Mosque tragedy haunts Moroccan city

The collapse of a minaret that killed 41 people remains an open wound in Meknes, where a family recall the grandfather whose absence has left a chasm in their daily lives.

Rubble piled in a gallery of the 18th-century Lalla Khenata Mosque in Meknes, Morocco, where a collapsed minaret last Friday killed 41 and injured 75, according to official tallies. MEKNES, MOROCCO, FEBRUARY 21, 2010: John Thorne/The National

MEKNES, MOROCCO // Just inside the walls of the Moroccan city of Meknes stands a ruined mosque and, behind it, the house of Ahmed Ben Amer, one of 41 people killed in February when the mosque's minaret collapsed during Friday prayer. The government initially blamed the disaster on heavy rains, but locals have said city authorities ignored years of warnings that the Bab al Bardiyine mosque was in danger. A court probe into what brought the minaret down has yet to provide answers.

Last month, Morocco's Islamic affairs ministry announced plans to close 1,256 mosques and rebuild or renovate more than 10,000 others based on inspections prompted by the deaths in Meknes. Topping the list is the three-centuries-old Bab el Bardiyine mosque, which King Mohamed VI has ordered restored to its original form. Now it will also stand as a memorial to those killed in the accident as their families struggle to adapt to their loss.

"When you enter you'll be moved to contemplate the spirit of my father, who prayed there," said Ghita, one of Ben Amer's six children. Ghita was preparing food for iftar one recent evening in the kitchen of Ben Amer's house, where three generations of his family are observing their first Ramadan without him. "Before, when you came in you'd see my father sitting in the corner, there," said Ghita's sister Amina, pointing from the kitchen where she was chopping parsley.

"Or he'd sit beside the door to watch the grandchildren come and go," Ghita said. At that moment, four of Ben Amer's grandchildren were squished together on the sofa, reciting from a large Quran presented by the Islamic affairs ministry after his death. "But if my grandfather were still alive, he'd be sitting here, telling us stories," said Amina's daughter Aya, 10. Ben Amer, a former fisherman, came to Meknes two decades ago. He sold fish in the market and lived with his wife and children down an alley behind the Bab el Bardiyine mosque. Photos of him show a lean, alert face with blue eyes, cropped hair and pencil moustache.

"It's hard to accept that he's dead," Aya said. "When I hear wind and rain, I tend to think of the accident, and it makes me feel afraid." It had rained hard during the week before Ben Amer took Aya to Friday prayer at the mosque. He sat near the front and she at the back. Suddenly there came a deafening crash. "I saw men running out," Aya said. "There were dust and stones everywhere. And dead people."

She dashed off to alert her family. The following hours were a nightmare of bodies pulled from the rubble, one by one. Ben Amer was buried the next day outside the city wall. "I suppose God wanted my father to die in the mosque," Mrs Bouzidi said. "It comforts me to think that he died a martyr, in the act of prayer." But the family feel his absence like a chasm. Sometimes his widow, Kamila Driouiche, still cries in grief and anxiety. "He was the pillar of this family," she said. "And I'm not sure how we'll get by financially now."

Ben Amer's death has cost them money he used to receive from relatives. While King Mohamed VI gave each victim's family 100,000 Moroccan dirhams (Dh42,000), Ms Driouiche is worried that the gift will eventually trickle away. Others in the neighbourhood share that concern. And they are angry at officials they say bear ultimate responsibility. The Association of Martyrs of the Bab el Bardiyine Mosque, which represents victims' families, is planning to file suit this month against the Islamic affairs ministry, which oversees Morocco's mosques, demanding indemnities for the bereaved.

"There are women and children with no one left to provide for them," said Rabee el Bahri, the association's president. "They deserve compensation." Ministry officials did not respond to a request for comment. For now, the government is planning to spend extensively on a large-scale mosque overhaul aimed at preventing further accidents. Almost three billion Moroccan dirhams have been earmarked to renovate 9,924 mosques, rebuild 513 entirely and provide temporary prayer spaces as needed. "The government's priority is serving the public interest," said Tajeddine el Houssaini, an economics professor at Morocco's Mohamed V University. "At the same time, public opinion wouldn't accept another catastrophe."

Ben Amer's family took iftar upstairs: milk, dates, soup, rolls with beef sausage, rolls with kafta and spice, boiled eggs and fluffy pancakes called baghrir. In the alley below, a few people were already heading to observe the isha prayer in a large tent nearby that is serving as a temporary prayer venue. The next day, a Friday, Ben Amer's family was planning to go as usual to the cemetery and place white flowers on his grave.