Food aid supports, for now, villages affected by the earthquake in Morocco | ET REALITY


After years of drought, water finally arrived last month in a parched region of the Atlas Mountains in northern Morocco, freed from the ground by the earthquake that killed thousands of people and devastated entire villages.

In the days after the disaster, it bubbled through cracks in the earth and flowed across barren stream beds to long-dry fields.

In the mountain village of Douar Tighitcht, the appearance of water was considered a kind of miracle. Villagers rushed to their fields, plowing the wet soil and planting crops (peppers, eggplants, potatoes and carrots) that they hoped would help improve the dire food situation in the earthquake-affected region.

Mohamed Tamim, a university professor based in the capital city of Rabat and originally from the town, had mixed feelings about the rising water in the Tighitcht reservoir, aware that the hard soil and sudden flow could cause unwanted flooding.

“Everyone is plowing to take advantage of this water sent by God,” he said. “It’s good but at the same time it’s scary.”

The earthquake that struck Morocco on September 8 killed about 3,000 people and left thousands homeless and in need of help in regions that have long been subject to the whims of fickle seasons.

In response, people in distant cities have emptied supermarket shelves to bring food to isolated villages. Chefs from around the world have traveled to remote areas to feed those who lost everything. And local women have organized cooking shifts using whatever equipment they could salvage from their destroyed kitchens.

That has helped supplement the government aid that is coming. But people living in the remote mountainous regions are still aware of their precarious situation.

Kebira Aznag, a 50-year-old mother of six, who has been camping outside her rickety two-story house in Tighitcht, too scared to stay inside since the earthquake, said people from distant towns had brought her family to her. bread, sardines, milk and water, among other provisions. It was enough to get her by until some sense of normalcy returned, she said.

“Without help, we would have died,” Aznag said. He did not feel it was safe to cook with gas under the tent where he had been living with his family, he said, and it was some time before he dared to venture into the house to use its stove again.

On a recent afternoon, I was feeding a small group of people, including Mr. Tamim, the college professor, and his distant cousin. He had prepared a lunch based on tagine, a stew with meat, potatoes, carrots and zucchini.

Living outside, Aznag said he was afraid of the dogs he heard barking at night and had to muster the energy to walk to another village and get food for the 30 chickens, six sheep and three goats that support his family. family. support.

He said the land his family owns had been dry for years and the production of olive and almond trees they were trying to grow had dwindled to almost nothing. Instead, they had invested in the cattle that were now penned near his house.

Mr. Tamim was in the village when the earthquake struck and was now conducting sociological research into its consequences. Food was very important to disaster victims, beyond the need to survive, he said.

“It’s therapeutic for people to eat,” said Tamim, 70, as he ate his tagine at a small table inside Aznag’s house, using his bicycle helmet to protect himself in case parts of the house collapsed on him. . “It keeps them away from what they’re going through.”

In a town less than a two-hour drive away, Oulad Berhil, the smell of couscous hung in the air on a hot morning. Cooks and volunteers from Morocco and around the world (Peru, Spain, Poland, the United States and Australia) worked hard preparing thousands of meals to send to villages where people had no way to get to a market or had no working kitchens.

“I felt it was important to contribute,” said Taki Kabbaj, 42, originally from Marrakech, who trained at the elite Paul Bocuse culinary school in France and now works as a chef at the exclusive Cabestan restaurant in Casablanca. “We sent money to organizations, but I really wanted to help with my hands,” said Kabbaj, who spent the first few days after the earthquake cooking large vats of meat and vegetable stews. “It was important for me to use my experience.”

The cooking operation, set up at an olive processing plant in Oulad Berhil and another location in the town of Asni, is run by the nonprofit organization. World Central Kitchen, which was created by Spanish-American chef José Andrés after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. He brought together about 20 aid workers from abroad and dozens from across Morocco to cook thousands of meals. On a recent Friday, 12,000 meals were cooked in Oulad Berhil and 30,000 in Asni, the organization said.

The first volunteer chefs sent by World Central Kitchen arrived in Marrakech, about 50 miles northeast of the epicenter, the day after the disaster. They worked with local restaurants to distribute sandwiches to people camping outside downtown. They then looked for a base higher up in the mountains where they could park their rented refrigerated trucks and set up a cooking station using large pots brought from Spain. Work with a network of local drivers and even rent private helicopters or using mules, they have been delivering food to the most remote areas of the Atlas Mountains.

In the kitchen of Oulad Berhil, two Moroccan chefs from Agadir helped the other volunteer chefs prepare couscous, a staple of Moroccan cuisine that is almost always served on Fridays and is often eaten during family gatherings and at events such as funerals. .

“They have their tricks and we have ours,” said Olivier de Belleroche, a chef from Madrid who also worked with World Central Kitchen in Ukraine this year, as he gave instructions to the team members cooking the food. “You give a lot but you get a lot more in return.”

The Moroccans helped the other chefs adapt the food to local tastes, adding locally produced broth and saffron (their “little secret,” they said) to the stew, before packing everything into containers for delivery. A smaller truck was carrying cooking kits with pots, small stoves and other equipment up a steep, narrow and winding road, recently cleared of debris by the people of Tizirt, a village up the road, with their bare hands.

The idea is to equip villages with basics before retreating, with the goal of giving people enough hope and strength to continue rebuilding.

“It’s tough here. In some areas, we were the first people they saw,” said Jason Collis, support director for World Central Kitchen, who traveled from California. He said the group would remain in Morocco until it was no longer needed.

Even if their immediate food needs are met, the people of the Atlas Mountains still face long-term challenges.

Prolonged droughts have dried up water sources, exacerbating food shortages in the region, said Najib Akesbi, a Moroccan economist specializing in agriculture and food security.

“These regions in the past were dedicated to subsistence agriculture,” he said. “There was a time when these areas could live self-sufficiently, but agriculture no longer provides a livelihood for farmers.” He added that some water sources had dried up 30 years before the earthquake.

Soufiane Ait Ben Ahmed, 44, a volunteer with Atlas Youth, a Moroccan non-profit organization, who also helped bring all kinds of aid to the villagers, said people were running out of the help they received in the first days after the disaster.

“Now people are realizing how they have lived for years,” he said. “As if the earthquake began to show reality. “You can’t look away anymore.”

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