Kiwi has close escape from Mecca stampede

  • 25/09/2015
Kiwi has close escape from Mecca stampede

By Kim Vinnell and Simon Shepherd

The King of Saudi Arabia has ordered a review into the way his country manages the yearly Haj pilgrimage following a massive stampede at Mecca.

The death toll so far stands at more than 700, and it's not the first time the event has been blighted by disasters.

Footage shot moments after the stampede shows a sea of bodies, as one of Islam's holiest days turned to tragedy.

At least two million people were in Mecca for Hajj – the largest annual gathering of people anywhere in the world.

It's a pilgrimage all Muslims must do at least once if they can, but the sheer numbers make it difficult to control.

"The accident was a stampede caused by overcrowding and also caused by some not following security instructions," said a security officer at the event.

The five-day Hajj pilgrimage follows the footsteps of Prophet Muhammad, who in Islam is the last prophet sent by God. 

The pilgrimage starts at Mecca's grand mosque, before participants travel to Mina for prayers, then to Mount Arafat where Muhammad preached his last sermon. After that pilgrims travel to Muzdalifah to gather stones at a quarry, before throwing them at three pillars called Jamarat to symbolise the rejection of evil.

It was on the way there the deadly stampede happened.

It's not the first time lives have been lost during Hajj – the worst was in 1990 when 1500 people were crushed to death.

In 2006, 350 people were killed on a bridge known for bottle necks.

Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars trying to improve safety by widening roads and building bridges.

But even attempts to prepare for Hajj have caused causalities. A crane used to expand the grand mosque collapsed two weeks ago killing more than 100 people.

"Regardless of the investigation results, the improvement of the methods and mechanisms of the Haj season will not stop," said Saudi King Salman. "We have instructed the concerned entities to re-evaluate the current policy and the distribution of responsibilities."

More than 100,000 security forces were on the ground to try and keep order.

The inundated hospitals were testament to just how badly they failed.

There are 291 New Zealanders registered as being in Saudi Arabia, but it's unknown how many of those made the pilgrimage to Mecca.

"The Muslim community is in total shock for all of this news," says Hazim Arafeh of the New Zealand Federation of Islamic Associations. "It happened as we are celebrating Eid and we have mixed feelings now."

Eid marks the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca – an important religious day that was being celebrated with a family day at Auckland's Mount Smart stadium.

Kiwi Muslims say the cost of getting to Mecca makes it difficult. Finding out whether the New Zealanders in Saudi Arabia are safe is extremely difficult.

One Auckland dentist had a lucky escape from the chaos in Saudi Arabia.

"It happened literally 45 minutes after we left that area and it was already an immensely busy day," says Aftab Moosa.

While other Kiwis are still unaccounted for, many believe it would be an honourable way to die. 

"As Muslims we truly believe that these people are in fact very lucky to die in such a holy place and doing such a holy activity like that," says Hassan Raslan.

It's a belief that will see millions more make the same pilgrimage year after year.

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