Survivor tells his story of one of deadliest crushes at hajj
Last year hundreds, if not thousands, of pilgrims were killed at Mecca in Saudi Arabia
Muslim pilgrims circle the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Millions of pilgrims have arrived to Mecca ahead of the annual pilgrimage which begins on Saturday. Photograph: Nariman El-Mofty/AP
An aerial picture shows the area where Muslim pilgrims throw pebbles at pillars during the Jamarat ritual, the symbolic stoning of Satan, in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca. Photograph: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images
Rashid Siddiqui at his home in Marietta, just outside Atlanta, Georgia. He almost lost his life on September 24th, 2015 when hundreds, maybe thousands, of pilgrims were crushed to death at the hajj in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Photograph: Melissa Golden/The New York Times
Muslim pilgrims walk in the streets of Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca on Tuesday. Photograph: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images
“I’m dying. I’m dying. I need water.” Rashid Siddiqui kept hearing those words from his fellow Muslim pilgrims lying mangled on the ground in 118-degree heat, under a searing Saudi sun. Barefoot, topless and dazed, Siddiqui had somehow escaped being crushed by the surging crowd.
It was September 24th, 2015, the third morning of the hajj, the annual five-day pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia by millions of Muslims from around the world. By some estimates, it was the deadliest day in hajj history and one of the worst accidents in the world in decades.
An American from Atlanta, Siddiqui (42), had been walking through a sprawling valley of tens of thousands of pilgrim tents. His destination: Jamarat Bridge, where pilgrims throw pebbles at three large pillars in a ritual symbolising the stoning of the devil.
He was less than a mile from the bridge when the crush began. Hundreds, and probably thousands, died. But nearly a year later, the Saudi authorities have yet to explain exactly how the disaster happened. Nor have they provided what is widely considered an accurate death toll. Many of the victims came from Iran, Saudi Arabia’s bitter rival, creating a new source of acrimony between the countries that led Iran’s government to bar its citizens from the hajj this year.
Deadly crowd crushes once frequently marred the hajj, especially around the Jamarat Bridge. The Saudis sought to prevent such calamities by expanding the bridge after more than 360 people died near it in 2006. After the expansion, there were no major episodes – until last year.
A count by the Associated Press, derived from official and state news reports of the dead from 36 countries with pilgrims in Mecca, found that at least 2,400 people had died. The Saudi authorities, however, still give an official death toll of 769.
Despite years of accusations of mismanagement, the Saudi royal family has repeatedly insisted on its right to supervise the hajj.
All Muslims who are physically and financially able to complete the hajj are obliged to do so at least once in their lives. Under Saudi Arabia’s ruling royal family, which regards the king as the custodian of Islam’s holiest sites, the number of pilgrims coming from outside the country has grown more than tenfold since the second World War.
In recent years, two million to three million people have attended the annual hajj. The Saudis have poured tens of billions of dollars into expanding pilgrimage accommodations that often cater to the wealthy, who can pay upward of $2,700 (€2,400) a night for choice hotel rooms overlooking the Kaaba, the black cube that is considered to be the House of God, at the centre of Islam’s holiest mosque in Mecca.
But even the wealthiest pilgrims spend part of the pilgrimage in an enormous tent city, known as Mina, where Muslims are grouped according to the part of the world they come from.
Siddiqui awoke before dawn inside a brightly lit tent. He had stayed up late, chatting and drinking tea with friends, then slept on a floor mattress beside dozens of other pilgrims separated by canvas partitions. Despite the hour, Siddiqui said, he felt fresh and strong. Two weeks earlier, he had been working as a building information manager in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, but he quit and decided at the last minute to make his first hajj.
He was surprised to find the pilgrimage relaxing – almost like a vacation, he said – not the gruelling trek that some hajj veterans had warned him to expect. Dressed in sandals and his ihram, the men’s hajj clothing of two white, cloth wraps, Siddiqui washed, prayed and ate breakfast from the tent’s buffet with his companions, relishing the communal experience.
He hung his official identification card around his neck and placed valuables in his belt pack – a wallet, a local cellphone and a smartphone to call his wife, Farah, who was at home with their two children in Atlanta. At about 6.30, Siddiqui exited his tent, ready to follow the footsteps taken by the Prophet Muhammad more than a millennium ago. Walking with a group that included his brother-in-law, his brother-in-law’s wife and a few friends, Siddiqui stopped often to take photographs he would post on Facebook.
He was awed by the diversity of the crowd, with people of varying skin colours from all over the world, carrying the flags of their countries. In what seemed like a hiccup, they were stopped by guards who had closed their intended route, for reasons yet to be made clear. Looking around, Siddiqui said, they saw a lot of people taking an alternate route via an overpass, and they decided to follow.
Siddiqui video-called his wife to share the excitement. It was past midnight in Atlanta, and she had just finished preparing for Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice, celebrated to signify the end of the hajj. Watching the hajj over the phone, Farah Siddiqui said, she was blinded by what she saw – a sunlit sea of people in white. Rashid Siddiqui then caught up to his brother-in-law and turned the camera on him. His wife’s brother seemed intent on his destination, Farah Siddiqui said, and stopped just long enough to greet her with a salute. Her sister-in-law also smiled and waved.
