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Morocco: Earthquake Death Toll at 2,500; Criticism Grows over King’s Response to Humanitarian Crisis

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We get an update from Morocco, which has declared three days of mourning after the strongest earthquake to hit the region in at least a century. About 2,500 people died in the 6.8-magnitude earthquake that struck the country on Friday, with another 2,500 injured and the death toll expected to rise. The epicenter was in the High Atlas Mountains located about 44 miles from Marrakech, where many villages remain largely inaccessible and lack both electricity and running water. The earthquake also damaged parts of Marrakech, including its old city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We speak with Moroccan scholars Abdellah El Haloui, in Marrakech, where he is head of the English Department at Cadi Ayyad University, and Brahim El Guabli, associate professor of Arabic studies at Williams College, originally from Ouarzazate, Morocco, which was hit by the earthquake.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Western Saharan musician Najm Allal. Algeria, which broke off ties with Morocco in 2021 after escalating tensions between the two countries focused on the Western Sahara conflict, said after the earthquake this weekend it would open airspace for humanitarian and medical flights.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman in New York, joined by Democracy Now! co-host Juan González in Chicago. Hi, Juan.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Hi, Amy. And welcome to all of our listeners and viewers across the country and around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: At least 2,500 people have died in Morocco following a 6.8-magnitude earthquake Friday night. Another 2,500 people were injured. The death toll is expected to keep rising. The epicenter of the 6.8-magnitude earthquake was in the High Atlas Mountains, located about 44 miles from Marrakech. Many villages remain inaccessible. Some areas can only be reached by helicopter. The hardest-hit areas are among the poorest in Morocco, where many homes lack electricity or running water. The earthquake also damaged parts of Marrakech, including its old city, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These are some residents in Marrakech describing what happened when the quake hit Friday night.

FATIMA SAMIR: [translated] I live on Mellah Street in Medina, the old city of Marrakech. The earthquake struck around 11:30 p.m. At that time, I was out shopping near Jemaa el-Fnaa Square. I left my son and daughter at home. I was terrified when I saw the houses shaking violently, almost as if in a nightmare. I rushed back home, gathered our clothing and blankets and prepared to sleep outside. We have lost nine people that I know of, including a family member and her newborn on Sabara Street.

KHALIFA MARZAK: [translated] I don’t know what to say. It was such a surprise. We were sitting here when this catastrophe happened and the wall collapsed. There was a tailor in this shop, and he was leaving, and the wall collapsed on him. We got him out. We didn’t know what fell on him. We didn’t know he was there. People came and dug to find him and got him out.

AMY GOODMAN: Morocco has declared three days of mourning for what’s become the deadliest earthquake to hit the country in over six decades. At the time of the quake, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI was in Paris, where he owns a mansion near the Eiffel Tower. He was returned to Morocco but hasn’t spoken publicly yet about the growing humanitarian crisis. The king also hasn’t publicly requested international assistance. Morocco has accepted aid offers from Spain, Britain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, but it has not responded to an offer from France.

We’re joined now by two guests. Brahim El Guabli is chair and associate professor of Arabic studies at Williams College, author of Moroccan Other-Archives: History and Citizenship After State Violence. He’s from Ouarzazate, Morocco, which was hit by the earthquake. And joining us from Marrakech is Abdellah El Haloui, the head of the English Department at Cadi Ayyad University. He’s also the director of the Master of Linguistics and Advanced English Studies.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin in Marrakech. Let’s go to Abdellah El Haloui. Can you talk about the situation on the ground right now?

ABDELLAH EL HALOUI: Thank you very much.

The situation on the ground right now is very scary. People are worried about potential aftershocks. Everybody here is talking about the earthquake, and the incident of Friday at 11:11 is still hovering. And yeah, it’s very scary. The death toll is increasing. The last number I have is 2,500. And people are still complaining about the lack of food supplies, and their houses are all destroyed, especially in the mountainous areas.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Professor, you’re joining us from Marrakech. What happened? Where were you when the earthquake hit? How did it affect the city? And again, there are reports that a lot of the areas in the rural areas are cut off from immediate help.

ABDELLAH EL HALOUI: Yes, I am in Marrakech. I was in Marrakech. I was at home. And exactly at 11:11 p.m., I was sitting in the living room. And my little kid was in front of me, and out of sudden, my little kid was shouting, “Earthquake! Earthquake!” That was my third experience with earthquakes, so it was easy for me to recognize that it was an earthquake.

