Of his home, only his front door remains. Omar, a man with a devastated face, prefers to turn his back on this pile of rubble. His family lived in the douar (group of dwellings) of Tafgart, forty kilometers as the crow flies from the epicenter of the earthquake, measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale, which devastated the Atlas Mountains. last September 8. His wife and two daughters aged 8 and 12 died, buried under the rubble. Omar, absent from the village at the time of the cataclysm, was working in Marrakech, the large city in the region where he lives for a large part of the year. His two sons, also unharmed, were outside the home at the time of the earthquake. A terrible story that is often repeated in this mountainous region where most of the men encountered after the disaster returned from large cities in a hurry to see the damage. During the earthquake, the women, who remained in the village and in the houses, found themselves on the front lines.
Saïd’s mother is one of them. Despite a fragile condition linked to diabetes, she managed to leave her home in time, saving two teenage girls clinging to her arms in the process. “She’s a strong woman!” says his 34-year-old son in an admiring voice. Saïd was in Marrakech during the earthquake, while his father traveled the country to rebuild the roads. “In this region, men are rarely present in the villages,” explains Romain Simenel, ethnologist and anthropologist at the Research Institute for Development (IRD).
An economic exodus
In the rural areas of the Moroccan mountains, the economy is based in particular on livestock breeding and agriculture. The per capita income, approximately two times lower than the national average, barely exceeds 1,793 dirhams per month, or barely more than 160 euros. So, the men leave to find work elsewhere. “Most of them work as mule drivers, employed in the extraction of minerals and fossils or in the tourism sector,” explains Romain Simenel. Saïd is no exception to the rule. A farmer like the men in his family for generations, he left his mountains a few years ago to become a tourist guide in the Moroccan red city. “I would have preferred to live in the village but I didn’t earn my living on the farm,” he admits. On September 8, at the time of the tremors, he accompanied a group of tourists to a ryad in Marrakech. Meanwhile, his mother looked after the house.
“Unmarried girls must stay in the village,” explains Saïd. A question of honor also applying to wives, who contribute to the life of the douars to avoid exposing themselves to other male gazes. In Amerzgane, closest to the epicenter, Fatima, a small 59-year-old woman with an emaciated face, remembers with terror the seconds when the earth shook. That evening, she was able to escape from her home just before the tremors leveled her house. In a few moments, the modest buildings of his village collapsed like houses of cards, forming nothing more than a pile of debris under which identity papers, savings and valuable objects remained buried. A few days later, only a smell of putrefaction escapes. Installed in a makeshift camp on the edge of the precipice with the rest of the survivors, Fatima never stops casting worried glances towards the mountain, which she has been around since her childhood. His life has stopped since the earthquake.
Despite the shock, some try to pull themselves together. Like the residents of Azemmour, a small landlocked douar located around fifty kilometers from the epicenter, which cannot be found on the map. The village has only had access to electricity since 2012. To reach the town, you have to cross, at the risk of your life, a long road rutted under mountain slopes threatening to crush passers-by at any moment. The scars of the earthquake now anchored in the landscape and further deteriorating living conditions. The donations that flowed in following the earthquake were therefore piled up on a stretch of road at the bottom of the valley, then transported to Azemmour by relatives.
Solidarity at work
Up there, around ten women are busy in a semblance of an outdoor kitchen, designed with jute bags as a roof. Here, no walls separate the inhabitants since the earthquake. So they need to get organized. “We are one family now,” says Mina, her arms firm and marked by years of work, as she peels potatoes and carrots. Everyone follows the pace to prepare a frugal meal.
The children, now prevented from going to school located five kilometers on foot from the village, participate in chores. Here, even in normal times, young people over the age of 11 have to stop their schooling due to lack of an establishment located nearby. The girls then stay in the douar to take care of the animals, the laundry and the cooking while the boys follow the path of the elders by finding work elsewhere. In Morocco, illiteracy affects 63.7% of women living in rural mountain areas, compared to 38% of men. Failing to be able to work elsewhere, female solidarity is customary. And even more so since the earthquake. If they have received a handful of tents where they can sleep together as well as food, resourcefulness is required. These ingenious people installed a plastic sheet for going to the toilet. The laundry dries directly on the branches of the trees. “But how long will they be able to hold on like this?” worries Mohammed, 22 years old, Mina’s son, who has to return to work in Tangier.
The dream of a better future
In Tinmel, an ancient town from the 11th century, Keltoum now wants to leave his native land. This woman, who does not know precisely her age – like many of those encountered in the Atlas – spends her days waiting, with a haggard look. “There is nothing left to do here,” she says, hiding her face in her hands as rough as stone. Several days after the earthquake, the daily aftershocks each time rekindle the trauma. But these survivors are not yet at the end of their sentence. Because if the conditions are already unhealthy in the face of the earthquake, they are far from being prepared against the rain expected at this time of year, which will then give way to a dreaded winter cold.
But not enough to shatter Latifa’s hope. This young woman aged 25 blends completely into the mountainous landscape with her veil and her pink ocher tracksuit. “I can’t live far from these memories, my heart is here,” she says with astonishing vitality, as she had to pull her brother’s corpse out of the rubble. The earthquake did not undermine her determination and the young woman still wishes to create an association so that the illiterate women in her douar learn to read and write. In the meantime, Latifa lends an attentive ear to neighbors in complete disarray. His dream: not to relive another rural exodus caused by the earthquake. In all probability, this time it would concern the wounded inhabitants of the Atlas…