As Hajj Nears, Questions About 2015 Stampede Remain

As Hajj Nears, Questions About 2015 Stampede RemainAs Hajj Nears, Questions About 2015 Stampede Remain

Marching with thousands of other pilgrims at last year’s hajj in Saudi Arabia, 23-year-old Sobia Noor of Pakistan felt the crowd get tighter and the air grow thicker in the scorching heat. Suddenly, there was shouting and crying along the narrow street bordered by tall metal barriers.

She was holding hands tightly with her mother and aunt, but her grip was broken as a push of people struck her like a giant wave. She lost sight of her father. Thrown to the ground with others on top of her, she couldn’t breathe, AP reported.

The next thing she remembers was being sprinkled with water and pulled from the pile. Then she saw a scene that still haunts her: “There were heaps of bodies all around and some injured were crying for help,” she said.

The stampede and crush on Sept. 24, 2015, along Road 204 in Mina, a pilgrimage route on the outskirts of Mecca, killed thousands of people—a disaster that the kingdom has yet to fully acknowledge or explain.

More than 2 million Muslims are expected at this year’s hajj that begins on Saturday and Saudi authorities say they have done all they can to prepare for the five-day pilgrimage. They are reducing the density of crowds where the crush took place, widening narrow streets in Mina and introducing some high-tech measures.

But survivors and relatives of the dead, still angered by the tragedy and bewildered by what they perceive as a lack of an adequate response by the Saudi authorities, fear the plans won’t be enough to prevent another catastrophe.

Saudi Arabia’s official death toll from the crush is 769, a figure that has not been updated since Sept. 26.

But an Associated Press count, based on media reports and officials’ comments from 36 of the more than 180 countries that sent citizens to the hajj, found that at least 2,426 people had been killed.

According to Iranian hajj officials, nearly 4,700 pilgrims were crushed to death in Mina, of whom Iran suffered the highest death doll with 464.

Saudi authorities have yet to offer families of victims any financial compensation. No officials have been held accountable and no findings from their investigation have been issued.

Asked about the status of the Saudi inquiry, Saudi Interior Ministry Spokesman Mansour al-Turki told AP that a committee including engineers and security and health officials “is still working and didn’t release any statement yet”.

Initial statements by Saudi police said it appeared that two large crowds heading in opposite directions intersected on Road 204. Crowds in the back, unaware of the congestion ahead, kept pressing forward.

An Egyptian survivor said poorly trained Saudi troops refused to open one of the gates along Road 204 to help those who were suffocating. The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he lives in Saudi Arabia and feared repercussions, said the troops did not know what to do and appeared to be waiting for orders as the bodies piled up.