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More Than 700 Hajj Worshippers Killed In Stampede Near Mecca


Today was supposed to be a day of celebration for Muslims. Eid al-Adha, or the feast of the sacrifice, is the culmination of the Hajj pilgrimage at Mecca. Instead, the images from Mecca are of dead bodies and injured people on stretchers. More than 700 people were killed in a stampede when crowds surged at an intersection in Mina just outside of Mecca. Officials in Saudi Arabia are vowing to investigate, but this isn't the first time such a stampede has happened in the same place. Joining us now is reporter Aya Batrawy from Mina. Thank you for joining us.

AYA BATRAWY: Thank you.

MCEVERS: Can you just describe what moment in the Hajj Mina represents? What is it people are doing there during the Hajj?

BATRAWY: The rituals performed in Mina are supposed to be a symbolic stoning of the devil or casting away of evils after you go through the spiritual cleansing of Hajj. So people head towards this facility where there's three columns based on those columns which are supposed to be where the prophet Abraham once stood.

MCEVERS: And what triggered the stampede?

BATRAWY: When people were heading towards the area where they do the ritual stoning - and people were coming back from that area, so the two crowds met at an intersection on one of the narrow roads between the tents. And when they tried to get past one another, that's when people started becoming suffocated, tripping over one another and then being crushed.

MCEVERS: This spot at Mina has been called one of the most dangerous spots on the Hajj pilgrimage. And Saudi officials have expanded the facility before. And why didn't this work?

BATRAWY: It's not clear. There's still an investigation that's obviously going to happen. But from the survivors that I spoke to, they say that for them, it's pretty clear that the Saudi authorities didn't manage the crowds properly. I spoke to one of the pilgrims who survived, and he said that he'd been here for the Hajj two years ago, and the crowds would move down certain roads in certain directions all at one time. So there were roads one way so that nobody would, you know, intersect like what happened today.

So those who survived say that they don't understand how this could happen. There's so much - there's 100,000 security forces, and, you know, one of the biggest logistical challenges is crowd management. And so for them, it's really a question of, how could this happen again?

MCEVERS: Because we're talking about millions of people who come to do the Hajj.

BATRAWY: Exactly. This year, there's 2 million. I mean, there's been years where it's gone over 3 million people and we didn't see accidents like this happening.

MCEVERS: But Saudi officials said it's the Hajj pilgrims themselves who were being undisciplined. If they had simple followed the rules, this would not have happened.

BATRAWY: Well, this Interior Ministry spokesman gave a press conference today, and he didn't blame the pilgrims. But what he said was there's an investigation going, and that, you know, initial insights and reports show that there was a situation where the crowds intersected at a point where they shouldn't have.

I think it would be very, obviously, unfair to blame the pilgrims. You know, they're just walking down streets. And so how are they to know what's going to approach? And that's why you have these helicopters. That's why you have security forces everywhere to make sure that crowds know where they're going.

MCEVERS: You were one of the only reporters from a Western news organization that was allowed into the scene. What did you see there?

BATRAWY: I only got so far. I did see the bodies. They were still on the ground. I saw a lot of bodies on the ground 10 hours after the incident took place. It was obvious that they're still rescuing people who might be alive and dealing with the corpses as well. And I also saw people visibly shocked and disturbed, in tears. I mean, like I said, this is supposed to be a celebratory time, you know, the completion of a pilgrimage that is required by Muslims once in their lifetime to erase past sins. So people don't know how they survived, and it was a matter of luck and fate, those who died and those who made it out.

MCEVERS: Reporter Aya Batrawy from Mina, Saudi Arabia, thank you so much for talking with us.

BATRAWY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.