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The long road ahead

A record earthquake in Morocco draws local and foreign support as urgent rescues continue

People walk through the wreckage caused by the earthquake in the town of Amizmiz, Morocco, Sept. 10. Associated Press/Photo by Mosa'ab Elshamy

The long road ahead

The small Moroccan town of Amizmiz is usually bustling with tourists, many of them stopping before heading for the High Atlas mountain range. But as Hani Habbal walked across the city Monday, he said the town has “lost its soul.”

Collapsed buildings line the city center, now void of the usual foot traffic. Residents who lost their homes have sought refuge at a displacement camp.

“There were no latrines [at the camp],” said Habbal, who is leading response efforts in the area for the aid group Action for Humanity. “The only provided services were food, drinking water, and shelter.”

Amizmiz sits at the foot of the mountains, where a shallow 6.8 magnitude earthquake wreaked havoc shortly after 11 p.m. on Friday. The tremors jolted the city of Marrakesh 44 miles away and other surrounding areas. Neighboring Algeria and Mauritania also felt the quake. The U.S. Geological Survey said a 4.9-magnitude aftershock followed 20 minutes later.

The earthquake is the strongest to hit the North African nation in more than a century. More than 2,900 people have died, and more than 5,500 are injured. Authorities expect the death toll to rise as responders continue to dig through the rubble.

The disaster has affected an estimated 360,000 people. Authorities have allowed limited rescue and emergency support to flow in as they battle to gain access to some of the worst-hit mountainous villages, trying to save more people.

Morocco has so far accepted support from Spain, the United Kingdom, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. A French nonprofit also landed in Marrakesh on Monday afternoon to help. Moroccans have lined up to donate blood for the injured.

But the country has stalled accepting offered support from other countries, including the United States, France, and neighboring Algeria, which severed ties with Morocco in 2021 over what it called “hostile actions” amid strained relations.

Morocco’s Interior Ministry in a statement said local authorities are carefully assessing the needs, adding that “lack of coordination in such cases would be counterproductive.”

Steep and winding roads connect agricultural villages across the mountains. Before any support started to flow into affected regions, neighbors used their hands to dig through the rubble in search of survivors.

On Monday, Habbal’s team joined a local partner to make the hour-and-a-half drive up the mountain to Dawar amiz, a village with about 38 families. He saw no other support teams or vehicles on the way.

The community’s shelter for sheep caved in, killing all the animals.

“You can smell the dead sheep,” he recalled. “It smells like death.”

Habbal’s team provided the residents with fresh food. He said they plan to bring more long-term support to the village and other communities in the region in the coming days.

Chris Skopec, executive vice president of global health with the U.S.-based nonprofit Project HOPE, agreed that poor access complicates aid efforts. Skopec got a routine notification on his phone on Friday night once the earthquake hit.

“The size of the earthquake stood out,” he said.

His team immediately started coordinating with Fundación SAMU, a Spain-based nonprofit. That night, they assembled an emergency response team with two search and rescue dogs and began applying for local authorization to join the response.

They arrived in Marrakesh by Sunday morning and quickly joined the rescue and medical evacuation efforts in two towns.

“Heavy equipment is hard to move in these areas, so a lot of the rescue and recovery effort have to be done by hand,” Skopec said. “There are a lot of people without shelter right now.”

Moroccan King Mohammed VI declared three days of national mourning and deployed rescue teams and a field medical-surgical hospital to the region.

The disaster also affected communities farther away. In the city of Casablanca more than 170 miles from the earthquake’s epicenter, Luafa had just stepped away from the living room to prepare for bed when her home started shaking.

She initially thought her heart was racing, until she heard the glass in her shower also start to rattle. “It sounded like a washing machine,” she recalled.

Luafa and her husband, Rachid, a pastor, met each other halfway in the hallway, then decided to step outside. “People were screaming and running,” Luafa said.

The couple dashed back home to collect their phones and car keys, before joining other neighbors in an open arena. They stayed outside all night. Similar scenes played out across other cities, with many people sleeping outdoors for days as the aftershocks continued and rendered some homes unstable.

In the town of Adassil near the earthquake’s epicenter, residents are also grappling with loss. Scarce medical care has forced some residents to make the three-hour journey to Marrakesh to get help, said Borja González de Escalada, cofounder of the Spain-based SAMU. “Residents are doing their best to cope, but they are grappling with heartbreak and fear,” he said in a statement.

Marrakesh residents have said the earthquake damaged the city’s historic red walls. The tremors also damaged the 12th century Koutoubia Mosque.

Local church communities are extending support. Luafa said people have started sending diapers, blankets, tuna, and other food items to those who are in need. But she noted that many of the now displaced still lack tents.

One of the seven churches that Rachid’s ministry planted in the northeastern city of Fes reached out to ask how they could help. Rachid said the church has no more than 15 members.

“They said they want to help with money, with their hands. They’re ready to travel,” he said. “It’s a small church that normally needs support.”

In February, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake rocked Turkey and neighboring Syria, and triggered more than 16,000 aftershocks. More than 50,000 people died even as global relief teams mobilized to help and continued to pull out survivors from the rubble days later.

Project HOPE and SAMU also jointly responded to that earthquake. Skopec said one difference in Morocco is the mud-brick homes. “There are not a lot of pockets for people to survive,” he said. “It’s different from Turkey, where they found people buried alive in the rubble days later.”

His joint response team has not found any survivors so far. But they have continued searching, since families also need to find the dead for closure, he explained.

The joint team is still present in Turkey, where the response has moved beyond rescue to recovery. The ongoing support includes psychosocial care and assistance to the displaced communities.

Skopec said Morocco still has a long road ahead. “The impact on the communities affected would be felt for years to come,” he said.

Habal lived in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, near that earthquake’s epicenter. He lost three colleagues and eight friends.

“The context [in Morocco] is different, but the suffering is the same,” he said.

Back in Casablanca, Pastor Rachid worries about the coming winter. It begins in December, but mountainous communities will start to get cold as early as next month. He plans to visit some affected regions this week to assess the needs before rallying more coordinated church support.

“We trust God with everything, with good and bad,” Rachid said. “We’re putting everything in his hands.”

Onize Ohikere

Onize is WORLD’s Africa reporter and deputy global desk chief. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a journalism degree from Minnesota State University–Moorhead. Onize resides in Abuja, Nigeria.


These summarize the news that I could never assemble or discover by myself. —Keith

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