At least 717 people were killed and 863 people were hurt, spurring King Salman to order “a revision” of hajj organisation while authorities started to investigate the disaster.
The Saudi health minister, Khalid al-Falih, earlier pointed a finger of blame at the dead, saying the pilgrims had been undisciplined and not followed movement instructions, but the witnesses disagreed.
“There was crowding. The police had closed all entrances and exits to the pilgrims’ camp, leaving only one,” said Ahmed Abu Bakr, a 45-year-old Libyan who escaped the stampede with his mother.
“I saw dead bodies in front of me and injuries and suffocation. We removed the victims with the police.”
He added that police at the scene appeared inexperienced. “They don’t even know the roads and the places around here,” he said as others nodded in agreement.
Pilgrims in Mina stay in a complex of white fireproof tents big enough to hold more than 2 million people, and the interior ministry said it deployed 100,000 police to secure the hajj, maintain safety and manage traffic and crowds.
One outspoken critic of redevelopment at the holy sites said despite the large numbers, police were not properly trained and lacked the language skills for communicating with foreign pilgrims, who make up the majority of those on the hajj.
“They don’t have a clue how to engage with these people,” said Irfan al-Alawi, co-founder of the Mecca-based Islamic heritage research foundation. “There’s no crowd control.”
Another witness, 39-year-old Egyptian Mohammed Hasan, voiced worries that a similar incident “could happen again”. “You just find soldiers gathered in one place doing nothing,” he said.
He also alleged that he had been insulted because of his nationality, when security men asked him to “come identify this Egyptian corpse”.
“Why are they humiliating us like this? We are coming as pilgrims asking for nothing,” Hasan said angrily, urging the security forces to “organise the roads” to ensure the smooth movement of people.
Even before Thursday’s stoning tragedy, other pilgrims had complained of a lack of organisation.