Morocco struggles to shelter tens of thousands of homeless after earthquake

UN puts number of displaced at 300,000 as international agencies fly in help and survivors try to cope with physical and mental trauma

Tents have become home for earthquake survivors in Ouirgane, Morocco. Reuters
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A week after the 6.8-magnitude earthquake that hit Morocco killed nearly 3,000 people, survivors find themselves having to deal with the psychological and physical pain of the aftermath.

In Marrakesh, a bustling tourist centre that was affected by the quake, signs of normality can be seen in the shops and cafes that have opened their doors again. But many buildings are empty, a poignant reminder of the disaster.

Although the old city of Marrakesh was most severely affected by the quake, many residents from across the city seek shelter in the central square, clustered together inside little tents.

Returning home

Dounia Mahmoud, 40, told The National that she now lives by day in her house but as soon as the sun sets, she spends the night in the tent on the street.

When the earthquake hit Morocco on September 8 at around 11pm, many were fast asleep.

“We are afraid. The only reason we go home during the day is to prepare food, as we can’t afford eating outside,” she said.

Morocco aftershock causes rescue workers to panic

Morocco aftershock causes rescue workers to panic

Ms Mahmoud said all her neighbours do the same. None know when they can go back to their normal life.

“As long as the aftershocks are still happening, we will continue to spend the night on the street,” she said.

Since the earthquake, the region has suffered several aftershocks, the latest of which was on Thursday.

Souhail Abounaim, a member of the Psycologuesmaghreb (Psychologists Maghreb) initiative which was launched after the disaster to provide free therapy to survivors, told The National that avoidance of houses is worrying. He said it could be a sign of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Others said this was to be expected.

“Some people developed a fear of being between walls. It’s a normal post-earthquake trauma,” Anwar Jaarfari, a nurse at Mohammed VI Hospital in Marrakesh, told The National.

“Yesterday, a young girl came to the hospital. She was struggling to breathe. There was no physical explanation for her symptoms. She mentioned feeling an aftershock, and was in a state of distress, screaming and struggling to breathe properly.”

Dr Ismail Shaouf, the deputy chairman of Marrakesh’s provincial council, said that “since the first day of the earthquake, several people from the old city of Marrakesh had to vacate their homes and they had nowhere to go. So, we prepared the sports complex in the city centre to host these families.”

The complex's capacity is up to 1,000 people. But because so many are afraid to return home – even those whose homes are intact – the complex is unable to host everyone.

“We acknowledge that there is a huge need … but we’re in a crisis and we give priority to the ones whose houses have been damaged,” Dr Shaouf said.

He said they are reassuring survivors that their buildings are safe to try to get them to return to their homes.

'We don’t have enough'

Fifty-five kilometres south of Marrakesh lies the small rural area of Talilit, which includes the town of Amizmiz, at the foot of the Atlas Mountains, near the epicentre of the earthquake.

There, fear of aftershocks is not the top concern. Instead, residents are focused on basic needs of food and shelter.

Morocco has only accepted limited foreign support, despite the outpouring of offers from all over the world.

The UN has also said that it was ready to assist but was waiting for an official request from Morocco.

One day after the earthquake, the government announced a series of measures in response to the quake, including the quick evacuation of the injured and the distribution of blankets, tents and water.

Almost a week later, on Thursday, Morocco announced financial assistance for survivors.

According to the official news agency MAP, the royal office announced emergency assistance of 30,000 dirhams (about $2,930) to the affected households.

The state agency also reported the allocation of financial assistance of 140,000 dirhams ($13,676) for completely destroyed homes, while 80,000 dirhams ($7,815) will be allocated for rehabilitation work on partially collapsed residences.

There are no official estimates of the number of destroyed houses. But the UN estimates the quake affected the lives of 300,000 people.

Meanwhile, the residents of quake-hit rural areas like Talilit, who are living in tents made up of their personal blankets after losing their houses, continue to complain of the lack of sufficient aid.

“Talilit is divided into three camps. We are in the middle camp. Aid is not reaching us here. It only reaches the camp adjacent to the road,” said villager Fatima Ouchn, 40, whose house was destroyed.

“It's so cold at night and our children are all coughing, we don’t have enough blankets,” she said.

When asked about food assistance, Ms Ouchn told The National that a few days ago they received some food from one of the charities but since then they have been eating the same food for a week – canned fish and biscuits – some children are starting to develop allergies.

Her four-year-old son had a rash all over his body.

“He never had it before. It started after we began eating this canned fish. We used to eat fresh vegetables,” she said.

“I miss vegetables and fruit,” the boy said.

Mehdi Alaoui, the representative for the Red Cross in Morocco, told The National that the assistance was being distributed across all affected areas.

“At times, reaching smaller towns proves to be a challenge, but the teams are making every effort to ensure tents and essential supplies reach every village,” he said.

This article was published in collaboration with Egab.

Updated: September 17, 2023, 10:12 AM