapsed inside the Haram crushing the pilgrims to death. The most sacred space on earth was splattered with blood, an act of supreme sacrilege.

The regime’s official explanation was that there were strong winds and the contractor, the Bin Laden Group (does that ring a bell?) did not adhere to proper operating procedures. Who is responsible for their supervision? The regime has ordered members of the group not to leave the kingdom until an inquiry is completed. Its other projects have also been suspended.

The regime has said one million riyals ($270,000) compensation would be paid to each dead victim’s family and half that amount to the injured. Is that enough compensation; more importantly, could these deaths have been avoided? The Saudi regime would say, as they have done in the past over such tragedies, it is God’s Will. But what about those that make decisions about the kind of work that has been undertaken and the giant cranes that assault the spiritual ambience of the Haram?

The decision to expand the Haram was made in 2008. It is a $200 billion project that would span 30 years. Yet even such lavish outlays would not alleviate the problem of pilgrim congestion because the entire approach is flawed. Even non-Muslim architects working on the project have pointed this out without visiting Makkah or Madinah.

Anyone with even limited understanding of crowd management would point out that the first requirement is to have open space for people to be able to move. Building huge structures, as the Saudis have done all around the Haram and in Mina, only add to the problem. The steel, concrete and glass structures being built around the Haram consist of five- or even seven-star hotels, huge shopping plazas where western gadgets, jewellery, fast food and other junk items are sold. These structures are owned by members of the ruling family.

They did not purchase the land from the original owners; they simply confiscated it. Further, these structures are not being built with their money. The ever-obliging court ulama have issued fatwas—what else is new—that they can take money from the Bait al Maal because they are providing services to the pilgrims! This is grand larceny compounded by the fact that rich pilgrims are gouged by attracting them to stay in these over-priced hotels. The idea being promoted is not to have a spiritual experience but to indulge in the worst kind of materialism and showmanship. The purpose of Hajj is to shun materialism and obliterate class differences but the Saudis are pushing Muslims in the opposite direction.

The theft of land and resources is one dimension of the problem. More serious is the fact that historical monuments are or have been wiped out. This is a loss that can never be recovered.

The house of the Prophet’s beloved wife Khadijah (ra) in Makkah has been razed and replaced with public toilets. How can the Najdi Bedouins get away with such disrespect and why do the Muslims remain silent? Dar al Arqam at the foot of Mount Safa, where the Prophet (saws) taught his companions for 12 years, has been treated with a little less indignity; it has been levelled and replaced with the Hilton Hotel. Nearly 95 per cent of Makkah’s 1,000-year-old buildings have been destroyed during the past 20 years, according to the Gulf Institute in Washington DC.

The Najdi Bedouins’ vandalism destroying Islamic heritage sites is unparalleled. Unfortunately most Muslims have paid scant attention to such destruction. The vast majority have remained ignorant of this fact as well as their significance. Those Muslims that have some awareness have either been silenced by buying them off or the more vocal ones have been marginalized. Inside the Arabian Peninsula, they are thrown in jail; outside, the Najdi Bedouins pay huge sums to buy media outlets or their loyalty so that they would not raise such issues.

Facts, however, are stubborn things. Such information is seeping out. The Independent of London has been particularly good about it. There are also occasional articles in other newspapers such as the New York Times. This needs to be highlighted more frequently in order to mobilize global opinion against such destructive practices. Once destroyed, Islamic heritage sites cannot be replaced.

Muslims that have had an opportunity to perform Hajj—and it is becoming increasingly difficult because of over-pricing as well as the Saudis’ imposition of a quota system completely contrary to the teachings of the Qur’an—have experienced other problems. Deaths of pilgrims have become a common occurrence. Last month’s deaths in Haram when the crane collapsed as well as the deaths in Mina were not the first and will not be the last.

