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Morocco earthquake survivors still living in makeshift camps

Thousands of Moroccan earthquake survivors still living in makeshift camps
5 min read
07 December, 2023
The Moroccan government and international aid organisations have failed to fulfil their promise to earthquake survivors. Families across the stricken Al-Haouz province have been forced to live in tent communities, doing whatever they can to survive.

Nearly three months have elapsed since the devastating earthquake wreaked havoc in Morocco, leaving a lasting impact on the lives of thousands of survivors, particularly in the Al-Haouz province.

The haunting echoes of destruction and despair continue to resonate through the streets of Amizmiz, a town nestled in the Atlas Mountains, one of the regions severely hit by the catastrophic tremors.

The visual scars of the seismic upheaval endure, encapsulating the collective trauma of the residents. Crumbling buildings in markets, debris-laden paths, and dilapidated structures depict a haunting tableau of the aftermath.

These scenes, combined with the persistent mild aftershocks, serve as grim reminders of the catastrophic event that claimed nearly 3,000 lives, according to provisional official reports.

Ahmed Ali, a craftsman from a small village outside Marrakech, Asni, exemplifies the arduous plight of the survivors.

After losing his home to the earthquake, Ali and his family, like many others in the neighbourhood, sought refuge amidst the ruins in makeshift tents fashioned from salvaged materials.

Canvas, plastic sheets, cinder blocks, and whatever scraps could be salvaged now constitute the meagre shelters these families call home. Ali now struggles to sell his jewellery and make a living as the number of tourists in rural areas in Morocco plummeted post-earthquake. “We can’t live like this for much longer,” he desperately said.

Walking through the campsites across Al-Haouz, hundreds of makeshift tents stand as a testament to both resilience and desperation.

Residents, using whatever resources they can procure, have attempted to fortify these shelters against the elements — hay bales to ward off the rain, sheets of metal for protection, and makeshift extensions carved out for privacy and basic functionality.

Each campsite features pop-up sanitation facilities and sometimes a medical hub as well, where residents can go for check-ups and receive basic care.

Tarpaulin tents line the highway as permanent shelter remains elusive [photo credit: Avnee Bhutani]

Initial post-earthquake solidarity manifested in an influx of aid — food, medicines, clothing, and various essentials poured in from citizens and charitable organisations.

However, this outpouring of support dwindled over time, leaving residents grappling with diminishing supplies and scarce aid provisions.

While the United Nations “expressed its solidarity” and “offered its support to the efforts to help the impacted population,” they “haven’t received a request to support,” explained Fethi Debbabi, Director of the UN Information Center in Morocco.

Nonetheless, he maintained, “We are keeping close contacts and consultations with our Moroccan partners, and we stand ready to respond to any assistance request.”

Leaders within the camps meticulously noted down aid allocations in an attempt to maintain fairness, but the diminishing inflow of assistance now exposes residents to a harrowing reality — the imminent arrival of harsh winter conditions and plummeting temperatures, feared to dip below freezing.

Government intervention initially provided tents as emergency shelters, aiming for national autonomy in crisis response. However, observations reveal the inadequacies of these shelters in meeting the needs of winter in the mountainous regions. Concerns persist over the structural integrity of these tents, lacking appropriate insulation and waterproofing, foreshadowing a challenging winter ahead.

Yossef Ben-Meir is the President of the High Atlas Foundation (HAF) which has been providing earthquake relief aid. He explained that there are “lots of trade-offs” but ultimately, his team is trying to provide more permanent housing which resembles storage units.

“It’s about the now, but it’s also about building intergenerational systems,” Ben-Meir stressed. Once houses are rebuilt, the temporary housing can be repurposed.

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The allocation and distribution of aid have emerged as contentious issues, sparking tensions among survivors. Reports indicate dissatisfaction and allegations of favouritism in aid disbursement, leading to protests and closures of businesses in demand for attention to their plight. 

Authorities acknowledge the challenges in aid distribution, citing initial census discrepancies and attempts to rectify these issues. President Allal El-Bacha of the Amizmiz commune affirms the government's commitment to swift action, echoing directives to ensure equitable aid distribution and comprehensive support for all affected individuals.

Reconstruction initiatives, slated to commence in December, aspire to rehouse a significant portion of the affected population by the following winter.

However, the enormity of the task ahead remains daunting, encompassing 169 affected communes with 2.6 million inhabitants, residing in one of Morocco's most vulnerable regions with poverty rates nearly double the national average. “Kids need milk, but parents can’t provide milk,” Ben-Meir highlighted. 

The Atlas Mountain's bitterly cold climate will aggravate an already desperate situation
[photo credit: Avnee Bhutani]

Safa, one of the HAF volunteers, provides psycho-therapeutic workshops for women to help them process and handle the trauma from the earthquake.

“It gives me goosebumps to hear people’s stories,” Safa said, despite running the workshops for months. After four sessions, she explained the women usually have a lot of improvement in their mental state, though they are still worried about the winter ahead.

The catastrophe's resonance extends beyond the immediate aftermath, drawing parallels to Agadir's devastating earthquake in 1960.

Survivors from that calamity, such as Abdi Rahman who is now retired and lives in Marrakech, serve as custodians of memorials, witnessing the persistent struggle for recovery and the challenges inherent in rebuilding shattered lives and communities.

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Rahman continues to visit the local souk every Tuesday in Amizmiz to speak to the earthquake survivors, exchange stories and offer solidarity. In a way, he said, “It’s quite therapeutic for both me and those in Amizmiz.”

The resilience and determination of the Moroccan earthquake survivors echo through their enduring struggles. Their plight serves as a poignant reminder of the urgent need for sustained support, equitable aid distribution, and meticulous planning to ensure comprehensive reconstruction, aiming not only to rebuild homes but also to restore hope and normalcy to these resilient communities.

“Trauma is real, trauma is brutal, trauma is emotional, trauma is ever present,” Ben-Meir concluded. 

Anvee Bhutani is a journalist with The Telegraph, formerly at the BBC, Times, Channel 4 and more. She is passionate about global politics, progressivism and telling stories

Follow her on X: @AnveeBhutani