In Morocco’s earthquake-ravaged villages, rescuers have found only bodies

TALAT N’YAAQOUB, Morocco — The death toll from Morocco’s devastating earthquake neared 3,000, the government announced Monday, as international rescue teams arrived and emergency workers struggled to reach those trapped under rubble, in remote mountain villages, on roads, among the biggest obstacles. Blocked by landslides – burst into view.

Washington Post reporters toured devastated villages in the High Atlas mountains south of Marrakesh: from Asni, at the foothills, where the army has set up a field hospital, to the Werkane reservoir, where more than half a dozen members of a single family live. were slain, as far as Talat Nyakub, where the destruction seemed total and the smell of death was everywhere.

Friday’s 6.8-magnitude earthquake, the strongest to hit Morocco in more than a century, killed at least 2,862 people and injured more than 2,500 – devastating communities already struggling with poverty and isolation. On Sunday, the Moroccan government said it had accepted some foreign aid for rescue efforts, including from Spain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Britain.

A team of rescue workers and local residents search for survivors amid the rubble on September 11 in Elbor, Morocco. (Video: Claire Parker)

But other governments, including Germany, given the enormity of the challenge and the shrinking time left to find survivors, met their offers of help with silence, confusion and consternation.

A 50-member team from Germany’s Technical Relief Agency gathered at Cologne Bonn Airport over the weekend, but was sent home on Sunday. Rescuers have also landed in other parts of Europe, including France.

In the quake zone on Monday, rescue efforts were carried out by emergency responders, including soldiers and government civil defense workers, volunteers from the private sector and local residents, who dug through rubble to rescue relatives, often with their hands. Military helicopters flew overhead, apparently trying to reach the most remote areas.

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A rescue team listens for voices in the rubble in Anoukal, Morocco on September 11 following the country’s worst earthquake in more than six decades. (Video: Reuters)

At Asni, about 25 miles south of Marrakesh, a military field hospital and displacement camp was set up for civilians from devastated communities in the surrounding mountains. A field hospital equipped for surgery had no patients early Monday morning as soldiers rushed to complete it, and several nearby ambulances sat idle.

Morocco’s civil defense service set up 30 tents for families, sometimes double them. Inside, women and children sat on thick mats on the floor. Tea kettles were housed in propane tanks. After two days at the camp, dusty young children played in the dirt. A family in a tent said they had received some food and supplies from the government, but it would not be enough without help from private groups.

There are no toilets, so when people need to use the bathroom, they go to one of the nearby dilapidated houses, a woman said.

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In Elbor, a small mountain village located above the Ouirgane reservoir, a team of rescue workers from the Moroccan army worked day and night from early Saturday to retrieve bodies from the rubble. One of them, Imad Elbachir, said that immediately after the earthquake, four teams of rescue workers – a total of 44 workers – were immediately dispatched to the area.

Early Saturday morning, they managed to pull out two survivors, including a 12-year-old boy named Hamza. He was taken to hospital with minor injuries, but in total shock, lost his entire family, Elbachir said.

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Since then, with the help of a large excavator and men from the village, they have carefully exhumed the dead. The bodies were washed in stechers according to Muslim rites and then buried in a hillside cemetery on the edge of the village.

As of noon Monday, Elbachir said military rescuers had retrieved 14 bodies. Only three remained. One belonged to a 7-year-old boy named Badr, whose mother, Habiba, lay in a nearby clearing to bury her only son.

Her entire family — parents, husband, two brothers and their wives — died in the earthquake, which reduced their home to wood, concrete and crumbling red clay.

The village women touched Habiba’s head and rubbed her forehead. “Thank God, at least he died near you, so you can bury him,” a woman murmured to her.

Around the corner, rescuers used an excavator, shovels and their bare hands to clear a path to Badr. Suddenly, a man called a blanket and rushed to the clearing. Habiba gets up, leans on the shoulders of two of her neighbors and rushes towards the rescue platform, wailing. Just before the boy was dragged out, the women let Habiba out of her sight.

Rescuers lifted the stretcher and lowered it onto the main road, covering the tiny body with a purple blanket. After Badr was washed, Habiba lay breathless on a dirty pink mattress outside the building. Rescue workers and villagers later carried the body across town. Heads bowed, they lined up to say a final prayer before the body was taken to the grave. They gently placed the small bundle, wrapped in white cloth, in the red earth before covering it with concrete blocks.

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Rania Najji, 24, whose family lived near Habiba, said the villagers all slept in the open in the cold at night. No tents have arrived, but donors have brought plenty of food, he said.

“The Moroccan government has not brought us anything beyond rescue aid and civil protection services,” he said. “People want access to food, milk for babies, clothes, diapers.”

On Monday evening, emergency personnel, doctors and nurses were seen arriving in the village.

aa The road to Talat N’Yacoub in Morocco in the days following the 6.8-magnitude earthquake. (Video: Claire Parker)

Twenty miles south, the approach to Talat N’yaakoub, a small town with a central market, was choked with ambulances and private cars driven by volunteers bringing supplies, along a narrow mountain road full of switchbacks and littered with rock debris. Necessary supplies – water, blankets, food – were carried on the backs of donkeys to reach villages inaccessible by car.

Inside the town, nothing is spared: mud-brick houses and concrete shops lie in heaps. Rescue workers, in teams of 20 or 30, worked until exhaustion digging up the bodies, then were replaced by other teams.

Hamza Jilaf, a volunteer medic, said he and colleagues were the first rescuers to arrive in Talat Nyakub on Sunday night – deciding to “come and help”. A team from the town of Kauribka, 150 miles away, brought three private ambulances, he said.

The road was “very difficult”; A bulldozer had to remove rocks to allow the team to move. They spent the night in Talat N’yaqoub, “giving aid and medicine to as many people as we could,” he said. They continued up the hill on Monday and provided assistance to seven more villages.

“The scenes were horrific,” he said. “No electricity, no water, no food. Those with broken limbs and backs. People with open wounds and respiratory problems.”

In Talat N’yaqub on Monday, civil defense responders no longer hoped to save people. Now the job, said a rescuer, is a “rescue mission”.

Morris reported from Berlin and Fahim from Istanbul.

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