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October 3, 2023

The “Forgotten Morocco”


Kai Hopkins in Morocco

Written by Kai Hopkins, Head of Humanitarian Programmes at World Jewish Relief

There was surprisingly little emotion in her voice when she said it. A simple calm statement of fact. The initial euphoric sense of relief slowly replaced with the grim realisation of what the coming months hold. For this one woman, it was clear – whatever the earthquake had spared, the winter would take.

“Luckily, very few died here because of the earthquake, but many of us will die this winter.”

Cut into the steep peaks of the High Atlas Mountains sits a series of small villages. Narrow tracks snake up from what was once the main road, taking you deeper into the spectacular and rugged range. We periodically stop to remove rocks and debris that block the way or to check how close the car tyres are to the edge. At this altitude the effort leaves us panting. The views alone across the deep valleys are enough to take your breath away.

The countryside of Morocco in the high atlas mountains, with a house which has been destroyed by the earthquake in the foreground

For generations these small villages have existed much like they did three weeks ago – tight-knit communities, functioning like one big family, living off the land, and relying on their olives, honey, and nuts to make ends meet. Then, in one quick but all-defining moment, their world changed. Until the earthquake struck that fateful night, no one spared much thought for these villages. Perched precariously among the olive and almond trees, they are what the locals tell me are the “Forgotten Morocco” – many literal and figurative miles away from the souks, bazars, and riads that dominate Morocco’s external image. Even today, the tourists in central Marrakesh jostled by the noise of competing juice vendors, shop-keepers, and snake charmers, seem blissfully unaware of the devastation that lies to the South of the city.

In one village, I meet Saïd, who shows me around. We carefully pick our way among the ruins of destroyed houses and cautiously walk through those that remain. The whole village will need to be fully rebuilt. Standing among the rubble where his bedroom once was, he tells me his story from that night. A story of bravery and luck. Although, as I am learning, any reprieve may just be temporary. Summer in the mountains is tough – scorching heat and a lack of water makes life here a test of endurance. Winter, however, poses a very different set of problems, and a much greater risk.

Man standing by rubble and ruin
Villages reduced to rubble in the High Atlas Mountains

Huddling in a tent to escape the baking sun, I hear more stories of heroism and heartache. A few women skilfully make fresh bread in the corner, serving the warm loaves with their home-made honey and olive oil. As we sip our piping hot mint tea and sit on what was salvaged from the destruction, people tell me about their fears for the coming months. Given the horrific choice between using what little flat land they have for crops or tents, they tell me they worry for their very existence – “we are in a race against the seasons”, they tell me. These villages need adequate shelter and the chance to rebuild their crops and shattered livelihoods all before winter sets in, which makes the high mountain roads – treacherous at the best of times – totally impassable.

Looking out from inside one of the tents provided by World Jewish Relief and partners

Some of the older women I talk to are all-to-aware that they have been forgotten for years and fear any increase in domestic or international attention will be short-lived. Their calm, matter-of-fact tone about what the approaching winter means for them and their community, belies the urgency the situation requires. It already seems the global media has moved on from this shocking earthquake. The news cycles quickly, events and death tolls are replaced and updated. Are these villages, so far and so remote in the High Atlas already being forgotten? In the scheme of humanitarian disasters, they would be in good company: the Rohingya in Bangladesh, those on the brink of famine in East Africa, and the millions of Venezuelan refugees caught in Colombia. World Jewish Relief continues to operate in all these contexts, and we are committed to working in the High Atlas region too. We have provided strong and durable tents and are planning to equip them with efficient and effective gas heaters too. We are also looking to support on the all-important livelihood recovery so that long after the cameras stop rolling and the scrum of international scrutiny moves on, we will still be here with our partners.

Tents on the side of a mountain
Strong and durable tents provided by World Jewish Relief for communities badly affected by the earthquake

As we saw from Turkey earlier this year, the recovery phase post-earthquake starts quickly – people need to rebuild their lives, they need jobs and homes and schools. These are the things that give them the sense of security they so desperately crave. These efforts take years, however, and the trauma will live on. You can see it in the faces of the young children who sit between their mothers’ knees silently watching the bread rise. They are scared. These villages may have been here for generations, but I hope that once rebuilt, those that live here in the generations to come will be able to leave the scars behind them. But that is all for another day – there are much more imminent challenges ahead.