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Moroccans make 'relief pilgrimage' to neglected quake zones

Let down by government response, ordinary Moroccans make 'relief pilgrimage', bringing supplies to stranded quake survivors
5 min read
02 October, 2023
On the road to the Atlas Mountains, The New Arab met with a group of local volunteers. Each spoke of the importance of solidarity in times of crisis, the state's slow response, and how the perceived white saviour complex has hampered relief efforts.

Moroccans in the mountain regions are a proud people who would always put guests first. A deadly earthquake in September seems to not have been a reason to give up on this extreme hospitality.

Drivers carrying supplies on hundred-mile-long journeys are experiencing this first-hand, as they reach far-flung villages in the mountain region where the epicentre was.

A few metres away from the rubble, villagers compete to serve tea to visitors bringing aid, a tradition that, if you skip, may offend the community that treasures hospitality.

“Please forgive us. You crossed this road to reach us. We have enough now. Take the rest to other villages,” an old man insisted waving goodbye to the volunteers who arrived in his mountain hamlet after travelling hundreds of miles.

Two weeks after an earthquake destroyed hundreds of Moroccan villages, Moroccans continue to travel the narrow roads of the Atlas Mountains, bearing donations and hope for the devastated population.

“We are all brothers. If we did not come to help them. Who would? We only have each other,” Hassan, a Moroccan driver, told The New Arab.

Hassan, who is also a member of Raja Ultra, drove ten hours with his Ultra mates to reach Doaur Ouirgane, a small village nestled in the peek of the mountains between Marrakech and Taroudanet, badly hit during the September 8 earthquake.

In a dark blue truck, Hassan and his friends stockpiled canned goods, rice, and pasta. The other side was lined with boxes of warm blankets and winter clothing, ready to bring comfort to the homeless villagers.

The magnitude 6.8 earthquake, Morocco's strongest ever, has killed nearly 3,000 people and injured more than 5,600 [Getty Images]

A reminder of the state’s shortcomings 

Driving along the curvy roads leading to the epicentre, you will meet dozens of young people like Hassan and his friends, Moroccans from different backgrounds. Some have had to take leave from their jobs to be the first responders in the remotest villages of the country.

The roads are still dangerous; every aftershock causes the mountains to spill sharp rocks, bringing time to a halt. Drivers leave their vehicles to encourage trucks stuck along the deadly road with chants and prayers. Faith, solidarity, and "Tamaghrabit" have turned one of Morocco's darkest days into a testimony of solidarity.

However, for many Moroccans, the poetic metaphors of solidarity are a tragic reminder of the state’s shortcomings in handling a national crisis. 

Khalid, a Moroccan Amazigh teacher, was heartbroken when he first saw the images of the villages where his people live and the roads he hiked yearly during the snow season reduced to ruins. "As an Amazigh, I couldn't help but rush to their need," Khalid told The New Arab.

Like most Moroccans, Khalid learned first about the earthquake through social media. 

When the 6.8 magnitude earthquake struck the Atlas Mountains, people in Casablanca and Rabat felt the tremors but were unaware of the devastation that had occurred in the distant villages. It wasn't until the following morning that the news broke: hundreds had died across five provinces, including Al-Haouz. The death toll continued to rise as the government remained strangely silent about the disaster.

“When the authorities lurched back, we had to step forth,” Anas, another volunteer on the road to Tizi N’Test - the epicentre of the quake - told The New Arab.

At the King's order, the Moroccan army was deployed the next day to devastated mountain areas. But despite the army’s vast resources, the nature of the terrain sabotaged all rescue missions. The earthquake damaged many roads; others were blocked by huge boulders and landslides. 

The lack of good infrastructure worsened the situation and left locals pulling dead bodies with their bare hands while leaving others to decompose under the ruins. Volunteers and neighbouring villagers arrived days before the authorities.

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The state’s slow response has stirred wide criticism against the government’s lack of communication during times of crisis. "Crises are not a race," Mustapha Baitass, spokesperson of the Moroccan government, said in a press conference in defence of his cabinet.

But for Jamal, a villager in the affected village Talat N’Yaaqoub, a race would have saved many, including his sister. "If they had raced to our aid they would have saved her. Anyway, thank God for everything," he said with a sigh.

"We cannot even afford to grieve. You will find another family member dead. You can't collapse. You have to help the others," added Jamal, who participated in volunteer efforts.

Photos found in Talat N'Yaaqoub [Getty Images]

International aid or white saviours?

During the search-and-rescue efforts, some people have raised questions regarding the Moroccan authorities' reluctance to accept foreign aid.

Despite numerous offers from governments around the world, only search-and-rescue teams from the United Kingdom (UK), Qatar, Spain, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have been allowed to operate on the ground by the Moroccan authorities.

France, once Morocco's ally in Europe, was offended by being excluded from the aid groups.

The Moroccan authorities have denied that geopolitics played a role in their decision to accept aid from four countries. They claim that the decision was based on a thorough assessment of the needs on the ground and that poorly coordinated aid could actually harm the relief effort. 

The relief effort in Morocco has been slowed down by the difficult mountain terrain that the catastrophe affected, with hundreds of villages spread out across the region. As a result, the relief effort has been limited by the available airlift capacity. 

Although the Moroccan government has neglected the regions with poor roads and infrastructure for years, many Moroccans felt that the criticism aimed at the Kingdom was more of a white saviour complex than genuine humanitarian care for the victims.

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But villagers on the ground don't care about the wider debate of geopolitics and white saviours. All they care about is making sure those that have survived can live.

"What's next? We've only heard plans. Nothing has happened on the ground. Snow and rain will flood us soon," Fadma, a villager in Asni, told The New Arab.

"Don't kill us twice. We need our houses back," added the young woman clutching her three-year-old child. 

Basma is The New Arab’s Morocco correspondent, covering local affairs and social and cultural events in the Maghreb region

Follow her on X: @elattibasma