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Saudi Arabia: What Can Be Done To Prevent Tragedies At The Hajj?

In recent years, the annual Muslim pilgrimage, the hajj, has become synonymous with tragedy. Yesterday, a stampede killed more than 250 people. RFE/RL looks at this latest incident and asks whether it's possible for organizers to do more to prevent such incidents.

Prague, 2 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Tragedy has become an annual part of the hajj in Saudi Arabia.

Yesterday's news that 251 worshippers died in a stampede during the annual Muslim pilgrimage was the fifth time in eight years that the event has been overshadowed by major loss of life. Last year, 14 people were killed in a similar stampede. In 2001, 35 people lost their lives. In 1998, 118 pilgrims were trampled. Some 340 people were killed in a fire in the tent city of Mina, near Mecca, in 1997. And more than 1,400 pilgrims died in a stampede in 1990.

And just as predictably, perhaps, the Saudi government today announced new plans to make the hajj safer. A high-level commission has been created to modernize the holy cities of Medina and Mecca to better accommodate the large number of pilgrims who take part each year.

Devout Muslims are required to make the hajj at least once in their lives, if they can afford to do so. Some 2 million people, from all over the world, take part each year. It's a logistical nightmare for Saudi organizers to house, feed, and safeguard the pilgrims.

To limit the crowds, the Saudis in recent years have set up quotas for the number of pilgrims allowed into the kingdom from individual countries. Authorities, however, must still contend with thousands of people who make the pilgrimage illegally.

Mona Siddiqui is the director of the Center for the Study of Islam at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. She told RFE/RL that, given the sheer number of people participating, accidents -- while tragic -- are inevitable. "I think the Saudis have tried very hard, actually, to try and control the whole process and the different processes that make up the hajj," she said. "But one of the concerns I have is that unless they actually put some kind of restrictions on numbers that can make the hajj each year, we're not going to see the end of this kind of trampling."

As in previous years, the stampede occurred during the "stoning of the devil" ritual, which traditionally draws hundreds of thousands of pilgrims into a small valley not far from the holy city of Mecca. During the ritual, participants throw small stones at pillars representing Satan. Reports says yesterday's stampede began as the crowds pushed forward over a narrow bridge to get closer to the pillars.

Saudi Hajj Minister Iyad bin Amin Madani explained what happened: "[The stampede] lasted about 27 minutes. All the security and emergency apparatus was there, medical apparatus, was there to confront that incident, and one of the givens of the [stoning ritual] is the great density of people per square meter."

The "stoning of the devil" ritual marks the culmination of the hajj. According to tradition, the pillars stand where Satan first appeared to the Biblical patriarch Abraham (Ibrahim), his son Ismail, and Ismail's mother, Hagar (Hajira). Abraham and his family are said to have thrown seven stones at the devil to drive him away.

Following the 2001 stampede, the Saudi authorities set up a system of closed-circuit television sets to monitor key points of the hajj. They also beefed up security patrols and emergency services. Around 10,000 guards were positioned yesterday in the area of the stoning ritual.

Hajj security chief Ali al-Shoaby said extra national-guard patrols were brought on after yesterday's tragedy. "Due to the event that happened, we had to employ about 2,000 more people from the national guard to actually support our mission in controlling the people who were trying to force their way inside the bridge while we were trying to evacuate those injured and dead," he said.

Siddiqui says this is all to the good, but she says part of the danger is simply the nature of religious pilgrimages, where participants lose themselves in their passion to observe the rituals. "It's the natural zeal of people coming through -- and almost the selfish zeal of people to get through the whole process and to be the first one and to be there at the top, and to make sure that you've performed every possible ritual that you think is part of the hajj," she said. "And that creates that environment of, 'I'm doing it out of piety. I'm doing it out of devotion. But I'm completely oblivious to the fact that I'm part of a large crowd.'"

But she encouraged Muslims to attend the hajj despite concerns they may have over their physical safety. "The hajj is something you should try and do at least once in your lifetime," she said. "And despite it being a very big financial and emotional burden for a lot of people, it's still much easier to do now than it was centuries ago."
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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.