Fatal Stampede in Baghdad
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
LINDSEY HILSUM: As if there hadn’t already been enough grief in this city, enough violence and killing: Shoes on the bridge, left by the hundreds who were crushed or plunged to their deaths this morning. They gathered at dawn, hundreds of thousands of devout Shias commemorating the martyrdom of the seventh imam, Mousa al Kadhim in 799. He’s buried at the shrine in Khadimiya, a suburb of Baghdad named after him. Trouble started early when at least three mortar bombs were fired into the crowd leaving tell-tale fan-shaped impact marks. Seven people were killed, others taken to hospital.
MAN (Translated): We rushed to the blast scene. We saw the dead were scattered on the ground and the injured taken to al Khadimiya Hospital for treatment. There were more injured children than men and women.
LINDSEY HILSUM: But worse was to come. While some cooled themselves in the Tigris, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims streamed up on to the Aima Bridge over the river leading to the shrine. The atmosphere was febrile, everyone aware that any small incident could lead to disaster. A rumor spread: Someone had seen a suicide bomber.
SPOKESPERSON (Translated): After we arrived at the sacred Khadimiya area, we heard that there was a suicide car bomber. There were thousands of people on the bridge, and because they were afraid, they began to panic and run. Then they began to trample all over each other.
LINDSEY HILSUM: Total disaster. Some jumped into the river and drowned. Others fell to their deaths onto the concrete approach at the end of the bridge. Still more were suffocated in the crush.
MAN (Translated): I tried to help women, children and old men. When I lifted them up, their lips were blue and their ears were bleeding. Their noses were dripping blood. Each person was lying on top of another, tangled up together.
LINDSEY HILSUM: The shoes tell the story, thousands abandoned in the panic by victims and survivors alike, testament to a catastrophe even more deadly than the daily bombings in Baghdad.
JIM LEHRER: Terence Smith spoke by phone a short time ago with Los Angeles Times reporter Borzou Daragahi in Baghdad.
TERENCE SMITH: Borzou Daragahi, welcome to the broadcast. I understand that you got to this area not long after the stampede occurred. Tell us what you saw.
BORZOU DARAGAHI: Well, it was still a lot of very, very skittish and nervous pilgrims, as well as a lot of police and Iraqi soldiers firing their weapons into the air trying to sort of maintain crowd control. There was a lot of very, very upset people, very sad people. People would gasp as they walked by a pile, really a mound of plastic slippers that apparently belonged to the — those killed and injured in the incident. There was a bunch of politicians, including Ahmed Chalabi, who came to the scene with their security entourages and were sort of surveying the area.
TERENCE SMITH: So I take it that even in Baghdad, where you’ve had and seen so much violence, this was a shocking event?
BORZOU DARAGAHI: Yeah, this was just really awful. I mean, one of the things that keeps staying in my mind is those piles of plastic slippers and just sort of looking at them, you could tell by looking at them what kind of people were in this incident were killed and injured in this incident. They were just very poor people. You know, very, very small people — like elderly and young and women and people who were too poor to afford shoes.
TERENCE SMITH: Now I understand that some Iraqi officials have charged that this story that there was a suicide bomber in the midst, that this whole thing was, in their words, a “deliberate act of terrorism” and yet other officials, Sunni officials, deny that. Is there any evidence one way or the other?
BORZOU DARAGAHI: There’s no evidence one way or the other. There’s as many stories as there are victims that we spoke to today, and we haven’t been able to nail down anything. I will say that most of the people, most of the military officials and security officials that I spoke to on the scene conceded that their security precautions played a big role in sort of — in exacerbating the problems here.
The concrete barrier — I spoke to several high-level military officials who were saying that, you know, we had ordered these concrete barriers that were in the middle of this bridge to be removed, that, you know, we could foresee this trouble, that these concrete barriers that were there to prevent the vehicles from traveling back and forth between Sunni Adhamiya and Shiite Khadimiya would create problems for pedestrians, that this bridge was not ready for pedestrians. For some reason these concrete barriers were not removed.
TERENCE SMITH: So is it clear then, or is it believed, that this was a deliberate effort to set one community against the other? Or is it still too much confusion to know?
BORZOU DARAGAHI: It’s absolutely impossible to know. And I think that, you know, it’s good to be cautious in this arena. You know, like traditionally the residents of Adhimiya, which is the Sunni-Arab neighborhood right across the river from Khadimiya are known for giving water and refreshments and sweets to the pilgrims that walk across. And today there was police trucks going around saying, you know, “Don’t drink the water. It’s poisoned.” And, you know, there were these rumors going around that the Sunnis were trying to poison the Shiites, and we could find no real evidence of that. And, you know, even today, even amidst this chaos and amidst all of this tension, we found Sunni-Arab people who helped the victims and took them to the hospitals. So it’s not clear that sectarianism drove this event.
TERENCE SMITH: What was the reaction, what has been the reaction among the people of Baghdad?
BORZOU DARAGAHI: Well, I can say that a large number of the victims were from Sadr City. And tonight, Sadr City is a scene of utter mourning and grief as people set up funeral tents and get bodies prepared for burial down in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf tomorrow. The people are very angry there and very upset. Sadr City, as some viewers may know, is a vast Shiite slum in east Baghdad, and these are people who are lacking services; they don’t get much water, they don’t have any sewage, they don’t have electricity and this just adds to their misery.
TERENCE SMITH: Adds to the tension as well I suppose between the two communities just at a point when the country is trying to move towards a constitution.
BORZOU DARAGAHI: That may be, but at this point it’s also sort of creating problems for the government. You know, it could very well be that it was more a matter of municipal mismanagement that caused this. You know, it remains to be investigated, but it seems like the crowd control strategy that they employed here, knowing full well that there would be a million pilgrims, could have been probably better handled. There were less pilgrims many were saying this year than last year. So, you know, they should have known that there would have been this many pilgrims, Iraqis say. And the people that I spoke to at the scene, quite frankly they blamed Ibrahim Jaafari’s government, the prime minister’s government for the handling of this rather than — I didn’t hear any sectarian slogan.
TERENCE SMITH: And finally, I understand that there is some three days of mourning, national mourning that has been declared?
BORZOU DARAGAHI: Yeah, Ibrahim Jaafari, the prime minister, has declared a state of mourning. It should be said also that the United States government has expressed its condolences and offered to help in any way it can by releasing a statement from Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.
TERENCE SMITH: Borzou Daragahi, thank you very much for filling us in.
BORZOU DARAGAHI: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.