The Najdi Bedouins’ incompetence is compounded by their callousness and absolute bloody-mindedness. The Qur’an categorically states that there should be no lewd speech, wicked conduct or quarrelling during pilgrimage (2:197) yet the Najdi Bedouins have slaughtered hundreds of pilgrims in Makkah during Hajj. On Jul 31, 1987, more than 400 Iranian hujjaj many of them women, were mercilessly gunned down or trampled to death when Saudi soldiers opened fire on them. What was the pilgrims’ crime to deserve such fate? They were participating in the Bara’at min al-mushrikeen march as commanded by Allah in the noble Qur’an (9:03).

There have been other horrific events. On January 12, 2006, 346 pilgrims were killed at the foot of the Jamarat Bridge when they came to perform the stoning of the Shaytan rites. More than 1,000 others were injured. The stampede occurred only a few days after 76 hujjaj were killed when the building they were staying in collapsed. Such stampedes are common as evidenced by the fact that two years earlier, another 250 pilgrims were crushed to death. And in February 2011, 145 pilgrims, most of them Pakistani women, were crushed to death at the same site for stone throwing rites.

The September 24 deaths have surpassed all these disasters with its death toll of 4,173 and counting. In 1990, there was a similar disaster in a tunnel between Makkah and Mina. More than 1400 pilgrims suffocated inside when the Saudi policemen blocked the exit from the tunnel because some prince and his entourage were passing by. In the 25-year period, it seems nothing has changed.

As part of their explanation about the Mina disaster, the Saudi regime also indulged in racism. Yes, the Najdi Bedouins are quite racist. They accused the African pilgrims of not following “instructions”. The regime’s spokesmen have not explained what instructions were issued and how they failed to abide by them. Eyewitnesses have said they were forced into narrow congested alleys. There was movement in both directions. Surely, the pilgrims did not choose to go into those alleys to be suffocated; they were ordered to go in there. Again, the regime has not explained why the gates were closed and why pilgrims were forced into the alleys.

Eyewitness accounts lend credence to reports of the arrival of Muhammad bin Salman in Mina. This would account for the gates’ closure and indeed closure of several nearby streets so that ‘his royal highness’ could pass without hindrance. This is typical of Saudi behaviour.

Even when the disaster struck, it took more than two hours for rescue teams to arrive. The few Saudi policemen with protruding bellies just stood there, looking at the carnage without lifting a finger to help the injured. Other pilgrims helped those that were injured and gave them water to drink.

There was only a small contingent of rescue workers that came and instead of helping the injured to save their lives, they started picking up the dead bodies. This reflects their complete lack of management and rescue skills. The standard operating procedure after any accident, such as a road accident, is to tend to the injured and leave the dead alone. The dead cannot be helped but if the injured do not get timely help, they may also die. This is precisely what happened in Mina: the Saudi rescue teams busied themselves with picking up bodies of the dead.

The aftermath of the disaster has been marred by equally callous behaviour of the Saudis. Dead bodies were dumped into trucks as if they were garbage. Little effort was made to ensure proper name tags on bodies for easy identification later. Egyptian pilgrims have confirmed that the Saudi policemen insultingly demanded of them to go and identify some bodies to determine whether they were Egyptians.

People looking for loved ones or friends were provided little help. The regime set up a telephone helpline but those that called have reported that it was a waste of time. They got little or no information. Pilgrims made the rounds of hospitals and the morgue outside Mina in search of loved one but were given no information. Even Muslim countries’ consular officials found the Saudis quite unhelpful.

As a consequence of the latest disaster to strike the pilgrims, there are renewed calls for taking the management of Hajj affairs from the hands of the Saudi regime. These should be administered by a committee of competent ulama from different Muslim countries, as suggested by Hizbullah Secretary General Shaykh Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah. The Rahbar, Imam Seyyed Ali Khamenei of Iran declared three days of mourning and said the Saudi regime must accept full responsibility for the latest disaster. He also demanded that the Saudi regime should offer an apology for its failure to protect the pilgrims.

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