Marrakesh, Morocco – The few hundred residents of Ijjoukak had to wait three days for rescue after the earthquake ripped through the High Atlas Mountains at around 11pm on Friday.
By that time, Henya Bilau was already dead. Nine members of her extended family were killed the same night.
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Located around two and a half hours drive outside of the thriving tourist city of Marrakesh, the impoverished hillside village of Ijjoukak stood little chance against the 6.8-magnitude earthquake.
Estimates vary, but between 80 and 100 residents – around half of its population – are believed to have been killed. Others died waiting for help.
In the meantime, the villagers have no choice but to dig through the rubble and pull out the bodies of their friends, relatives and neighbours.
Henya’s children – five-year-old Youssef and two-year-old Jihan, who sleeps obliviously in the cloth cradle hanging from her aunt’s shoulders – have yet to understand. Youssef plays happily with a neighbour. He has no idea what has happened.
“The wall fell down on Henya,” the aunt, Saida Ben Nasser, explains. “The children were thrown clear.”
Now they, like hundreds of others, wait outside the University Hospital in Marrakesh for Henya’s mother and aunt to be released. It is hoped they will be able to help look after the children.
After what seems an eternity, Henya’s husband, Omar, identifies himself. He had been standing at a distance, watching the conversation play out. Omar had been away, working in construction in Casablanca, when the quake hit.
In a thin and reedy voice, he explains that he does not know what he will do. The house is ruined, he says. They have nowhere to go.
Trying to help
The hospital and its grounds are crowded.
Across Morocco, people are doing everything they can to help. In addition to the carloads of first aid and immediate relief making their way into the mountains, there are lines of people waiting hours to donate blood.
Many have been turned away, the head of the clinic, Dr Samia el-Fezzani, explains. They already have more than they can process.
“Donations tripled directly after the earthquake,” she says. “We can only keep it [the blood] for 42 hours, so we need to stagger the supply.”
Volunteers are also present among her staff, looking after everything from registration to managing the hundreds of people who sit in the overflow area of the centre, as well as the crowded rooms within.
Houda al-Bass, a 23-year-old office worker, was breaking protocol as she lay in a chair, pumping blood out of her arm. There are strict limits: More than a month must pass between donations. But Houda has already donated five times since the quake hit.
“My boss didn’t give me time off, I didn’t care,” she says. “I know many people from the mountains… It’s the least I can do. I couldn’t donate my money, I couldn’t donate my time. My blood is all I can give.”
Dr el-Fezzani hopes the disaster will be a turning point for the villagers.
She is patriotic to a fault and still on a high after being filmed alongside Morocco’s King Mohammed VI. The utopian future she maps out includes new cities and roads for communities that are largely traditional and have not received the kind of investment that Morocco’s big cities have.
Asked if this new future had room for the past, she nods.
“The traditions are very strong,” she says, “They won’t lose them.”
Help is increasingly arriving in the remote mountain villages, but some of the worst-hit areas remain beyond the reach of rescuers, creating bottlenecks of aid and, in some locations, dearth and resentment.
However, since Mohammed VI’s visit on Tuesday, an uptick in relief has been noticeable. More army trucks queue in the endless traffic jams that have come to define much of the relief effort, while temporary camps and emergency clinics have increased in number since the royal intervention.
Asked why that intervention was necessary to deliver relief on the scale required, most people fall silent.
Nevertheless, across the mountains, bodies still lie covered in rubble, while local villagers – and domestic and international rescue forces – struggle to reach them. The dogs, trained to detect the living, are growing increasingly quiet.
Mohammed Ait Alla, 31, was lucky. He and his heavily pregnant wife Nayima, from the tiny hamlet of Sidi Rahal, escaped the worst of the damage.
“I heard the earthquake before I felt it,” he says, describing the low rumble that preceded the destruction. “The lights went out and I heard people running. We tried to run, too.”
Eventually, an ambulance arrived, but it was only able to take them to the next village, where another villager drove Mohammed and Nayima to Marrakesh.
She gave birth to a boy shortly afterwards. He is called Rayan.