Morocco earthquake: death toll surpasses 2,800 as foreig aid flies in

As scale of disaster become clearer, survivors in small mountain communities feel they have been abandoned.

As the dirt roads leading to some of the areas worst hit in Friday’s earthquake in Morocco were gradually cleared, the full extent of the disaster was being revealed, including whole villages destroyed in Al Haouz province.

In the tiny hamlet of Tarouiste, in the Atlas mountain foothills above the town of Amizmiz, not one of a dozen houses was left standing. Only the village mosque had not been reduced to rubble.

With the first international search and rescue teams finally deploying to the worst-affected areas on Monday, after a disaster that has claimed at least 2,800 lives, it was clear that the window to find anyone alive beneath the rubble was rapidly closing.

As relief efforts stepped up a gear, the Guardian visited a series of mountain villages that had been almost entirely destroyed, where residents said they felt they had been abandoned.

In Tarouiste, people described how they had been left to carry the dead bodies of six neighbours down the mountain where they were met by private cars, as no ambulances or other government aid had yet reached them.

“No one has come to help us,” said Hassan al-Mati, whose mother was one of those who died, with frustration in his voice. “We need trucks to come to help us move the dead animals buried in the rubble. We need tents and food. We feel like we have been abandoned.

Villagers digging a house out of a huge mound of rubble
Villagers in the tiny Atlas mountains hamlet of Tarouiste dig out a house in a hamlet where every one of a dozen houses was destroyed in a 6.8 earthquake. Like many other villagers they say they have yet to see aid reach them three days after the quake. Photograph: Peter Beaumont/The Guardian
“Six people died in this village and six others were injured. We had to carry them down to the river where we could take them to the hospital in cars.”

Like many across these mountains, the villagers of Tarouiste were now sleeping in the open. Hassan took the Guardian to meet his family, who were sitting on carpets shaded from the sun by sheets stretched on wooden poles.

Two of the children had uncovered wounds on their faces where they had been hit by falling debris. Two of the women were still visibly in shock, one bursting into tears.

Asked about other villages higher in the mountains, the residents of Tarouiste listed the ones they had news about, all of them similarly damaged.

Ten minutes drive away, the scene in Tafeghaghte was more shocking still. Residents said 90 people had died here, in a village of about 400 that has existed for centuries.

While the bodies of the dead had been dug out, remains of animals still lay in the rubble, causing a smell that permeated the place.

Almost every person to whom the Guardian spoke told a story of horrific loss, some involving entire families.

Abdelkebr ait al Ghouinbaz was standing on the ruined wall of his house surveying where his family had died. Two relatives were clambering through the rubble to recover what was left of his possessions.

As they gathered up bedding, one of the men removed an envelope with a picture of a young woman in a white headscarf. The woman had died in the collapsed bedroom.

“My wife, my father and my daughter were all killed,” Abdelkebr said. “I am alive because when I heard the noise [of the earthquake] I moved faster.”

Other villagers told the same story. “There are no houses left,” said Taib ait Laghoubas, who lost his parents in a house where only the door and frame could still be seen standing. “Everything is gone. I was inside my house when it happened. It took just a matter of seconds. There was no chance for people to escape. My neighbours helped get me out.”

He added: “We have food. That’s not a problem. The biggest problem is that it is cold at night and we have no tents, no beds or clothes.”

Taib said the Moroccan army had come to help in the immediate aftermath, bringing search dogs and helping dig people out of the rubble, but what they needed now was not coming.

Asked whether there was anything to stay for, Taib said he would remain despite the devastation. “People will stay because they were born here. Amin, amin,” he added softly, appealing to God for peace.

It was a picture that was not limited to one corner of these mountains but had become familiar across a vast swathe of the Atlas. Footage from the remote village of Imi N’Tala filmed by a Spanish rescuer, Antonio Nogales, of the aid group United Firefighters Without Border, showed men and dogs clambering over steep slopes covered in rubble.

“The level of destruction is … absolute,” Nogales said, struggling to find the right word to describe what he was seeing. “Not a single house has stayed upright. We’re going to start our search with dogs and see whether we can find anyone alive.”

While aid efforts struggled to reach even these villages relatively close to the main road, rescuers were converging on the city of Amizmiz.

Tented encampments for those who had lost their homes were appearing on every available patch of open ground and aid distributions were visible in neighbourhoods.

Rescue workers cautioned that the chances of finding more survivors under the rubble were very slim, not least because of the nature of the disaster, with the most heavily damaged buildings made of clay brick that disintegrated almost entirely as they collapsed.

“It’s difficult to pull people out alive because most of the walls and ceilings turned to earthen rubble when they fell, burying whoever was inside without leaving air space,” a military worker told Reuters, asking not to be named because of army rules.

In a field just outside Amizmiz, Moroccan troops and recently arrived international rescue teams, including a British government-deployed team that had arrived the night before, were setting up an extensive encampment.

“We arrived late last night,” said Russ Gordon, the British team leader, as his personnel were already deploying to three locations. “At the moment we are still assessing. We’re still just in the window of 72-96 hours where it is possible that somehow who is entombed might be able to survive if they have access to liquids. Until it’s called, we will operate as search and rescue operation before moving to a recovery effort.”

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