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In Quake-Battered Mountains, Many Moroccans Must Fend for Themselves


With debris and fallen rock blocking roads to Moroccan villages hit hardest by an earthquake, many residents began burying their dead and foraging for scarce supplies on Sunday as they waited for government aid.

That wait may be lengthy.

The most powerful quake to hit the region in a century spared neither city apartment dwellers nor those living in the mud-brick homes of the High Atlas Mountains, but many in the remote and rugged areas of Morocco have been left almost entirely to fend for themselves.

Survivors, faced with widespread electricity and telephone blackouts, said they were running low on food and water. Some bodies were being buried before they could be washed as Muslim rituals require.

The Friday night quake, whose magnitude has been put at 6.8, killed more than 2,100 people and injured more than 2,400, Moroccan state television reported on Sunday.

In one devastated town in southern Morocco, Amizmiz, a woman’s cry suddenly pierced the air. She had just learned after rushing to the town that her two brothers were dead, explained her nephew, Lacher Anflouss, 37.

“A lot of people are reacting quietly at first because they still haven’t processed it,” Mr. Anflouss said. “And then when they finally process it …” His voice trailed off.

The Moroccan state media released footage of helicopters airlifting aid to remote areas, and King Mohammed VI said he had ordered the government to provide shelter rapidly and rebuild houses for those in distress, “particularly orphans and the vulnerable.”

But the government has been generally tight-lipped since the earthquake struck, releasing little information about rescue efforts and providing only infrequent updates on casualties, and some Moroccans took to social media to criticize the response as slow and uncoordinated.

In the Atlas Mountains village of Douar Tnirt on Sunday, people sleeping outside for the third night lined up for desperately needed aid, including blankets, diapers and water. But the supplies came not from the government, which villagers said had not offered any assistance since the disaster, but from a charity in Marrakesh.

Abdessamad Ait Ihia, 17, who grew up nearby, rushed back to the area on Saturday from Casablanca, where he works, to check on his family. He had seen no sign of government rescue or relief workers, he said.

“We just want aid and people to help us, that’s all we want,” he said.

About 20 miles away in another mountain village, Azgour, both power and phone service had been knocked out, so it was not possible even to call for outside help. Young men following screams in the dark pulled people out of the rubble themselves with their bare hands, all the while fearing further collapse.

“We didn’t wait for anybody to start saving people’s lives,” said the village’s imam, Abdeljalil Lamghrari, 33.

With water-pumping mechanisms broken by the earthquake, villagers there were forced to venture miles away to find working wells, and desperation was growing.

Still, the head of a village association, Jamal Elabrki, 54, made an attempt at optimism.

“Rain is forecast for this week,” he said. “Without it, we’re afraid. It’s going to be really bad.”

Dozens of countries have offered assistance. Spain said it was sending search-and rescue teams, and the Qatari state media reported that Qatar would deploy specialized vehicles and equipment. But on Sunday, some governments and aid groups said they were still waiting for Morocco to give the green light, even as rural hospitals were overwhelmed.

Arnaud Fraisse, the founder of Secouristes Sans Frontières, a group that assisted with rescues after the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria in February, said in an interview on France Inter radio that Morocco had not given his organization permission to help.

President Emmanuel Macron of France said his government was in touch with the Moroccan authorities and stood ready to assist. “The moment, the second they ask, we will deploy,” he said on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in India.

Samia Errazzouki, a Moroccan American historian of North Africa at Stanford University, said in an interview that the government’s “heavily controlled and centralized” functions were impeding its disaster response. The immediate hours of any natural disaster are the most crucial,” she said, yet long hours passed before the king made a public statement.

“How many lives could have been saved?” Ms. Errazzouki asked.

The first three days after an earthquake are sometimes called the “golden period” for rescuers, so this is a critical time for emergency workers trying to rescue survivors in Morocco, said Caroline Holt, a director at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

But she also stressed the need to provide people with clean water and to identify damaged buildings that still pose a danger. “We need to make sure we don’t have a disaster within a disaster,” she said in a statement.

As night fell on Sunday, families whose houses had been destroyed or were unsafe prepared to sleep behind makeshift shelters of colorful fabric and plastic tarps held down by rocks or in yellow tents provided by firefighters. Others concerned about aftershocks slept out in the open.

In villages like Azgour, which lies between two ridges of the Atlas Mountains south of Marrakesh, homes are commonly built of mud bricks, a traditional construction method that leaves them highly vulnerable to earthquakes and heavy rains. The quake reduced half the homes in Azgour to rubble and left the remaining ones uninhabitable.

More than 300,000 civilians in Marrakesh and its outskirts were also affected by the quake, according to a report from the World Health Organization. Seventeen people died in the Marrakesh area, Morocco’s Interior Ministry said Sunday. But Marrakesh and its walled Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage site, appeared to have been spared heavy damage.

Some Moroccans greeted the government’s anemic response to the disaster with resignation. Memories are still fresh of a 2004 earthquake that was one of the most devastating in recent years: Then the prime minister did not visit the hardest-hit areas immediately because protocol dictated that he not appear before the king did.

Not that the country has a high tolerance for public outrage. Moroccan law criminalizes criticism of the king, which may help explain Moroccans’ muted response.

On Sunday, it was clear that villages across the Atlas Mountains — even ones just an hour or two from Marrakesh, a major city — were getting little or no official help. Ambulances were a rare sight, with most injured people who had been pulled from the wreckage driven to Marrakesh hospitals by private car or motorcycle, if they made it at all.

Jenny Gross reported from London. Anushka Patil contributed reporting from New York.



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