When he got the call about the earthquake that struck near Marrakesh, Mohamed was four hours away from the Rif – his home – in Fes visiting his wife in the hospital.
It was Sidi Massinissa on the phone, telling him that the Rif Tribes Foundation was sending help to the Atlas Mountains region, so Mohamed jumped in his car to drive the four hours north to al-Hoceima and join the team effort.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
Al-Hoceima is where the Rif Tribes Foundation is based, a grassroots organisation working to support the Amazigh people of Morocco’s Rif region, an underdeveloped area that lacks services like good hospitals, forcing Mohamed to drive for hours to see his wife in the hospital she was admitted to.
No matter, when he received the call to action, Mohamed felt energised. “When Massinissa called me, the first thing I thought of was helping our brothers in the Atlas,” he told Al Jazeera.
Echoes of the past
Sidi Massinissa of the Rif, the great-great-grandson of an anti-colonial fighter, founded the Rif Tribes Foundation to advance the Amazigh community, which he is a part of.
When he heard of the devastating earthquake on September 9, it brought on a sense of deja vu, like he had had this happen to him before.
Indeed, he had, but not exactly the same way. On February 24, 2004, he and his family were awakened by tremors and the sound of people screaming and buildings falling in the city of al-Hoceima in the northeast Rif Mountains.
Even though he was a child at the time, he remembered the panic, sadness and helplessness of that moment 19 years ago well enough that when he heard of what hit Marrakesh, the feelings came rushing back.
So he decided that his organisation, based in al-Hoceima, would work to help the rural tribes of the Atlas who were being affected by an unprecedented crisis and begging for help.
After launching a big fundraising campaign – supported by celebrities, socialites, artists, and art and fashion houses – the Rif Tribes Foundation raised more than 200,000 euros ($214,000) to buy and transport supplies from the Rif to the Atlas Mountains.
Driving more than a day to the Amazigh village of Taroudant, to the south of the mountains, the organisation set up base on Friday with their convoy of supplies.
The plan was to coordinate and send aid to the most remote and isolated villages, focusing on areas yet to be reached by most of the state and big organisations, which concentrated in Marrakesh and nearby areas. Their plan was to reach out to the isolated Amazigh communities, where road conditions were making access difficult.
So far, they have reached the villages of Talgjount, Timlit, Tibit and Igli, distributing food, hygiene products, blankets and mattresses to hundreds of families – big tents to temporarily house the many made homeless by the quake are on their way.
‘Ours and their region are both marginalised’
The road from Taroudant to Igli is a particularly difficult one for the Rif Tribes team, taking Mohamed two hours through complicated roads to finally get there. But, being from the hilly Rif, he is used to the manoeuvres such driving requires.
He is happy to be doing this work though. “Both our regions are marginalised; we don’t have anything, but we are one people. I came here, not knowing when I can return to my wife and children, but this is all I can give,” Mohamed said with tears in his eyes.
Lalla Ghizlan Baryala, an Amazigh activist from the Middle Atlas region, told Al Jazeera she is grateful for this solidarity towards her region, which like Mohamed, she says is often forgotten.
“The Amazigh tribes and families that live in the Atlas are not well located […] in fact, we from Atlas always say that we are a forgotten region, the deep Morocco that does not retain the attention of the state.
“Until things like an earthquake happen, people do not realise that there are these social, cultural, economic and medical deficiencies, as has been so palpable on this occasion,” Lalla said indignantly, adding that she hopes this event will make both local authorities and the outside world take the rural communities more into account.
A history of shared struggle
In fact, long stretches of the Atlas Mountains sorely lack medical facilities. A medical emergency on normal occasions is compounded by the fact that the villagers often cannot even reach a hospital, given that they usually own little more than livestock as a means of transportation.
The Rif also suffers a similar reality. Despite being the area with the most cancer patients in Morocco due to the legacy of Spanish chemical bombardment in 1921, big hospitals and professional medical equipment are only to be found hours away down the road.
That is why, for example, Mohamed has to drive four hours from al-Hoceima to Fes every time he visits his wife at the hospital.
Sharing a history of isolation, both regions protested, demanding visibility, in 2017.
It started in al-Hoceima at the end of 2016 as a wave of protests dubbed the Hirak focused on the lack of infrastructure, hospitals, schools and job opportunities. And it continued in the Atlas, where hundreds decided to march 97km (60 miles) through mountain roads to protest against marginalisation and social exclusion.
This shared struggle made it very easy for victims to connect with Rif Tribes Foundation volunteers.
“People were very grateful we came all the way from the Rif to help,” says Massinissa.
“They told us they still remember when the same happened to us back in 2004, and that they knew that Riffians would be the first people to understand what was going on and what the needs were in the rural communities.”
In fact, other associations and teams of volunteers from the Rif had already visited some Atlas villages to provide assistance during the first days of the earthquake before the Rif Tribes Foundation arrived, villagers told Massinissa.
“From the Rif to the Atlas, United as One” is a slogan the youth-led Foundation is using on social media to reflect the spirit of its mission and its people who share a commitment that does not end in the Rif, extending to all other tribal and marginalised communities of the country.