Hajj stampede: The challenge of keeping pilgrims safe when massive crowds are on the move

Crowd control and health issues are paramount for the annual hajj pilgrimage. This year's tragedy suggests that despite recent improvements there are still massive issues to contend with.

'There were people everywhere, you couldn’t walk anywhere without bumping into someone,' says pilgrim

A Muslim pilgrim prays on Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat during the annual hajj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca Wednesday. (Ahmad Masood/Reuters)

A massive new bridge, air-conditioned tent cities and a new train system have all been put in place in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in recent years. The upgrades are an attempt to help millions of Muslim pilgrims safely pass through the holy city for hajj every year.

But despite the government's efforts, at least 719 pilgrims died and another 863 were injured in a stampede this year. Similar tragedies have happened over the past 20 years.

"Close to three million people perform hajj over about 10 days. And they show up in a town the size of Ottawa," said Daniel Haufschild, the head of urban mobility for MMM Group, which has been working to help the Saudi Arabian government with the logistical challenges brought on by the hajj.

"The flow of people is like nothing else in the world."

The experience is so overwhelming that Mohsin, a Muslim from Markham, Ont., who made the pilgrimage in 2013, said it's difficult to put into words. 

"There were people everywhere — there were people who had sleeping bags on the roads. You couldn't even walk anywhere without bumping into someone," said Mohsin, who asked that we not use his last name.

Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs said it is unaware how many Canadians made the pilgrimage this year as it is voluntary for travellers to provide that information.

Improved infrastructure

Saudi officials have amped up safety measures over the past few years, and the cities of Mecca, Mina and Medina are blocked off from the rest of the country during hajj for pilgrims.

Keith Still, an expert in crowd control behaviour at Manchester Metropolitan University who has worked as a special adviser for the hajj, said the Saudi government has put in a lot of effort to improve the area and to keep pilgrims safe, including improving transit and camp conditions.

Ambulances in Mecca transport the injured after people were crushed by overcrowding in Mina, Saudi Arabia, during the annual hajj pilgrimage on Thursday. (Saudi Press Agency/Associated Press)
"But what you need to understand is that there are three million people in transit at any one time, the pressure can build up very quickly at key spaces," he said.

One area in Mina where a symbolic stoning takes place — a key part of the pilgrimage — has been significantly expanded in recent years.

Mohsin had been concerned after hearing about past crowding in that area. But he said it went smoothly for himself and his mother, who went with him.

"Because they had made these changes to the structure, we were very easily able to go and perform the ritual and be on our way," he said.

Haufschild said another one of the recent expansions is to the Jamarat bridge, which is one of the largest pedestrian bridges in the world. Haufschild said they try to channel people as best they can, but it's extremely difficult with such large numbers.

Massive crowds

Still said it seems the stampede was caused by overcrowding on one street which has been prone to crowding problems in the past.

"They're in a very confined space and they have a very specific set of rituals to do through complex structures … it sounds as if we've got a two-way flow and that's just effectively about the clot in the system where the pressure has built up from both sides," he said, likening the situation to a blood clot.

Millions of Muslim pilgrims cross a massive pedestrian bridge in Mina on the outskirts of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to cast stones at pillars symbolizing the stoning of Satan. The ritual is the last rite of the annual hajj during Eid al-Adha. (Saudi Press Agency/Associated Press)
 Mohsin said that even though it was very crowded, he said he wasn't overly concerned about stampedes.

"It was something that was at the back of your mind. But there's not much you really can do at that point," he said.

He said when he was there, new trains helped people move about more efficiently, but the train platforms were still incredibly crowded.

"If you fell down it would be hard to get up. If there was a medical emergency I don't know how someone would be helped," he said.

With so many people crowded together, Mohsin said crime was a problem.

"Being pickpocketed there is a huge concern, it happens a lot," said Mohsin.

His tour company told them not to carry much cash and to always stay in groups.

Language barriers

Still said another massive challenge is that there are millions of people speaking up to 170 different languages.

"Communicating in those languages is an enormous task and it comes down to having adequate design, careful information systems, and understanding how crowds behave," he said.

A view of the camp city at Mina. It's a huge logistical challenge to provide water, food and housing for millions of people who descend on Mecca, which is about the same size as Ottawa. (Ahmad Masood/Reuters)
He said the language barriers can exacerbate overcrowding issues.

Health concerns

Mohsin said his travel agency also warned about airborne diseases, and members of his tour group were given face masks.

"Because there's so many people in such close proximity, for a contagious virus to spread — this is like the worst scenario," he said.

Heat is another huge factor pilgrims must contend with — temperatures soared above 40 C today.

Many people were overwhelmed by the heat, especially since most walk about 50 kilometres throughout their pilgrimage. Many pilgrims are also elderly people who have waited their whole lives to attend.

Mohsin said these problems won't deter Muslims from carrying out their pilgrimages.

"If you practice your faith and you believe that this is an integral part of it, which most Muslims do, then you're not going to let something like this stop you."


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