Rayan’s death should be a wake up call for Morocco

Five-year-old Rayan Oram’s death in a dry well not only united a nation in mourning, but also shed light on the ongoing struggles of the Rif region.

Moroccans bury 5-year-old boy Rayan, who died in a deep well
People carry the coffin of five-year-old Rayan during his funeral after his body was retrieved from a deep well, in the village of Ighran, Morocco, February 7, 2022 [File: Mosa'ab Elshamy/AP Photo]

In the minutes that followed the rescue of Rayan Oram, many of us were euphoric.

People around the world watched rescuers tightly huddled around a stretcher, carrying the little boy out of the well he had been stuck in for days, putting him in an ambulance that drove off to where we hoped he would get life-saving care.

On that Saturday evening, some felt that they had just witnessed, or so they believed for a short moment, a miracle they had for the last four nights and five days so desperately pleaded for. In the preceding 72 hours, the media reported on every minute of the rescue effort to reach the boy who fell down a well that was 100 feet (about 32 metres) deep. The story made headlines around the world. Pictures of the boy’s smiling and delicate face went viral. People who never had a connection to Morocco joined us in desperation. It seems like the interest was also somewhat fuelled by a deep need for good news.

But the feeling of relief was sadly brief. Five-year-old Rayan didn’t make it.

His cruel fate was made public by a statement from the Royal Court minutes after his body was taken away. The crushing news hit hard as a nation that came together hoping for a miracle was instead left bereft. The glimmers of hope that something good could finally happen in the midst of economic anxiety and a pandemic extinguished with him.

We all hoped and we all felt defeated. We failed to save him. The happy outcome, we collectively desperately needed, never happened. And so, people were left with an urgency to at least address the dire situation under which so many Moroccans live.

It is hard to understand why this particular tragedy drew so much attention, but one can say with certainty that it has all the compelling elements to finally put the world’s attention on the harsh reality for people in the most disadvantaged parts of Morocco.

The accident first made local news and as the urgency of the situation became obvious and people grew angry, the authorities were pressured to act and so we watched them deploy efforts to move a mountain to save him. Videos showing his face covered with blood, of his frail little body breathing were released, and so we held our breath as the events unfolded.

For days, we all waited with a mix of anxiety and anticipation, glued to our phones, and computers, watching several live streams of workers digging a tunnel to reach Rayan. At the sight of the tragedy, a few people gathered at first, and then as the rescue continued, more joined in. The gathering felt almost religious as the crowd cheered workers at times and prayed to God at other times. That people who never knew the boy stayed on site for days, barely sleeping or eating, was just one clue that revealed the historic aspect of the events.

But what now?

It has been over a week since Rayan died and many feel that the next step for the country should be ensuring better protections for our most vulnerable people. It can feel opportunistic and exploitative to use the death of a child to start a political conversation but, at the same time, how can we shy away from the issues his untimely death revealed about Morocco’s many shortcomings? After all, another boy died the same horrific way only days after, and it got little attention.

Since Rayan’s accident, the Moroccan authorities have been working to close wells like the one he was trapped in and swiftly started taking precautions across the country to ensure that such accidents do not happen again. But there is so much more to be done.

Beyond the dramatic symbolism of being stuck down a well, of being stuck in a dark tunnel, Rayan’s death highlights the structural problems that face Morocco’s leaders.

The accident took place in a region where people have long been protesting against the conditions they live in. The village of Ighrane, where Rayan died, is located in the Rif region, along the Northern Mediterranean coast of Morocco. For a century, this region has been characterised by voices of dissent. After all, in the 1920s, the Berber population in the Rif had defeated Spain, Morocco’s then coloniser, in a war, and declared their independence which gave way to the short-lived Rif Republic (1923-26).

In the decades that followed, the region has been neglected by the central government and marginalised, lacking access to basic services and not benefitting from the development projects happening in other regions.

Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, who succeeded his father in 1999, tried to vitalise the Rif and address many of its economic shortcomings, but his efforts went only so far and today, the region still suffers from economic neglect and widespread poverty.

In October 2016, following the gruesome death of a fishmonger who was crushed to death inside a rubbish truck, hundreds of young people in the Rif region started protesting for sweeping economic reforms. They, however, paid a high price for raising their voices, with many of them being sent to prison in what international human rights organisations denounced as an attack on freedom of speech.

And there is also the issue of access to resources. According to the World Bank, the pandemic worsened poverty in the entire country, despite direct cash allowances to alleviate it. The Rif region, which was already disproportionately poor before the pandemic, was also hit hard.

Rayan’s death in a dry well was also a reminder of the grave threat climate change poses to Morocco. Indeed, scientists predict, if nothing is done to combat global warming, by the end of the century rainfall may decline by 20 to 30 percent in Morocco, devastating the entire country.

In the days that followed Rayan’s death, condolences and messages of sympathy poured in from everywhere. The pope mentioned it during Sunday mass, President Macron of France, other officials, celebrities, football players, posted about it on social media as the world grieved the tremendous loss.

Still, critics point out that messages of sympathy go only so far.

“Rayan is not an image of Arab solidarity,” Moroccan novelist Abdellah Taïa told me. “For me, it’s a story about how we keep again and again abandoning the people in the Arab world. It’s too easy to be in solidarity with a young boy about to die. It’s much harder, to be honest, just, and to ask the right questions to those who hold power: Why did Rayan really die? And what the people in power are going to do now for all the others, the poor people that no one pays attention to?”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.