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Hassan stared grimly at the remains of the cafe where he worked as a waiter, as a powerful earthquake in Morocco’s High Atlas region twisted parts of the building and turned it upside down.

He was outside picking up his motorcycle when the 6.8-magnitude earthquake struck on Friday night, causing severe damage to villages southwest of the ancient city of Marrakech.

“The whole building collapsed. The shop owner, his wife and two children were inside, but we rescued them,” Hassan said. “They’re safe.”

Others are not so lucky. As three rescue team members walked by, they were covered in dust and dirt and sweating in the summer heat, one of whom said he had rescued 10 people from nearby destroyed buildings.

Rescuers search for bodies among the rubble of collapsed houses in Oiojen, Morocco.
Rescue workers search for bodies among the rubble of collapsed houses in Oiojen, Morocco on Sunday © Carl Court/Getty Images

“They are all dead. I brought them so that their families could identify them and bury them,” said the rescuer, who declined to be named.

More than 2,100 people have been killed so far in the North African country’s strongest earthquake in 120 years. In 1960, a smaller earthquake struck Agadir on the country’s western coast, killing more than 12,000 people.

While the country’s main tourist destination of Marrakech suffered some damage from the earthquake late on Friday, most of the damage and deaths occurred in mountain villages such as Ouirgane, where the cafe is located.

The road between Ouirgane and Ijoukak is littered with signs of destruction. Ijukak is another village that bore the brunt of the earthquake. There is a constant stream of people walking between villages to visit their loved ones.

Military tents were erected to provide shelter to those who had lost their homes and others who were afraid to sleep in their homes for fear of aftershocks.

Medics at a field hospital treated hundreds of injured people brought in from remote villages.

Morocco map and earthquake zones

This remote area is home to the Berber people, who follow a traditional, conservative culture. Most people live in small villages, many of which can only be reached on foot or by mule, despite the government’s massive road-building program that’s spending heavily on the region.

Many houses are still in the traditional adobe style, built with dry, baked clay that cannot withstand the impact of earthquakes.

Communities often rely on agriculture and tourism. Boxes of freshly picked, crushed apples litter the area, while the clay walls built around the olive groves turn to dust.

Many areas have lost phone signals and power, and roads are blocked by huge boulders and riddled with deep holes and crevices, underscoring the challenges faced by rescuers as they search for survivors beneath the rubble in remote villages.

Rescuers warned that the death toll was expected to rise as crews traveled to villages and searched for destroyed homes.

A woman reacts as rescuers pull a body from the rubble in Oiojen, Morocco, after the strongest earthquake in 120 years hit the North African country, killing more than 2,100 people so far.
Morocco’s strongest earthquake in 120 years has killed more than 2,100 people so far © Hannah McKay/Reuters

Morocco’s ruler King Mohammed VI has instructed senior officials to set up a committee to urgently rebuild and repair damaged homes and provide aid and shelter to survivors. He also ordered three days of national mourning.

“We came out of Marrakech at first light on Saturday,” said a police officer who took part in the rescue effort in Oiliagan. “We got to a small village . . . It was like the mountain collapsed. It was completely destroyed.”

Nearby, a group of people stood on a pile of rubble, the only remaining remains of a neat row of clay houses. Neighbor Ossama Akhraz carefully inspected the rubble to see if there was anything salvageable.

He looked up from his work and pointed at a dazed teenager standing next to a pile of bricks that had once been his home. “That’s the son – his mother and brother are here,” Ahraz said, adding that they died in the earthquake.

A pile of mattresses, pots, a chair, dishwashing dishes and other household items were neatly stacked outside the front door of a destroyed home.

As night falls, many people prepare to camp again.

Next to the local mosque, the imam spread the carpet. It was almost time for sunset prayers when fatal cracks appeared in the mosque. Concerned about the risk of its collapse, worshipers gathered together and the Imam’s voice rang out across the mountains.

Two tent camps were set up nearby, one for men and one for women.

One of the homeless in the area is Habiba, a hotel worker who traveled back from Marrakech to visit her family. She bent over in pain and explained with tears in her eyes that when she returned to the village, she found her father, mother and son dead.

She held hands with her surviving brother, who said they slept outside in the cold on Saturday. A day later, they buried their mother. The bodies of her father and son remain buried under the rubble.

But the more pressing question is where they sleep. “We need a tent, some blankets and mattresses,” the brother said. “We need everything.”

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