Mourning villagers in Morocco say earthquake felt 'like it was doomsday'

More than 2,000 dead as people in small communities left with 'nothing to do but pray'

Search continues for Moroccan earthquake survivors

Search continues for Moroccan earthquake survivors
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Villagers across Morocco have been left surrounded by devastation – with some saying all they can do now is pray – after an earthquake left thousands dead across the country.

The 6.8-magnitude quake late on Friday sent people fleeing from their homes, destroying mountain villages and ancient cities across Morocco.

More than 2,400 people were killed, with the death toll expected to rise on Monday.

Hope to find survivors is dwindling as time passes.

On Monday afternoon, a French aid group withdrew an offer to deploy a nine-person search and rescue team, saying the chances of finding survivors were next to none.

Rescuers Without Borders' founder, Arnaud Fraisse, told the Associated Press that “our role is not to find bodies”.

Because homes in quake-hit areas were often made of mud bricks with roofs of wood, stone and clay, he said, the hope of finding survivors at this point is slim.

“When all of that collapses, you don’t have much chance of surviving, because there are no air pockets,” Mr Fraisse said – in contrast to places where buildings are made of concrete or other strong materials.

“People are generally suffocated by the dust.”

Residents of the remote village of Moulay Brahim in the Atlas Mountains were suddenly surrounded by devastation, with dozens reportedly dead, scores of homes crumpled and walls reduced to rubble.

The rural community of fewer than 3,000 people stands about 45km north-east of the quake's epicentre and slightly more than an hour's drive from Marrakesh.

Popular with tourists, the village comprises clay brick and cinder block homes, many of which are no longer standing or safe to inhabit. Fallen walls exposed the inside of damaged homes, their rubble sliding down hills, AP reported.

“We felt a huge shake like it was doomsday,” said villager Ayoub Toudite. “Ten seconds and everything was gone.”

Student Abdelfattah El Akari, 19, said the quake felt like it went on for more than a minute.

“The ground moved and homes cracked,” he said.

Chaos and terror followed as frightened villagers sought safety in the streets. When they returned to their neighbourhoods, some used bare hands to clear debris and start pulling out bodies, one after another.

People gathered and cried outside a community health centre as news trickled in of more deaths.

'The village is dead'

Rescue crews looked for more casualties or people in need of rescue following the biggest earthquake to hit the country in 120 years.

The majority of the deaths, at least 2,012 as of Saturday night, were in Marrakesh and five provinces near the epicentre, with at least 2,059 more people injured, including 1,404 critically, the Interior Ministry reported.

In the village of Tikht, previously home to at least 100 families, dozens of mourning residents and soldiers gathered at the ruins. Several said they could not remember any previous earthquake in the area, AFP reported.

“It wasn't something people here thought about when building their houses,” said Abdelrahman Edjal, 23, a student who lost most of his family in the disaster.

Another villager, Mohssin Aksum, 33, said “life is finished here … the village is dead”.

Baby born minutes before quake

In Taddart in the Atlas Mountains, a baby born minutes before the quake struck was still waiting to be named on Monday, the BBC reported.

The baby’s first home was a tent by the side of the road.

Mother Khadija and her daughter were unhurt, but the hospital in Marrakesh was evacuated soon after their arrival.

After a quick check-up, they were asked to leave just three hours after the birth.

“They told us we had to go due to the fear of aftershocks,” she said.

With their newborn, Khadija and her husband tried to take a taxi early on Saturday to their home about 65km from Marrakesh, but found roads blocked by landslides and only made it as far as the village of Asni.

The family have been living in a tent by the side of the main road since.

“I haven't received any help or assistance from authorities,” she told the BBC. “We asked some people in this village for blankets so that we had something to cover us up.

“We have only God.”

Authorities in Moulay Brahim tempered expectations with warnings that many areas remained too fragile to enter, while there was still a risk of aftershocks that could destroy whatever remained standing.

A minaret looming above Moulay Brahim was severely damaged and appeared at risk of toppling if nudged by another tremor.

Hours after the tragedy, hundreds accompanied more than a dozen blanket-covered bodies to the town square. Distraught parents sobbed into phones to tell loved ones about losing their children.

Mr Toudite and other villagers appealed for help.

“People are suffering here very much. We are in dire need of ambulances. Please send us ambulances to Moulay Brahim. The matter is urgent,” Mr Toudite implored on Saturday. “Please save us.”

The town also needs food and tents for people who have no place to go but the streets, he said. Its economy depends on agriculture and tourism.

Hassan Ait Belhaj, who owns several rental properties in Moulay Brahim, said the buildings were not designed for such violent quakes and wondered how long it would take for the area to recover.

The Moroccan military deployed aircraft, helicopters and drones. Emergency services mobilised aid efforts to the hardest-hit areas, but roads leading to the mountain region around the epicentre were jammed with vehicles and blocked with fallen rocks, slowing rescue efforts.

“Since the earthquake, we’ve worked almost continuously,” Abdelhakim Ait Idan, a Moulay Brahim doctor, said Saturday afternoon, more than 14 hours after the quake hit the village.

When Hamza Lamghani felt the tremble, he and his family darted outside. Then the lights went out. People used mobile phones as torches. When it seemed safe to move, Mr Lamghani and his family found their home and district reduced to rubble.

Five of his closest childhood friends had perished, he said. Still in shock, he walked from the square filled with evacuees. “There’s nothing to do but pray.”

Updated: September 11, 2023, 2:56 PM