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Rescue workers searched for survivors from collapsed buildings in a mountain village in Morocco’s High Atlas region on Sunday after an earthquake killed more than 2,000 people.

Aid workers say the next two days are crucial after a 6.8-magnitude earthquake struck on Friday night, destroying parts of the ancient city of Marrakech and devastating villages in the country’s mountains.

Many houses in rural areas are built of dried mud in the traditional adobe style and were unable to withstand the strongest earthquake in the North African kingdom in 120 years.

“The immediate priority is to try to help those who are still alive under the rubble,” said Caroline Holt, head of operations for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. “The next 24 to 48 hours will be crucial to saving lives.” Of course, search and rescue efforts will be prioritized at the same time, as well as ensuring those survivors we know are taken care of.”

Holt added that the death toll, which stood at 2,012 on Sunday, was expected to rise as rockfall caused by the quake blocked mountain roads and made it difficult for rescuers to reach remote villages.

On Sunday, volunteers retrieved a body from the rubble of a collapsed house in Tafeghaghte, 60 kilometers southwest of Marrakech.
Volunteers pull a body from the rubble of a collapsed house on Sunday in Tafiqat, 60 kilometers southwest of Marrakech © Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images

“We think these places were affected because they were at the epicenter,” she said. “A magnitude 6.8 earthquake occurred at very shallow depths, which is the most dangerous.”

The epicenter was about 72 kilometers southwest of Marrakech, Morocco’s top tourist destination.

Throughout the affected areas, including Marrakech, people were sleeping rough in the streets fearing aftershocks. Some are afraid to return to homes that are still standing but have been damaged or cracked by the earthquake and may collapse.

Marrakech resident Mokhfi Abdul Jalil described how he rushed back to his home after the earthquake. He discovered the roof had fallen off and hit his car, destroying it. “This happened to me and two of my neighbours. We have been camping in the public garden ever since.”

Alice Morrison, a writer who lives in the village of Imliel High Atlas, 67 kilometers from Marrakech, said she and her neighbors spent the night in a tent in a parking lot. Only one person died in the village, but many houses were damaged and power supplies were cut.

“I think everything that’s cracked is going to collapse, that’s what I’m personally worried about. A little shop in our village was cut in half,” Morrison said. “We observed that most houses built with clay were severely affected, but the damage to concrete houses was not as severe.”

In a neighboring village, a family of five died when their house collapsed, she added.

Morrison described “truck-sized” boulders blocking cars from entering the village.

“I cycled 16 kilometers and saw destroyed villages on both sides of the road,” she said. “What worries me is the situation in the small villages, where you can only reach the mountains and the next valley on foot or by mule. We saw a government helicopter, so maybe they were doing reconnaissance.”

A woman sleeps on the ground in a park in Marrakech after being left homeless by the earthquake
A woman sleeps on the ground in a park in Marrakech after being left homeless by the earthquake © Carl Court/Getty Images

Holt said the IFRC has allocated 1 million Swiss francs ($1.12 million) to the Moroccan Red Crescent Society to immediately carry out support for survivors, help hundreds of injured and provide basic services to survivors. Food and clean water work.

The group said it would take “months or even years of response” to deal with the impact of the earthquake on the lives of people who have lost their homes and loved ones.

Morocco has received invitations for support and professional rescue teams from France, Israel, Tunisia, Spain, Kuwait, Turkey and Taiwan.

Even regional rival Algeria, which severed ties with Rabat two years ago, has said it is ready to provide humanitarian support if Morocco requests it. The company said it was also preparing to open its airspace, currently closed to Moroccan aircraft, for humanitarian and medical flights.

Before the earthquake, Morocco’s tourism industry was on track to have its best year on record, with 14 million tourists expected by the end of 2023, but authorities are concerned the earthquake will delay visitor numbers.

James Wix, director of Marrakech’s Le Farnatchi hotel, said the damage in the city was “less severe than initially feared” but added that news of the quake had already led to cancellations.

He said he was told the government would send engineers to test the structural soundness of buildings hosting tourists. Vickers added that while some buildings in Marrakech’s old town were damaged, the situation was not in a “desperate situation”.

“The infrastructure is good,” he said. “We have plenty of power and our phones are working,” Vickers said. “So when the dust settles, the hotel will still be open, the gardens will still be there and the beautiful monument will still be there for people to take photos of.”

Additional reporting by Samir Daoudi in Marrakech

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