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In Morocco’s quake-decimated villages, rescuers find only bodies

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Picture: Sima Diab/The Washington Post/September 11, 2023 – Rescuers attempt to retrieve the body of a deceased boy in Elbour, Morocco.

By Claire Parker, Sima Diab, Loveday Morris and Kareem Fahim

TALAT N’YAAQOUB, Morocco – The death toll from Morocco’s devastating earthquake neared 3,000 people, the government announced Monday, as international rescuers arrived and the tremendous obstacles facing emergency workers – struggling to reach those trapped under rubble, in remote mountain hamlets, along roads blocked by landslides – burst into view.

Washington Post reporters toured a string of devastated villages in the High Atlas Mountains south of Marrakesh: from Asni, in the foothills, where the military had set up a field hospital, to the Ouirgane reservoir, where more than half a dozen members of one family were killed, to Talat N’Yaaqoub, where the destruction seemed total, and the smell of death was everywhere.

Friday’s 6.8-magnitude earthquake, the strongest to strike Morocco in more than a century, has killed at least 2,862 people and injured more than 2,500 – ravaging communities already struggling with poverty and isolation. On Sunday, the Moroccan government said it had accepted some foreign assistance for the rescue mission, including from Spain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Britain.

But other governments, including Germany, suggested that their offers of assistance had been met with silence, causing puzzlement and consternation, given the enormity of the challenge and the shrinking time left to find survivors.

A 50-person team from Germany’s Federal Agency for Technical Relief assembled at Cologne Bonn Airport over the weekend but was sent home Sunday. Rescue workers in other parts of Europe, including France, also remain grounded.

In the earthquake zone Monday, rescue efforts were carried out by a patchwork of emergency responders, including soldiers and government civil defence workers, volunteers from the private sector and locals, digging through rubble to recover relatives, often with their bare hands. Military helicopters flew overhead, apparently trying to reach the most remote areas.

The government announced Monday that Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch had presided over an emergency meeting in Rabat, the capital, where he vowed to “continue relief efforts and expedite crisis management measures”, while “providing support and assistance to citizens in the affected areas”.

The government was also working on a plan, in line with directives from the Royal Palace, to begin reconstruction efforts and compensate people who lost their homes, a statement read.

Neither Akhannouch nor King Mohammed VI have addressed the public since the disaster hit.

In Asni, about 25 miles south of Marrakesh, a military field hospital and displacement camp were set up for people from devastated communities in the surrounding hills. The field hospital, which is equipped for surgery, did not yet have any patients early Monday as soldiers rushed to complete it, and several ambulances nearby sat idle.

Morocco’s civil protection service had erected 30 tents for families, who in some cases had to double up. Inside, women and children sat on thick rugs on the ground. Tea kettles were perched on propane tanks. Young children, dusty after two days in the camp, played in the dirt. One family said they received some food and supplies from the government, but it wouldn’t have been enough without assistance from private groups.

There are no toilets, one woman said, so when people need to use the bathroom, they go to one of the destroyed houses nearby.

Rahma, 14, stood outside a blue tent as her mother chatted with relatives. The family had been there since Saturday.

“We have no idea” what will happen next, Rahma said.

In the small mountain village of Elbour, perched above the Ouirgane reservoir, a team of rescue workers from the Moroccan military had been working day and night since the early hours of Saturday to pull bodies from the rubble. One of them, Imad Elbachir, said four teams of rescue personnel – 44 workers total – had been deployed to the area immediately after the quake.

Early Saturday, they were able to pull out two survivors, including a 12-year-old boy named Hamza. He was taken to a hospital with minor physical injuries but in complete shock, having lost his entire family, Elbachir said.

Since then, with the help of a large excavator and men from the village, they have been carefully extricating the dead. Bodies were rushed on stretchers to be washed according to Muslim ritual, and then buried in the hillside cemetery on the village’s edge.

Picture: Sima Diab/The Washington Post/September 11, 2023 – Residents look on as rescuers attempt to retrieve the body of a deceased boy in Elbour, Morocco, on Monday.

By noon Monday, military rescuers had pulled out 14 bodies, Elbachir said. Only three remained. One belonged to a 7-year-old boy named Badr, whose weeping mother, Habiba, lay in a nearby clearing, waiting to bury her only son.

Her entire family – parents, husband, two brothers and their wives – also perished in the earthquake, which reduced their home to a mound of wood, concrete and crumbled red clay.

Village women cradled Habiba’s head and stroked her brow. “Thank God at least he died close to you, so you can bury him,” one of the women murmured to her.

Around the corner, the rescue workers used an excavator, shovels and their bare hands to clear a path to Badr. Suddenly, a man rushed to the clearing and called for a blanket. Habiba rose, leaning on the shoulders of two of her neighbours, and lurched toward the rescue site, moaning as she went. Just before the boy was pulled out, women ushered Habiba away to spare her the sight.

Rescue workers hoisted the stretcher and took off down the main road, the small body covered in a purple blanket. As Badr was washed, Habiba lay on a dirty pink mattress outside the building, struggling for breath. Then rescue workers and village men bore the body across town.

Heads down, they lined up to say a last prayer before taking the boy to the cemetery. They gently laid the small bundle, wrapped in white linen, into the red earth before covering it with concrete blocks.

Rania Najji, 24, whose family lived near Habiba, said the villagers were all sleeping out in the open in the cold at night. No tents had arrived, but donors had brought plenty of food, she said.

“The Moroccan state brought us nothing beyond rescue aid and the civil protection services,” she said. “People want access to food, milk for babies, clothes, diapers.”

Later Monday evening, emergency workers, doctors and nurses could be seen arriving in the village.

Twenty miles to the south, the approach to the small town of Talat N’Yaaqoub was choked with ambulances and private cars driven by volunteers, on a narrow mountain road full of switchbacks and littered with rocky debris. Supplies – water, blankets, food – were loaded on the backs of donkeys to reach hamlets inaccessible by car.

Inside the town, nothing was spared: Mud-brick houses and concrete shops lay in heaps. Rescue workers, in teams of 20 or 30, worked until exhaustion to dig out bodies, then were replaced by other teams.

Hamza Zilaf, a volunteer medic, said he and colleagues were the first rescuers to arrive in Talat N’Yaaqoub, on Sunday night – deciding “on a whim to come and help”. The group came from Khouribga, a city 150 miles away, and brought three private ambulances, he said.

The road was “extremely difficult”; a bulldozer had to clear rocks to allow the group to move. They spent the night in Talat N’Yaaqoub, providing “aid and medication to as many people as we could help”, he said. They continued up the mountain Monday, providing aid to seven other villages.

“The sights were horrific,” he said. “No electricity, no water, no food. People with broken limbs and backs. People with open wounds and respiratory problems.”

In Talat N’Yaaqoub on Monday, civil defence responders were no longer hopeful of saving people. The work now, one rescuer said, was a “recovery mission”.

Morris reported from Berlin and Fahim from Istanbul. Kareem Fahim is the Istanbul bureau chief and a Middle East correspondent for The Washington Post. Claire Parker is the Cairo bureau chief for The Washington Post, leading coverage of North Africa and Yemen. Loveday Morris is The Washington Post’s Berlin bureau chief. She was previously based in Jerusalem, Baghdad and Beirut for The Post.

This article was first published in The Washington Post