Haj stampede survivor says he's not afraid of returning for pilgrimage

Muslim pilgrims gather on the plains of Arafat during the annual haj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia on Sept 11, 2016.
Muslim pilgrims gather on the plains of Arafat during the annual haj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia on Sept 11, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

MINA (AFP) - As pilgrims from around the world symbolically stoned the devil on Monday in the last major rite of the haj, the memory of a deadly stampede during last year's stoning ritual remains all too real for Mr Kassoum Kouanda.

Injured in the crush which killed his three companions and around 2,300 others, he vividly recalled the tragedy in an interview with Agence France-Presse - and explained why his young wife is attending this year's pilgrimage.

Mr Kouanda, 50, of Burkina Faso in West Africa, is manager of a transport and logistics company. This is his testimony: "I was with three other people, two friends and the imam of our local mosque who had been to Mecca three times. All three of them died."

"I am alive. I don't know how. Only God can know," he told AFP by telephone shortly before the start of this year's hajj on Saturday.

"We were marching to 'stone the devil' when we heard cries coming from the east.


"We were sandwiched between those heading towards the pillar to stone the devil and the ones coming back, on the east side," between 8am and 9am.

"We wanted to take refuge in a building that said it was an infirmary, but they blocked the doors because people wanted to go in.

"I just remember that I got on a dead body to reach the roof. Police came to evacuate us about 12pm or 1pm. It was very hot.

"I was immobilised because I have nerve problems and am a bit asthmatic. Getting up to the roof I was hurt in the arms and feet but today it's okay, even if I still carry the scars.

"When I came down from the roof there were bodies everywhere. All the streets were littered with bodies.

"It's God who knows how I got out alive and, returning to Burkina, I resolved that if God again gave me the means I would send my wife for haj while she is still young.

"But I gave her clear orders. I told her to follow the official guides and not people who say they have gone there several times and they know the place," Mr Kouanda said.

Officials have similarly told pilgrims to follow the rules.

"If I am able in coming years, I will send other relatives so that they too can have blessings, but I am not afraid because only God alone knows when you will die."

Although it has never released the findings of its investigation into the stampede, Saudi Arabia says it has introduced new safety measures.

Pilgrims told AFP they had noticed organisational improvements since the stampede which injured Mr Kouanda, the worst tragedy in the history of the haj.