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Moment that mattered: A deadly stampede occurs at the hajj pilgrimage in Mecca

Muslim pilgrims and rescuers gather around the victims of a stampede in Mina, Saudi Arabia during the annual hajj pilgrimage on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. Hundreds were killed and injured, Saudi authorities said. The crush happened in Mina, a large valley about five kilometers (three miles) from the holy city of Mecca that has been the site of hajj stampedes in years past. (AP Photo)

“I knew something was wrong when I started seeing lots of people on their phones, looking very worried. I asked one or two people what was happening and they said that people had died a couple of kilometres behind us. I went on social media for more information and saw tweets saying that pilgrims had been killed in [the Mecca neighbourhood of] Mina. It was another hour before I understood it had been a stampede and many had died. [According to foreign governments, at least 1,849 people died; Saudi authorities have not updated their original toll of 769].

My daughter was in the affected area so I urgently tried to call her but couldn’t get through. It’s difficult to put into words what that experience was like. When I eventually got through and found out she was safe, I told her to stay where she was. There was a lot of chaos and confusion during this period, and there was a lack of clear information on what was happening from the authorities. I was getting lots of calls from home, from people asking me to help them find their fathers, brothers, mothers. I was there to help Scottish pilgrims so I tried calling the four travel agents that arrange hajj trips for Scottish Muslims. I got through to one or two of them and they said their pilgrims were OK. Social media was the main source of information – lots of pilgrims were on their phones, although getting reception was a constant challenge.

I had arrived in Mecca a week before the hajj, which is spread out over five days. The temperatures regularly got close to 50 degrees and pilgrims were physically exhausted by the time the hajj entered its third day, when the stampede occurred. By the start of that day people were already dehydrated and shattered, with blisters on their feet, and the previous night the pilgrims had slept outdoors on the ground at Muzdalifah [an area of Mecca]. The whole area is extremely crowded during hajj, with two and a half million people all trying to access the same place, and it’s shoulder to shoulder all the way. In Mina you can barely even see what’s under your feet, and if somebody falls they’ve got almost no chance of getting up.

“The temperatures regularly got close to 50 degrees and the pilgrims
were exhausted”

I heard lots of stories of how the incident may have happened. One story was that a group of people started walking in the opposite direction to the crowd and they simply collided; another story going round was that a group of Africans collided with another group [the head of the hajj central committee, Prince Khaled al-Faisal, blamed “some pilgrims with African nationalities”]. King Salman of Saudi Arabia has said there will be an investigation, which we need because people are anxiously waiting to find out how their loved ones died.

It’s wrong to rely entirely on Saudi Arabia to keep pilgrims safe. Countries sending pilgrims need to introduce compulsory training, like they have in Malaysia. Patience is key, but there are many other dos and don’ts to learn, as well as how to respond to a crisis situation. Foreign governments need to set up response units in Mecca; there was only one such unit in Mecca this year and its staff only spoke Arabic. There’s no doubt that the Saudis need better communications when there are emergencies: they need an army of multi-lingual volunteers, not just Arabic speakers, and they’ve got these big electronic billboards everywhere that they are not using efficiently. I’d also like to see travel agents take on more responsibility to look after pilgrims – the cheapest packages from the UK cost around £3,000 and rise to around £8,000. These agencies have the travellers’ details and phone numbers and should do more to provide support and communicate with their families at home when something happens.

We set up the Scottish Hajj and Umrah Trust in 2012 to produce a report on Scottish pilgrims and the challenges they face – in addition to health and safety, fraud is a big problem. One purpose of my visit to Mecca was to test a new wristband we developed, the iMbrace, which contains each pilgrim’s unique health and travel data, meaning doctors on the ground can access medical records and provide timely and appropriate treatment and advice. We’ve had backing from the Scottish government and we took Scottish NHS doctors with us. It’s a blueprint for other countries to follow.

Saudi Arabia has been harshly criticised in some quarters [including by the Iranian government] for its handling of the hajj, but I think some of that is unfair. They deserve some credit for managing an estimated two and a half million people year after year. They’ve brought in better systems and new processes, and people who went to hajj 20 years ago say it’s much easier today because you’ve got better access to things like clean water. But there’s clearly still a lot of work to be done. Especially when it comes to communications, there’s a long way to go.”

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