Dead Nigerians in Mecca.
Professor of Islamic Eschatology, human rights activist and Director of Muslim Rights Concern, Ishaq Akintola, who witnessed the September 24 stampede in Mina, Saudi Arabia, tells Bayo Akinloye of Punch that the Saudi authorities have to pay compensation for the loss of lives of Nigerians
As an eyewitness of the tragic stampede in Mina, what would you say went wrong?
What happened was this: there is usually a system with which pilgrims enter through the venue on the day of Jumrah. Jumrah is the day of stoning the Devil. Thus, when you go on your route; after stoning the Devil, you return by taking a detour which means you don’t take the same route back. When that
system is followed there will be enough room for those coming to perform the same pilgrim’s rite and that allows for enough room for people to move without hindrance or stampede. But on that fateful Thursday (when the stampede occurred), September 24; when we were going to the Jumrah, we found that the place was overcrowded and it was quite unusual.
We performed this rite last year; we did it the year before that and the road was free. For the past 10 years there had been no pandemonium; and no stampede on that road. It (stampede) used to happen almost every year in the past, but for the past 10 years, the Saudi authorities have been able to control the human traffic, by creating different routes for entry and exit of the place. But, on that fateful day, we found out that some of those who had thrown their own stones made a U-turn instead of moving ahead to take a detour. They came through the route meant for entrance and not exit. They came towards us. They were in a very large group and the road was not spacious enough to allow a free flow of those of us coming to throw stones at the Devil and those who had stoned the Devil. The road could not take those coming and those going. And I discovered that most of those who took the wrong way were Egyptians…
How did you know they were Egyptians?
I knew they were Egyptians because I heard them speak the Egyptian dialect of Arabic. And, of course, I studied in Egypt for five years. I know the dialect. Knowing that the road would not contain those of us going to perform the Hajj rite and the Egyptians who had already done theirs, we pleaded with them, we tried to persuade them to take the right route to avoid any ugly incident but they refused; the reason being that their camp was based close to the venue of the stoning. And if they were asked to take the other way round to their camp, it would take them a long time to do so. They forgot that by facing us, they constituted themselves into a threat to life — too many lives and their own lives as well. Even if we had attempted to go back for them to pass through, it would have been impossible because a mass of pilgrims had built up and we were pushing one another.
The road became narrower and breathing became difficult. In the commotion, the Saudi police after noticing that the situation was getting out of hand climbed roofs of buildings and started splashing cold water on the crowd so that it could give us some comfort — because at that point, people were already tired and collapsing. They had walked 10km from Monzabizah to Mina and from Mina they were walking another three kilometres to the Jumrah. At some point, we had to stand still. We tried to move to one side but it was impossible to do so as people coming from behind were pushing us forward. Consequently, we were forced to push those in front of us. I think it was just a few minutes that my group passed through the opposing crowds that the stampede began. I knew it was a tragedy waiting to happen.
Were there other factors that led to the tragic chaos?
There are other roads usually dedicated for moving in and out of the site but unfortunately on that day those roads were blocked by the Saudi security agencies for no obvious reasons. Why those roads were blocked I cannot explain; therefore, there was no escape route. It was just that one way and those who were facing us had occupied it. Besides, one major reason why that horrible stampede happened was that those who took the wrong route and disobeyed the authorities were able to do so because the Saudi security authorities became negligent; they were complacent. The security men were not at their posts when the commotion began. Saudi soldiers and policemen used to be at the Jumrah to ensure that once pilgrims have performed the stoning rite, they cannot use the same route in which they came in. If the soldiers and policemen had disallowed those who had finished stoning the Devil from using the entry route as the exit, the stampede would have been avoided.
But the Saudi authorities said Africans, which included Nigerians, who embarked on the stoning rite caused the stampede. How true is that?
The Saudi authorities lied by saying that the African nations, and black Africans, were responsible for the stampede. And, I should add that by African nations, they mean the blacks; Cameroonians, Nigeriens, Chadians, Nigerians and others that caused it. They don’t refer to Egyptians, Moroccans, Libyans, Tunisians and others as Africans. Rather, they call them Arabs. In their statements, they usually refer to these countries (Egypt, Morocco, Libya, and Tunisia) as Arab nations. And, our camps have always been separated from those of the camps of the Arab nations. The Egyptians were not in the African camp. The African camp was different; our location was different. It is still different today.
To support our hypothesis that this was what caused the stampede, the next day after the Saudi authorities saw the stampede and the monumental loss of lives and properties they had caused, they made sure that they brought so many security agents as much as possible to the appropriate points stopping those who had performed the rite of stoning the Devil from returning to their camps through the route they came in. Therefore, on the second and third day of stoning the Devil, there was adequate security personnel to ensure that people who were going to stone the Devil were not blocked or hindered by those who were returning after having performed their own rite. Thus, they did not allow on the second day, those same Egyptians or people from other countries to create the fatal chaos we experienced on the first day, from using the entrance as exit route. In spite of the deaths recorded people still went ahead to perform their rites the second and third day and the road was free. I would say it was laxity on the part of Saudi security agencies that caused the stampede.
Will the bodies of those who died be repatriated to Nigeria?
As far as the Muslim tradition goes, the dead will be buried in the holy land. Trying to bring back the corpses is double trouble for the dead body. Muslims don’t see anything special about dead bodies. The soul has gone back up to Allah depending on the way a person lived his life. We are not demanding for the dead bodies. Anybody who dies in the holy land, over the years, has always been buried there. In any case, Muslims believe that a dead person should be buried within 48 hours. Hence, we don’t see any wisdom in demanding for the repatriation of the corpses. We don’t see any need for it; and that’s not part of our demand.