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The Mecca stampede: Unanswered questions and grief

Ahram Online looks closer at the tragedy of the Mecca stampede that claimed many hundreds of lives, with the official death toll continuing to rise

Zeinab El-Gundy , Saturday 3 Oct 2015
Mecca
Rescue workers carry the bodies of Muslim pilgrims after a stampede at Mena, outside the holy Muslim city of Mecca September 24, 2015 (Reuters)
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On the first day of Eid Al-Adha, Thursday 24 September at nearly 11am, Yahia El-Masry received news of his mother's death over the phone. Dr Hanan Abdel Azim died in the tragic Mena stampede that occurred the day before.

"We knew about my mother from her pilgrimage group's supervisor at around 11am on the first day of Eid. He said that he was the one who carried her to the hospital where she passed away," El-Masry told Ahram Online.

Amid the shock, it soon became clear that Mohamed El-Masry, Yahia's father, could not be found. 

For nearly three days, Yahia and his brother tried to find any information on their father, a renowned Sharqia governorate-based lawyer who turned out to be one of the victims.

Thousands of Egyptians tried similarly to contact family members participating in hajj (pilgrimage) to check on them. To their horror, mobile connections failed due to the pressure on the network in Mecca in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. 

"It took us up to the evening of the third day of Eid (Saturday, 27 September) to find him, although he had his name tag bracelet on his hand, according to my cousin and his nephew in Saudi Arabia who saw the photo of his body outside Al-Mesiam Morgue in Mecca," said Yahia.  

Despite having lost both his parents, and his mother's name being among the first casualties to be announced by Egyptian officials, Yehia was not contacted by the authorities. 

Al-Mesiam Morgue of Mecca was the main morgue that received hundreds of pilgrims from the deadly stampede. Many of the dead, covering numerous nationalities and ages, remain unidentified. Saudi officials are asking governments and citizens from all over the world to help put names to bodies. 

The stampede occurred as pilgrims converged in Mena, just outside Mecca, to take part in the symbolic ritual of the stoning of the devil at the Mena Pillars complex.

The ritual involves pilgrims throwing pebbles at one of three pillars representing satan's temptations in a symbolic reenactment of the Prophet Ibrahim's (Abraham) hajj. Nearly two million pilgrims participated this year in the ritual that is considered the penultimate step before heading to Mecca to visit the Grand Mosque and finish the pilgrimage.

Saudi authorities' early statements suggest that some pilgrims moved without following instructions while exiting the Mena Pillars complex, meeting pilgrims coming to the complex. 

According to Google Maps, the stampede took place 1.12 kilometres away from the Mena Pillars complex in a narrow intersection between streets 204 and 223 where pilgrims' camps are located on both sides.

Some of camps of Egyptian delegations were located in the same area. 

A few hours after the stampede, Egypt's official delegation announced that it had evacuated one of the Egyptian camps following the damage it suffered, according to news reports. 

It remains unclear if most of the Egyptian victims died while going to or leaving Mena, or due to the fact that they were close to the stampede location while it was expanding.

Yahia El-Masry does not know what his parents were doing at the time of the stampede. 

"I read that there was an Egyptian camp in the area. I knew also my father was tired earlier and decided not to go to Mena complex with the group, and that my mother waited for him," he said. 

Survivors and eyewitness accounts, as well photos taken from the scene, show that the bodies of the victims as well the injured were transferred to nearby camps — including Egyptian, Algerian and Sudanese camps — till they were transferred to morgues and hospitals.

In the past week, Saudi Arabia announced a growing death toll from the tragedy, reaching 769 dead with 934 others injured. 

There has not been an exact breakdown of nationalities as many of the bodies remain unidentified. 

Out of 67,719 Egyptian pilgrims, 126 died in the stampede, according to Egypt's official pilgrimage delegation in its latest statements. There are currently 72 missing Egyptian pilgrims and 68 more injured in hospitals in Mecca and Jeddah. 

The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched hotlines in Cairo and Saudi Arabia to receive the calls of Egyptians searching for missing family members.

On Thursday, the Egyptian delegation, headed by Egypt's minister of religious endowments, announced that with the cooperation with the Saudi authorities, DNA and fingerprints would be used to identify the remaining bodies. 

In a parallel move, the Egyptian Consulate in Jeddah published on its Facebook page over 30 photos of Egyptians injured in Saudi hospitals, asking people to identify them. 

It also published over 40 photos from the morgue showing unidentified bodies believed to be Egyptians, similarly asking people to ID them.

A number of Egyptian families only then had their worst fears confirmed. In 24 hours, following the release of the photos, the Egyptian death toll jumped from 84 to 124.

Egyptian media has criticised authorities for being late in its action to help the victims and their families, as it took nearly a week for official lists of the Egyptian dead, with photos, to be published, along with direct numbers to the Egyptian Consulate in Jeddah and the official Egyptian pilgrimage delegation.

Egyptians continue to share photos of their missing loved ones, in numbers that exceed official statistics on those missing, on Facebook pages like "The Egyptian Community in KSA" and "Mena Missing People." Testimonies of pilgrims who saw the horrifying stampede describe how people were squashed under each other, asking how it could happen.  

El-Masry's parents are now buried in Saudi Arabia along with most of the Egyptian victims who were identified. 

The kingdom assigned six public cemeteries to the victims of the stampede, after identitication.

To die on hajj and to be buried in the Muslim Holy Land for devout Muslims equals martyrdom. 

Families of the victims may find solace that their beloved ones died in the holiest site for Muslims, cleansed of their sins according to Islamic belief. Yet for the time being they are also trying to cope, and to understand their sudden loss in otherwise joyful days.  

"Can this be a bad dream and we find the door knocking and find them wondering why we didn't go pick them up?" Yehia El-Masry tweeted about his parents, adding that their flight came back to Cairo without them.

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