A few days after a deadly stampede killed more than 700 pilgrims in Mecca, this photo began stirring up a social media frenzy. Internet users said it showed bulldozers clearing away the bodies of dozens of victims. But is there any truth behind it? Our team investigates.

Sadly, such tragedies are not uncommon during the annual pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest site, Mecca. But this was the worst stampede to hit in 25 years. It took place on September 24 on what's known in the Muslim calendar as Eid al-Adha, the festival of the sacrifice, in Mina, just a few kilometres from Mecca. More than 700 pilgrims died and over 900 were left injured when two large groups of pilgrims tried to push their way past one another from opposite directions.

In the photos taken by agency photojournalists after the catastrophe, dozens of dead bodies can be seen strewn across the ground. Many are covered with white blankets, whilst other pictures show rescue workers desperately working to get injured people onto stretchers amidst horrified crowds of onlookers.

It wasn't long before Saudi authorities came under fire for failing to prevent yet another tragedy. As criticism mounted, several images began circulating online showing bodies piled up on top of one another. Yet one stood out above the rest: an image appearing to show a bulldozer clearing away corpses in the aftermath of the tragedy. For outraged internet users who shared the photo, it was proof enough that Saudi Arabia's rulers had blood on their hands.
 

Meanwhile, a little-known Iranian website called Namnak.com tasked itself with verifying when the photo was originally published. The site reported that it was in fact just one of a series of photographs taken in the aftermath of another stampede that took place more than ten years before. Some of those photos were uploaded here back in 2004.


The photos published by the Iranian website seem to have been taken at the same place and at the same time as the photos from 2004. Looking closely, one can make out the white monument in the background. That's notably where the “stoning of the devil” takes place, a ritual meant to symbolise the pilgrims' refusal to give in to temptation or to sin.

But there's yet another detail that proves this particular photo wasn't taken in 2015. The site was expanded and renovated after a deadly stampede in 2006 left more than 300 pilgrims dead. As a result, today's white monument is far bigger and more oval-shaped than the one that can be seen behind the bulldozer in the photo.

Another journalist points out that the photo showing the bulldozer can't have been taken in 2015. The left-hand side photo shows the ritual site after renovation works were carried out.


 
The Iranian website Namnak doesn't challenge the assumption that the photo shows dead bodies being bulldozed. Yet the photo alone doesn't serve as proof. Although corpses can clearly be seen lying near the bulldozer, the poor image quality makes it impossible to say for sure what exactly is being scooped up by the vehicle's shovel. They could be the personal belongings left behind by pilgrims after the stampede. Contacted by France 24, our Observers in Saudi Arabia say that to the best of their knowledge authorities never resorted to using bulldozers to clear bodies following past stampedes.

Despite being both dubious and dated, the photo was widely shared by Iranian Twitter accounts. Iran lost 464 of its nationals as a result of the tragedy, according to the latest count.

The tragedy has also rekindled age-old tensions between two of the Middle East's biggest regional powerhouses. Iran says Saudi authorities should shoulder the blame for the catastrophe. But Saudi Arabia's Health Minister has shot back, laying part of the blame at the feet of Iranian pilgrims who he says hadn't followed safety instructions.
 
Article written with
Alexandre Capron

Alexandre Capron , Journaliste francophone