By Rafia Zakaria
October 14th, 2015
THE death toll of pilgrims killed in Mina during Eidul Azha has apparently almost doubled. According to the Associated Press, nearly 1,400 people are now believed to have died in the stampede that took place on the path known as Street 204. This number is significantly larger than the official figures reported by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which puts the total number of deaths at 769.
In terms of nationality, the highest number of deaths has come from Iran, which lost over 460 pilgrims. The second highest are from Egypt, at 148 casualties with over 100 still missing. Other countries that have also suffered significant losses include Indonesia at 120 and Nigeria whose Haj Commission reported 145 dead and 165 still missing. The current official death count for Pakistani pilgrims is at 76 but scores of families have been reaching out via social media regarding their still missing loved ones.
The aftermath of the Mina stampede has been messy for everyone, from government ministries trying to get information about the pilgrims they put on Haj flights a month ago to victims’ families trying to coordinate recovery efforts on their own. Just how difficult is the task of locating loved ones, dead or alive, was illustrated by the story of Zafar Tahir, published in this newspaper a few days ago.
The sort of meticulous investigation that is required to prevent another stampede simply does not seem to be taking place.
From being refused entrance to mortuaries to having to undertake the near-impossible task of matching serial numbers to cellophane-wrapped belongings that have been found at the scene, an overwhelming panoply of further trials seems to await those who want to find answers about parents, brothers and sisters who never returned from this year’s Haj.
It is perhaps fortunate for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that most Muslim pilgrims come from economically deprived countries. In today’s global parlance, this means two things. First, they (and the governments that represent them) have little international leverage to demand adequate safety plans, better facilities and some accountability.
Second, the already dismal disaster relief record of their own meagre contexts makes them largely unable to judge just how poorly Saudi authorities have dealt with this tragedy. After all, the lack of accountability, poor investigation, the absence of disaster preparedness and a callous disregard for the abject plight of those who are mourning loved ones are problems they are familiar with, being as they are the universal lot of the poor and deprived.
With these grim facts testifying to the powerlessness of the pilgrims, it is no surprise that the kingdom sounds largely unapologetic. Speaking to the Associated Press late last week, Prince Turki al-Faisal, a senior member of the royal family, rejected the idea of “sharing the administration of the Haj pilgrimage” with other Muslim nations because, he said, it is a “matter of sovereignty” and a “privilege” to host the annual event.
While the powerless Muslim pilgrim may be unable to argue against the Saudis, it is worth questioning why the prince thinks that the privilege should only be available to one single country, one that, going by at least this year’s tragedy, seems ill-equipped to manage the yearly event.
The sovereignty argument is even more debatable; when the pilgrimage took place during the era of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and was declared a duty on all Muslims, there were no national borders, not even nation-states. Pilgrimages to Makkah in bygone days were journeys of spiritual transformation, where there was no need to worry about visa lotteries, identification papers and lengths of stay. It seems an anomaly that while Saudi Arabia is unwilling to change some old habits, there are others such as national borders, visas and Haj quotas that are so readily embraced.
The currently estimated death toll of the Mina stampede is the equivalent of a number of plane crashes put together. When these occur in the resource-rich West, ie the United States or Western Europe, detailed protocols are implemented that govern every aspect of the aftermath. Every tiny belonging and every shred of human tissue is collected and catalogued. Often teams of several hundred people work on the post-disaster investigation to ensure that not even the most minuscule clue as to what actually happened is accidentally destroyed or overlooked. The goal, of course, is to find the truth, to ensure that whatever happened never happens again.
In most Muslim countries, the resources to carry out such investigations are not present. However, Saudi Arabia is more endowed than most of the West, its princes swathed in gold cloths, its coffers piled high with oil revenues. Given this resource-rich environment, it is astounding that the post-disaster investigative protocols that are implemented in other similarly bestowed nations are being largely overlooked in this case.
With bodies decomposing, either in poorly refrigerated tents that are off limits to relatives, or hurriedly buried without markers, it is clear that the sort of meticulous investigation that is required to prevent another stampede simply does not appear to be taking place. Powerless pilgrims, of course, have no means at all to goad the wealthy behemoth that enjoys sovereignty over Islam’s holy lands into action.
All over the Muslim world, the Haj pilgrimage is the culmination of a life’s savings, a dream that sustains spirituality for decades before it actually occurs; millions from all over the world come with their wishes, their dreams and their aspirations for the future. If proper investigations are not conducted, if respect is denied to what is left of them and of their loved ones’ quest for their last effects, then the conclusion is simply that it can happen again and that it will indeed happen again, to pilgrims of the future who will remain just as powerless as the ones today.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and human rights activist. She is a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and a regular contributor for Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Guernica and many other publications. She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon Press 2015). She tweets @rafiazakaria