We live in a high building, so we had to run downstairs just to find all people crying and shouting downstairs, not knowing what happened exactly. Some of them were sure that it was an earthquake; others were not. But thanks, God, I mean, we didn’t have — we didn’t experience any deaths in my building and in my neighborhood.

My family lives in an area which is very close to the epicenter of the earthquake, and some of my family members died there. I’m trying to get in touch with them every day just to learn about their conditions, their whereabouts. And, yes, they are cut off. They are complaining because, I mean, they don’t have food. Some of them have to sleep in open air, open space, because their homes are destroyed. So, the situation is still scary and very, very problematic.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And how are the local authorities and the government responding to the crisis?

ABDELLAH EL HALOUI: I receive very contradictory stories depending on the areas. In some areas, it seems that the authorities are responding in positive ways, trying to help the locals with food supplies, with tents, and sometimes with clothes, as well, and blankets. But some people in other areas are complaining about the lack of communication with local authorities. Someone called me yesterday saying that they called their qaid, the gentleman who is responsible for the area, like the mayor of the area. And the response was that he was on vacation and that he could not help them. So, these are some of the rumors, negative rumors, that we hear about the local authorities, but we are not sure — that’s number one — and the stories are contradictory most of the time.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring professor Brahim El Guabli into this conversation from Williams College, though your hometown in Morocco, Ouarzazate, is the epicenter of the earthquake. Also, condolences to both of you for what has happened in your country, I mean, the death toll only expected to rise. If you could talk more about what you’re hearing from family, friends, community in Morocco, but also where is the king? This word that we’re hearing of growing anger that the king has been absent. Does he even live in Morocco, or does he live in France?

BRAHIM EL GUABLI: Well, Amy, thank you so much for having me on your show, you know, and these are great questions.

Ouarzazate is a little bit removed from the epicenter of the earthquake. However, because of the way Moroccan governorates, or provinces, are divided, they do share borders sometimes. Like, the High Atlas is shared between different governorates, and Ouarzazate is one of them. And areas closer to the epicenter are affected, like the rural commune of Télouet, the rural commune of Ighrem and also Tidili. These are areas that are closer to where the epicenter is, and people’s houses are damaged. And, of course, there is loss of life in the Ouarzazate area. However, the city itself and the villages around are kind of, like, luckier and safer, despite the fact that they experienced the shock and the trauma of such a tremendous magnitude that a lot of them had never experienced before.

When it comes to government, politics and where officials are, it’s a lot like people have been saying a lot of things. I can’t really pin down one. I think the king lives in Morocco, and I think that he went to France like a few days before the earthquake happened. And people, of course, were left with a lot of questions about, like, the government, the response of the government, its immediacy, whether it responded urgently and all of that. And these are really interesting questions that I don’t have answers to.

But what I really think is the most important right now is for the aid and help and for people to really be on the ground to support the families, to think about plans to help people rebuild their homes, kind of like resume like some sort of normal life. And the bigger political questions, of course, will be asked later, because I think they could be a diversion if we ask them in the immediate now, when people are still mourning and people are still trying to just figure out who died, who survived, who is still under the debris, who has a chance at life. And, of course, I wrote a book about Moroccan politics and all of that, and I’d be happy to talk about it another time, but, for me, now, it’s really like the focus should be on rescuing people, on getting aid, on making sure that every salvable life is saved and a chance of life is given to the people who are still struggling under the debris.

And, of course, like my colleague Abdellah said, like, there are so many versions and stories and things that people are saying. Like, there are areas that are flooded with aid. And last night I was talking to people in the mountains, like really far, and they’re saying there are areas that nobody has reached yet. And they think our message should be that we have to reach these people. We have to make sure that if they have even like a fraction of a percentage of possibility of life, that they be given that chance to survive and live and continue to exist.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor El Guabli, in addition to the loss of — the tragic loss of life, there are reports that many historic sites in your country have also been damaged. Have you been able to verify that, or can you give us an idea of what that means?

