I had just reached the hotel when a news flash on my cell phone shook me: Stampede in Mina kills hundreds. It could have been me, my wife and our friends in that stampede.
We were at the same spot just minutes before the stampede took place, but were lucky enough to have passed through the busy intersection of streets 204 and 223 minutes before masses of pilgrims collided with each other, leading to the stampede.
Mushtaq stands near the intersection of Street 204 and 223 , where the stampede took place. An abandoned stroller nearby
An hour before the stampede, six of us (My wife and I, along with a friend, his sister and parents) left our tent in Mina valley and began to walk towards the Jamarat — the wall-like pillars where the symbolic ritual of stoning the devil is performed.
Even when they were at Jamarat al-Aqaba, Mubasshir did not the find the crowd too chaotic, and he was even able to take pictures and a 20-second video of the stone pelting. Pic/Mubasshir Mushtaq
Just as we stepped out of the tent, however, a policeman at the main gate stopped us, saying the Jamarat was overcrowded and we would have to wait for at least an hour. We went back inside and exited from another gate to avoid being spotted by the guard.
The Jamarat was barely a kilometre away and was visible as we began to walk. In my mind, the thought of the September 11 crane crash, which killed over a hundred pilgrims at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, was still fresh. We walked in pairs, following each other in a neat column to avoid the surge of pilgrims from both sides.
As we entered the main hall, a group of pilgrims pushed us aside, dividing us in three groups. Yet, we managed to walk up to the concrete column and pelted seven pebbles each at Jamarat al-Aqaba. The sound created by thousands of pebbles striking the wall was eerie and created a sense of awe.
Pilgrims from different nationalities raised their flags and chanted the Arabic slogan “Bismillah Allahu Akbar” (God is great), before flinging the pebbles at the giant column. Even at this point, the crowd was not too chaotic, and I was able to make a 20-scond video of the stoning.
Soon, we began to make our way outside. Everyone was walking in one direction, and we were just being led forward by the collective force of the crowd. We saw a Middle Eastern pilgrim collapse; his nose was bleeding profusely because of the intense heat.
My wife wanted to stop so we could offer him some water, but I refused, since more than a dozen others had already gone to his aid. A single person stopping at such a point can lead to a stampede, as over 2 million pilgrims were packed in the same place.
Stopping would have been dangerous, since people ten metres behind us would not have understood what was going on, and would have continued to push on. The cook who was part of our tour group, Fazal Qureishi, later told me that the stampede took pace just minutes after this.
He had helped the rescue teams to load the ambulances, and recalled how the place was littered with pilgrims’ bodies, like crushed water bottles. We were also lucky to escape the chaos as, instead of returning to the tent in Mina, we went to a hotel down the hills, in a Mecca suburb called Azizia.
Later in the evening, I walked back to the spot where the stampede had taken place, but it had been cordoned off. A paramedic waiting outside Mina Emergency Hospital said hundreds of injured and dead bodies were brought there. The seriously injured were taken to bigger hospitals in Mecca.
Most of the pilgrims I interacted with were unaware of the stampede as the area had immediately been cleared out. Now, with two more days of the stoning ritual left, I am a bit concerned about safety, and about the fact that we lack a common language to connect with other pilgrims. But one thing I am certain about: I will definitely go.
The number of lives lost in the past 25 years during the Haj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia
The number of Indians who are undertaking the Haj pilgrimage this year
The number of Indians killed in the stampede, according to Indian Consulate officials in Jeddah