It would be the last time she would see or speak with her brother and his wife.
Their path began to narrow. Rashid Siddiqui fell in behind his companions as they shifted to single file, hands on one another’s shoulders. He felt pressure from the crowd building as more people poured in. Up ahead, Siddiqui noticed pilgrims scrambling up tall fences on both sides of the road, apparently attempting to escape something. He had a moment to wonder whether he should do the same.
He never had the chance. Siddiqui was pushed, fell two or three times and lost the rest of his group. People around him were chanting final prayers to God. The crush felt like being caught in a wave. Bodies pressed in on him from every direction. He could move only as the crowd moved. There was not an inch of space left. The push and pull of the crush stripped the clothing off many pilgrims, leaving them naked as they struggled to climb the fences. “I was really scared at that time,” Siddiqui said. All he could think about was his family.
The crush has been described as a stampede, but most victims in such crowd disasters are actually crushed, not trampled, by pressures that are strong enough to bend steel fences. In a crush, the flow of the crowd slips beyond the control of the individuals in it. Waves of pressure ripple through, lifting people off the ground, sometimes carrying them more than 10 feet.
The main cause of death in a crowd crush is asphyxiation. People can be squeezed so tightly that they suffocate standing in place. Miraculously, perhaps 15 minutes after it began, Siddiqui found himself pushed backward and out of the crush. He had lost his sandals, the top of his ihram and his identification card, but he was not injured. Pilgrims in nearby tents were throwing water bottles into the crowd. Survivors scrambled for them, drinking the water and pouring it over themselves. Someone turned on a hose. Streams of water flowed down the street.
Siddiqui was dehydrated and dazed, with others dying in front of him. “I don’t know how I survived,” he said. For two hours, Siddiqui watched the police move slowly toward him. They were helping the seriously hurt, leaving other survivors and the dead behind. When an officer finally reached Siddiqui, he was told to continue the pilgrimage.
Siddiqui cried as he struggled, climbing over the bodies of the dead, to move a few hundred feet closer to the Jamarat Bridge. He had lost his sense of direction, and the soles of his feet burned on the pavement. “I was walking like a dead man,” he said. When he finally reached the bridge, a woman handed him stones to throw and an umbrella for shade. Maybe she had taken pity on him because he was half dressed and dirty, but they did not exchange any words. She just seemed to know that he was in need. He could not even muster a thank you.
Siddiqui completed the Jamarat ritual, but does not remember how many stones he threw.
By the time he got back to his tent, he knew that his in-laws were missing. He had called them repeatedly but got no answer. They did not show up at the tent that night. For the next four days, in between completing the final rituals of the hajj, Siddiqui walked for hours in the heat to hospitals and clinics. There was no information. The Saudi authorities did not provide a centralised place to assist people searching for loved ones, Siddiqui contended, so he checked each facility every day.
He walked 90 minutes to a morgue, but guards refused to let anyone in. Siddiqui cancelled his flight home to Atlanta and, with his sister-in-law’s family, continued searching after the hajj ended. Every day, they repeated the same routine and found nothing. In all, Siddiqui said, about 20 members of his family became involved in the search. They followed every lead, often finding only rumours and misinformation.
Major General Mansour al-Turki, a spokesman for the Saudi interior ministry, said after the crush that it appeared to have been caused by two large groups of pilgrims converging onto Street 204. Iran, which had the most deaths, blamed what it has described as Saudi mismanagement and criminal negligence. The victims were “murdered” by the Saudis, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said.
The authorities in Indonesia, which sends more pilgrims to the hajj than any other country and lost nearly 130 citizens in the disaster, also expressed frustration with the Saudi response, saying they were not given full access to victims and hospitals for days.
Pakistan, a close ally of Saudi Arabia and large recipient of Saudi aid, has played down the Pakistani death toll and warned the local news media to avoid criticising hajj management. The Muslim Public Affairs Council, a US policy advocacy group, released a statement calling for an independent investigation, and transparency from Saudi Arabia. The group also suggested that the Saudi authorities relinquish management of the hajj to international control, an idea the Saudis have rejected.
In June, the Saudis announced that electronic bracelets would be given to pilgrims this year to ease identification. The Saudi hajj ministry has also imposed new restrictions on when pilgrims can perform the stoning at Jamarat Bridge. But despite promising to conduct an investigation, the ministry has not disclosed any findings related to the crush.
Exhausted and eager to reunite with his wife and children, Siddiqui returned to Riyadh about 10 days after the crush. A few days later, he flew back to Atlanta while other relatives searched on. Fifteen days after the crush, Siddiqui’s brother-in-law was confirmed dead at a morgue in Mina by his younger brother. He was buried in Mina a half an hour later.
After another two weeks, his brother-in-law’s wife was confirmed dead based on photographic evidence of her remains. By that time, she had been buried by the Saudi authorities. The couple left behind two young children, who now live with their extended family in India.
Since the crush, Siddiqui has questioned every action he took that changed his life. When he returned to Atlanta, he researched what had happened, mapping out the routes he took and writing about his experience. Eventually, he said, he stopped looking for answers.
“I was there,” he said of the crush, but “I cannot tell you exactly the cause.”
New York Times