Hajj-2015 operation in Saudi Arabia was completed in which 2 million pilgrims performed their hajj in holy city of Makkah. This year’s hajj was hit by 2 major accidents costing around 1000 lives which started a debate around the world mainly criticizing the Saudi government for poor arrangements, lack of planning, lack of safety and claiming these reasons to be the cause of accidents.
Without going into the details of who is responsible and who is not I would like to share my experience as a member of crowd management team at different Metro Stations in Makkah during the hajj period.
The Al Mashaaer Al Muqaddassah Metro Line (MMMP), which is part of the Makkah (Mecca) Metro, is 18.1km line constructed to connect the holy places of Makkah, Arafat, Muzdalifa and Mina. The line was opened in November 2010 and became fully operational in November 2011. The metro could carry 72,000 passengers in each direction per hour. Mina-3 is the last station on the metro line and is located towards the west of the Jamarat Bridge. The metro line is linked to all the four floors of the Jamarat Bridge with elevators.
This $2-3 bn Makkah Metro is especially constructed for the pilgrims only and it’s operational for only 7 days in a year during hajj days, rest of the year it’s not operational.
Reason to add so much details of Metro is to open the eyes of the people criticizing Saudi Government for the facilities and planning. And this metro is only a minor part of the Hajj Operation. The whole vicinity of the Hajj (Mina, Muzdalifah and Arafat) with all its facilities is operational during the hajj period only rest of the year it remains shut down; only the maintenance people can be seen in this fully fenced area. Similarly Kingdom of Saudi Arabia spends billions of riyals and man-hours planning and improving the various pilgrimage areas.
Coming back to the crowd management issues, the Kingdom provides all kind of facilities and does its best to make the Hajj safe and secure but all this planning is undermined when the pilgrims abstain from following the instructions of the hosting authorities. In fact, by not following the instructions, the pilgrims themselves are putting their own and the lives of others at severe risk.
In reality the Hajj is all about patience but while performing the Hajj rituals most of the pilgrims impatiently attempting to get over with all the rituals as fast as they can. Impatience, anger and callous behavior of certain Pilgrims instigates the remaining crowd and unnecessary shouting, hustling and callous behavior by a few endangers the lives of thousands at any given instance during this collective act of worship.
A simple example is the boarding of the inter-Makkah train service. Makkah Metro has to transport around 0.5 million pilgrims from Arafat to Muzdalifah in a matter of just 5 to 6 hrs between Maghrib till midnight. A small accident can cause hours delay and thousands of the pilgrims could have been left stranded in Arafat because of the accident. To avoid such accidents a team of trained crowd management staff is deployed on the station to control the flow of crowd towards the entry points of Metro which are automatic and centrally controlled. When the train is fully occupied, the staff will stop the pilgrims and ensure the pilgrims waiting are away from the doors. But the pilgrims are naturally in a hurry to board the train always, thereby ignoring the instructions and sometimes force themselves to board the train through those doors which are about to close. At many occasions one member of the family managed to board the train and the other was left behind at the station in the process of forcefully boarding the train. Similarly sometimes the pilgrims got stuck in the doors in process of sneaking into the train after the door closing signal from staff and the staff opened the doors by force which caused maintenance problems and delays.
The other point that most of the analysts and columnists missed, is the speed of restoring the normalcy after the tragedy. A major accident that costed more than 700 lives could have taken days to restore the hajj process but hats off to the hajj authorities that such a major accident also didn’t stop the hajj process for long time within an hour the hajj process was started again everything got back to normal and all the pilgrims completed their hajj rituals without any delay in the process.
Same is the case of Crane accident; there also al the debris and crane itself had been removed with in few hours from the site of accident and the people who visited Haram the next day could not even find any traces of the accident.
Although I was not present at the spot of accident but from the eye witness accounts and reports it’s easy to conclude that the stampede at Mina happened primarily due to not following the instructions and choosing the wrong path by almost a 400 strong group of people. Saudi authorities try their best to send staff and volunteers to every spot where the chances of accidents are high with the instructions to respect the pilgrims and not use slightest hint of force on them but it’s very difficult for the hajj authorities to keep staff or volunteers at every inch having weapons in their hands to stop the pilgrims from doing the things that can cause accidents.
So, it’s not the issue of planning and lack of facilities it’s the issue of following the instructions provided to the pilgrims. Prior to dispatch of pilgrims, the concerned authorities should train the pilgrims on the ways to conduct themselves with patience, discipline and respect for other pilgrims as well as the hosts of the Hajj premises in order to avoid such tragic events in future.