Months after a quake that devastated villages in Morocco’s High Atlas mountains, the situation is desperate – and cold

In better times, Morocco's snow-capped High Atlas peaks were home to indigenous Amazigh villages, while the sight of the mountains attracted plenty of tourists.

But after the 6.8-magnitude earthquake that hit the Al Haouz province on 8 September, everything changed. Three thousand people died, and more than 300,000 have been displaced. As December rolls on, so will winter, snow and rain. The survivors have erected tents on the rocks but they remain exposed. Displaced women are especially in need due to a lack of menstrual products, contraceptives and maternity wards.

Yet government aid remains sparse.

Relocation during the winter is unlikely. There have been delays in reintroducing services for pregnant women and the establishment of a hospital. In Tassila, Amizmiz and neighbouring areas, communities are still waiting for cash for reconstruction from the Royal Office of Morocco.

The Amizmiz Victims Coordination has criticised the authorities for dragging their feet. They expect from the government "140,000 dirhams [just under £11,000] for completely collapsed houses and 80,000 dirhams for partially damaged ones," as a minister, Faouzi Lekjaa, announced in September.

The Moroccan Human Rights Center, in a statement, claimed politicians were excluding some relief fund beneficiaries for political reasons.

"Yes there's protests, because we did not receive help. There's the rain and the cold, as well as hunger," Fadma Ait Said Oudi, a displaced woman, told openDemocracy.

The Moroccan government said nearly 24,000 quake victims had received financial aid and more than 3,300 requests for reconstruction funds had been approved. This, however, did not seem to be the case for most of the families we interviewed; at least 59,674 houses have been damaged, of which 32% have totally collapsed, according to Lekjaa.

While they wait for the government to step in, these communities are finding solutions for themselves. In Tassila, 110 kilometres from Marrakech, there were 250 residents. Now, 240. Ten people died as a result of the earthquake. The survivors have resettled in the valley opposite their former homes.

Jamila Aznague, 18, showed us photos of her town's former beauty, with mountain greenery and ochre homes carved into the rocks. Now, awaiting promised government aid, they have built transitional shelters using salvaged materials.

They are living in crowded makeshift plastic and fabric tents. They have received food, mattresses, and solar generators from the government and NGOs, but it is not enough per openDemocracy's observation on the ground. She had plans of becoming an Islamic education teacher in Marrakech but that is now on hold, as she has decided to support her grieving community and mother.

"Most kids get scared by the simplest things like hearing a strange noise," she said of the aftermath of the earthquake. "Some of them may need psychological support."

The women have been engaging in activities that boost morale and a sense of community, according to a group of volunteer psychologists. They cook together. Some vigorously knead dough into ovals to bake the traditional Tanurt bread in a cracked igloo-shaped wood-fired oven. Others prepare tea and coffee. They are doctors, nurses, psychologists, teachers, constructors and leaders in the rebuilding efforts.


Two and a half hours from Tassila lies Amizmiz, a city with approximately 11,000 inhabitants, significantly larger than traditional douars (villages). Here, 104 people died. Some camps lack essentials like water, food, lighting, and proper bedding. People have to sleep on carpets. The rain has already damaged some tents and belongings and the survivors deal with profound grief.

In one of the numerous survivors' camps in Amizmiz, Ait Said Oudi lives with her husband and four children. Every year, she spends seven months labouring in Spain's strawberry fields as a temporary worker. After five years of relentless work, Oudi built a home for her family in Morocco. But the earthquake badly damaged it.

This January, instead of staying home to mourn her mother and brother killed in the quake, she will return to Spain to raise money to provide for her children in the absence of aid by the government. She is still grieving. Nevertheless, she will have to leave her family in a tent, a source of worry for her.

"My heart hurts," she said.

Tackling women's specific needs

Maryam Montague, the director of Project Soar - a Marrakech-headquartered aid organisation specialising in earthquake response, women's empowerment and health - believes women's needs were overlooked in the emergency response. "There were clothes, tents, and food, but the response was very gender-blind," she said.

She highlights women's health issues resulting from the disaster-induced stress, including miscarriages and disrupted menstrual cycles. To address these concerns, Project Soar offers mental health workshops for 1,200 relocated students in Marrakech.

Project Soar's initial response involved distributing 31,000 single-use pads. In collaboration with The World Bank and The IMF, it has helped assemble menstrual health and hygiene kits, including reusable menstrual underwear, buckets, shampoo, and toothbrushes.

"They've lost their homes and lost their bathrooms, so buckets become the sink and the shower or they are forced to use the roadside," she said. Montague worries about privacy post-earthquake, citing increased vulnerability to harassment. But funding constraints prevent the inclusion of consent and sex education in the workshops.

Beyond distributing health kits, the NGO conducts comprehensive menstrual hygiene workshops, aiming to combat period poverty and destigmatise menstruation.

But Montague is worried about the lack of access to pharmacies and subsidised birth control. "I fear women won't be able to control family size while living in tents," she says.

Call to action

As winter looms, the situation becomes increasingly stressful with flooded tents and children's persistent coughs. As such, community efforts, often women-led, involve not only constructing shelters but also demanding a faster government response, as seen in recent protests.

Amal*, a Moroccan volunteer who asked us not to publish her real name, crowdfunds in Tangier and abroad for food, mattresses and other essentials based on the needs of different douars. She focuses on insulating tents using double-layered pallets and plastic.

In spite of people like Amal's selfless crowdfunding work, she fears that mental health of the earthquake survivors is deteriorating. "Less people are coming to help and now it's time for them to think about what they've lost. It's necessary to help them psychologically."

As with Aznague's dreams of teaching, and Ait Said Oudi's quest for Spanish residency, every survivor hopes for stability, and a home, as they had before the earthquake. Amid sacrifices, they find strength in community and in their religion of Islam.

"Here, we are all family," Aznague concludes.

*Name has been changed

From openDemocracy

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