The earthquake in Morocco turns a mountain village into a boulder field

By | September 13, 2023

A dog named Colin runs through earthquake rubble in the remote mountain village of Douzrou, Morocco.

The bell attached to his collar rings to signal his location as the border collie leaps across the broken concrete toward cracks in the rubble, wherever a survivor might still be found.

Colin is a rescue dog from the official UK team who has been deployed to Morocco and is trained to search for the scent of the living.

But this life-saving work happens against all odds.

Locals told the BBC they believe there is little hope of finding anyone alive in what remains of their village – before the earthquake Douzrou had almost 1,000 inhabitants.

But most of the homes collapsed when the earthquake struck Friday evening, burying part of this hillside community in the ruins of nature’s fury.

It left a vast and dangerous field of scattered boulders, mud bricks and timber.

Experts say such traditional materials leave less opportunity to create air pockets or spaces for people to survive after buildings collapse.

Colin, a search and rescue border collie, is shown with a red bell that can be tied around his neck

Colin, a search and rescue border collie, has a bell that signals his location

According to residents, more than 100 people were killed in the village.

The remaining people, exhausted by the shock, must figure out how to find shelter and feed their families.

The British rescuers speak to a village elder and move away from the mountain of rubble, while their search dog remains at their side.

“Colin is an experienced dog – he was in Turkey earlier this year,” says Neil Woodmansey of the UK’s International Search and Rescue Team (ISAR). He is referring to the devastating February earthquake in northern Syria and southern Turkey, which killed nearly 60,000 people.

“It just goes with the live scent. [Here] there’s no indication… so unfortunately there don’t appear to be any live victims in this area,” he tells the BBC.

“Unfortunately there appear to be no live victims in this area,” Source: Neil Woodmansey, Source description: UK International Search and Rescue Team, Image: Neil Woodmansey, of the UK International Search and Rescue Team (ISAR)

Since the earthquake occurred, attention has been on the deployment of international search teams.

On Sunday, amid local criticism for a piecemeal and slow response from authorities, Morocco’s government sparked controversy by deciding to accept aid from only four countries.

He defended the initiative, saying that “lack of coordination could be counterproductive.”

Short gray line of presentation

Short gray line of presentation

On Wednesday we spotted the 60-strong British rescue team preparing to leave base camp in the town of Amizmiz, at the foot of the High Atlas Mountains.

We joined them in a convoy.

Following two Moroccan military vehicles carrying rescuers, we headed towards the epicenter of the earthquake. The road climbed steeply into the mountains of southern Morocco.

Kicking up clouds of dust, we made our way through increasingly remote villages. Some appeared relatively intact, but in others, buildings had collapsed or cracked, and makeshift tents lined entry and exit routes.

Rescue teams depart from the town of Amzmiz, at the foot of the High Atlas Mountains

The vehicles carrying the rescue team struggle with the steep, winding dirt roads

The winding road was treacherous, as the convoy rumbled over rock-strewn paths, often inches away from nerve-wracking descents.

At least twice the trucks got stuck on hairpin bends. Finally, about 4 km from Douzrou, the team stopped.

Some of the crew, along with dog Colin, had to be ferried the final stretch in Moroccan army jeeps. The 30km journey from base camp to the village took nearly five hours, a sign of the enormous challenges in providing relief to this remote province, home to around half a million people.

During the rescue team’s searches, the full extent of the devastation in Douzrou was revealed.

It seemed overwhelming. People had to try to survive when almost everything they knew had been destroyed.

I met Hussein in the rubble of his house, as he worked to dig it out, hoping to find his family’s possessions. His wooden front door rose from the rubble, remaining as the only reminder of his lost home.

“I was here with my family, we were having dinner. The ceiling fell on me. My brother died. [But] it is God’s decision,” Hussein said.

“There’s nothing I can do now. I’ll just take off my clothes and go to the tent,” he said, before picking up his pickaxe and working on the pile of fallen stones and earth.

A man stands next to what remains of a house in the Moroccan mountain village of Douzrou

Few buildings remain in the mountainous village of Douzrou, which had nearly 1,000 inhabitants before the earthquake

A few meters from the hill, his wife and the rest of the family, like most of the inhabitants of Douzrou, lived in a homemade tent. Blankets were piled up ready to insulate them from the mountain cold that descends at night.

I walked towards one of the few remaining buildings, where many villagers had gathered as supplies of clothing were distributed, mostly by volunteers.

In the village, almost cut off from the outside world, residents say they need much more.

“My whole body is shaking,” another resident, Fatouma, told me. He now lives in a tent made of blankets and wood. He looks out over the only beacon of hope left standing in Douzrou: the pink minaret of the village mosque.

“May God protect us,” he said. “We are fighting for our lives – slowly.”

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