BRAHIM EL GUABLI: The High Atlas is a really important historical site in Morocco. It does not just have classified historical sites that the state has declared as national patrimony or as national heritage, but it has a lot of buildings and constructions that have been important for the Moroccan history. Like in Télouet, there is the Kasbah of El Glaoui, for example, which is a very important national monument. The Mosque of Tinmel, which was destroyed by the earthquake, was built in the 12th century by the — that’s the cradle of the Almohad Empire, that extended to Al-Andalus and most of North Africa. There are also other smaller houses, where people like saints, for example, like the Moulay Brahim saint, for example, that’s a very important spiritual location in Morocco. The Mosque of Kharbouch in Jemaa el-Fnaa, in Marrakech, for example, the whole minaret was destroyed. And I’m trying to track down some places that have been destroyed, some of which I know the names and importance, others I don’t know. So what I have been doing is just aggregate this data and then come up with some writing about it later so that people know about it.

And really, the damage is also huge for the architecture in the region. Adobe houses that have been — they are very eco-friendly types of buildings with thick walls. They are warm in the winter, because the winter is very harsh in the Atlas Mountains, and they are cooler in the summer. So, now I think, with this earthquake, what we will see is a total reinvention of architecture in the area. My hope is that that type of architecture can be strengthened and made earthquake-resilient, rather than scraping it off entirely, because that would be another way, like, this earthquake is going to change national heritage and national culture in Morocco, in addition, of course, to the fact that the majority of this area is Amazigh. And I hope that an exodus doesn’t happen, because then people will move into the cities, and they would start losing their mother tongue and just become Arabized, which will be a tragedy for a million languages like Tamazight.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Professor Abdellah El Haloui in Marrakech, I mean, the Medina is world-renowned, the UNESCO Heritage Site. When Democracy Now! was in Marrakech for the U.N. climate summit, we were just amazed at the history embodied in these buildings and this area. If you could talk more, as we wrap up, about what you think — what people need there right now?

ABDELLAH EL HALOUI: If you allow me just to go back to one important point about the mountainous area before I answer your question, I would like to say that the disaster that people have been undergoing is not only about the earthquake in itself, but it’s also because, I mean, the area is mountainous and because the big, big rocks roll down from the top of the mountain down the valleys. So, many of the stories that I heard witness to the fact that their houses were not destroyed by the earthquake per se, but by the rocks rolling down. So, what’s important to say about this is that — about this disaster is that it’s not only about the earthquake. The people living there are suffering from very cold winters during the wintertime, from floods during the summertime, and now we learn that the area is an earthquake area, which means that another type of disaster is added up to the list of disasters they’ve been undergoing. This is very important to note.

Now, going back to your question about Marrakech itself, I took pictures of some really precious monuments inside Marrakech, like the tower of Kharbouch, which is one of the oldest prayer towers, mosque towers, in Marrakech, that was totally destroyed. I heard some rumors about the Kutubiyya tower, that it was damaged, but that’s not true. I checked the place. I checked the tower, but it was not damaged. Marrakech is historically well known for being representative of a very old Amazigh tradition in Morocco. And now the fact that, I mean, Marrakech and the areas around it are being affected in this way, there’s always this risk of this Amazigh tradition being — that it may be undermined, and that this potential exodus of people, because that’s a — I mean, as far as I can see, it will be a necessary consequence of this disaster. Because of this, there is always this potential risk of losing this heritage, linguistic heritage and architectural heritage, as well, unfortunately.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, Abdellah El Haloui, the head of the English Department at Cadi Ayyad University, also the director of the Master of Linguistics and Advanced English Studies, speaking to us from Marrakech, which is about 40 miles from the epicenter in the Atlas Mountains of this earthquake, and Brahim El Guabli, chair, associate professor of Arabic studies at Williams College. Thank you so much, both, for joining us. We will continue to cover what happens in Morocco.

Coming up, 50 years ago today, the U.S. backed a coup in Chile that ousted the democratically elected President Salvador Allende, who would die in the palace that day. The coup led to the 17-year reign of the dictator General Augusto Pinochet, during which time more than 3,000 Chileans were murdered and disappeared. We’ll speak to the Chilean American author Ariel Dorfman. He served as cultural adviser to Salvador Allende and has a new book out. It’s called The Suicide Museum. Stay with us.

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“The Other 9/11”: Ariel Dorfman on 50th Anniversary of U.S.-Backed Coup in Chile That Ousted Allende

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