Morocco earthquake: mourning begins as rescue continues with death toll over 2,000


Morocco earthquake: mourning begins as rescue continues with death toll over 2,000

Villagers bury their dead while Red Cross warns recovery may take years and other countries offer aid

Rescuers in Morocco were trying to find survivors in the rubble of collapsed buildings as the country began three days of mourning for victims of a disaster that killed more than 2,000 people and left many more injured and homeless.

Friday’s 6.8-magnitude quake, Morocco’s deadliest in more than six decades, had an epicentre below a remote cluster of mountainous villages 45 miles south of Marrakech, and shook infrastructure as far away as the country’s northern coast.

The government reported that at least 2,012 people were killed and more than 2,059 injured, many of them critically. In Marrakech, many people slept outside on pavements and in squares, fearing returning to their homes.

Military forces and emergency services rushed to reach remote villages where many more victims were feared trapped.

Morocco’s King Mohammed VI chaired an emergency disaster response meeting on Saturday afternoon and declared three days of national mourning. Civil protection units were deployed to increase stocks in blood banks and ensure the supply of resources including water, food, tents and blankets to affected areas, the palace said.

Omar Bajjou, from a village near Asni at the foot of the Atlas mountains, 30 miles south of Marrakech, said the force of the earthquake threw him out of bed, terrifying him and his wife.

“I initially thought it was an airplane that had somehow fallen on the roof of our building,” he said. Fleeing outside, they found chaos in their village. “All of the surrounding houses, especially the mud-brick ones, had crumbled, and the others had huge cracks in them, fatal cracks, like they could collapse at any moment. There was dust everywhere, and the sound of screams,” he said.

Bajjou and the other villagers began to try to dig their neighbours out from under their homes. “We managed to rescue several people who were buried under the rubble, we saved some but others were already dead, like my neighbour. Another lost both of their children, and his wife was injured. In total, there were five dead from our building.”

Terrified and cold, the residents of the village remained outside for two days without water or electricity, too scared to return to their homes for fear of further aftershocks or crumbling buildings.

Samia Errazzouki, an expert in the history and governance of the Moroccan state at Stanford University in California, said: “Roads and access to this region are already difficult, before you compound that with difficulties like rubble or problems with the roads. It’s going to take a miracle to get immediate aid there.”

Members of Morocco’s marginalised Amazigh community, sometimes known as Berbers, live among the villages in the earthquake zone. “These regions have historically been hit with earthquakes, but they have also been marginalised,” Errazzouki said.

Several countries including Israel, France, Spain, Italy and the US have offered aid. Neighbouring Algeria, which has had difficult relations with Morocco, opened its airspace, which had been closed for two years, to flights carrying humanitarian aid and the injured.

Al-Haouz province, above the epicentre of the earthquake, recorded the most deaths, 1,293, followed by the province of Taroudant with 452.

Kamal, who declined to give his surname, from the town of Skoura, an oasis west of Marrakech at the base of the Atlas, said homes across the town had sustained damage but villages higher up in the hills had fared even worse.

“We felt the violent tremors but everyone managed to get out of their houses in time. Thankfully we are yet to count any deaths, but many of the clay homes here completely collapsed. However, the villages further up in the mountains have been seriously affected – there are many dead and we are completely unable to reach them,” he said.

People across the country described their terror at being unable to contact their loved ones in villages across the earthquake zone, where telephone networks have been patchy and in some cases continue to be unable to function after the earthquake.

“I wasn’t at home at the time, I was in Casablanca but even there we still felt the violent shaking and stayed outside the entire night,” said Toufik, also from Skoura. “I managed to contact my family by phone that night, but for a period after that it became impossible, the network wasn’t functioning. I began to panic as I didn’t know what had happened to them, whether there had been further aftershocks that had affected them. Thankfully after several hours I managed to speak to them and everyone was OK.”

While the country mourned, some questioned the speed of the emergency response. The king has long been quietly accused of governing from his residence in France. Despite him returning to chair the emergency response meeting, some said vital hours may have been lost due to a need for the palace’s approval and control.

“Ultimately, nothing in the country gets done with the green light from the palace … so much time was lost because [the king] was physically not there,” said Errazzouki, the Stanford academic. “Fundamentally, this is a reflection of how ineffective Moroccan governance has been due to the fact it relies entirely on an authoritarian structure of a figure who is absent.”

She added: “There’s a cloud of opacity surrounding communications, and this becomes an impediment to the state being able to effectively carry out emergency operations … every second counts in these moments, every minute it takes to get approval, to double-check all these tedious time-consuming steps – people are dying. Lives could have been saved.”

Residents of Marrakech, the biggest city nearest to the epicentre, said some buildings had collapsed in the old city, a Unesco world heritage site. Video showed the city’s famous 12th-century Koutoubia mosque, which stands over the central Djemaa el-Fna marketplace, quaking with the force of the initial tremors, as people fled into the open area to seek safety.

The Red Cross said repairing the damage wrought by the powerful earthquake could take years. Unesco pledged to help repair damage to heritage in historic Marrakech, but the prospect of rebuilding in inaccessible remote towns and villages appeared even more challenging.

“It won’t be a matter of a week or two … We are counting on a response that will take months, if not years,” said the Red Cross Middle East and north Africa director, Hossam Elsharkawi.

Philippe Vernant, a specialist in active tectonics, particularly in Morocco, at the University of Montpellier, told Agence France-Presse that even though the quake did not hit in Morocco’s most active seismological region, aftershocks could be expected. “Even if they are less strong, they can lead to the collapse of buildings already weakened by the earthquake. Traditionally, we tend to say that aftershocks diminish in intensity,” he said.

The prime minister of Morocco’s cross-strait neighbour Spain, Pedro Sánchez, expressed his “solidarity and support to the people of Morocco in the wake of this terrible earthquake … Spain is with the victims of this tragedy,” he said.

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, said he was “devastated” and that “France stands ready to help with first aid”.

Algerian state television broadcast a message from the presidency, declaring that the state would open its airspace to allow the transport of humanitarian aid to Morocco as well as offering aid resources, a significant shift after the rupture in diplomatic relations between the two nations that has lasted for two years.

Morocco has regularly experienced earthquakes along its northern coastline, notably a 6.3-magnitude quake near the town of Al Hoceima in 2004, which killed more than 600 people. Friday’s earthquake was one of the more destructive since the 1960 quake that destroyed Agadir and killed 15,000 people, a third of the city’s population at that time.

Errazzouki said: “Obviously we can’t prevent earthquakes, and loss of life is unfortunately inevitable with something of this magnitude. But what can be controlled is how we respond to it and how we deal with it. It takes a crisis, a disaster like this to shed light on the day-to-day realities of people who live in the margins.”

the Guardian

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