Navigating a dangerous mountain pass after the devastating Moroccan earthquake | ET REALITY


The road rising some 7,000 feet above the Atlas Mountains, through the Tizi N’Test Pass, curves impossibly around the edges of the cliffs, expanding and squeezing uncomfortably into a single, fragile track. and crawls under irregular rock outcrops.

For a century, this stretch of lonely road has been known for its stunning views and dangerous curves. That all changed on September 8, when an earthquake struck Morocco, killing at least 2,900 people and leveling dozens of roadside villages.

The winding road then became a vital lifeline – the conduit for life-saving ambulances and essential aid to devastated villages in the mountains. But first it had to be reopened.

Just hours after the earthquake struck, construction crews set out on graders, excavators and dump trucks to begin the difficult and dangerous task of clearing the path of giant boulders dislodged by the tremors and sent to the mountainsides, crushing the buildings in its path.

The work hasn’t stopped since then.

“We won’t sleep until we clear the road,” Mohammed Id Lahcen, 33, said Friday, sitting on a pile of broken rocks next to the huge motor grader he had been driving for the past week.

Mr. Id Lahcen and his team managed to create enough space for some vehicles to pass after several days of work, but they were still working to clear rocks and debris pushed to the edges of the road. He said he had only taken breaks to dodge slabs of rock that keep falling down the mountainsides, nibble on food and sleep on his grader. He hadn’t been home to shower or change clothes.

In many earthquake-affected areas, there were complaints that the government was slow to rescue and bring relief supplies to affected villages. That left residents to remove the victims themselves and other Moroccans to bring them food, blankets and mattresses.

Driving along the road towards the Tizi N’Test Pass, the challenges humanitarian workers face in crossing became clear.

For days, worried Moroccans from as far away as Rabat, hundreds of kilometers to the north, filled their cars and trucks with donations and then cautiously navigated the road to Mr. Id Lahcen’s machine, hoping to offer help and comfort to villagers who were still isolated. Seeing the road blocked, they begged Mr. Id Lahcen and his colleague Mustapha Sekkouti to help them carry their bags of supplies to the other side.

“We want this reality to be a memory in our history,” said Sekkouti, 50. “I want to be able to tell my grandchildren that I was here. Help clear the way to save lives.”

The efforts of Id Lahcen and Sekkouti opened a gap near the end of the road on September 11, allowing some aid to pass through. However, temporary closures and traffic jams that slowed traffic continued for days, forcing the New York Times to abort an initial attempt to reach the summit.

However, on Friday and Saturday we were successful and drove the entire highway, 112 miles from the town of Oulad Berhil through the mountains north to Marrakech, making stops along the way. The trip revealed a country that was emerging from the horror of an emergency and taking the first difficult steps toward recovery.

The road was clear, with piles of debris pushed to the gnawed edges and dotted with heavy machinery. Next door stood the ruins of adobe houses that had melted from their mountainous positions and rows of large yellow and blue tents where the survivors now lived.

Women carried pillows, mattresses and bags of donated clothing on their sides. Flatbed trucks filled with stacked desks and chairs moved toward a cluster of tents in Asni, a town where high school and middle school students were preparing to begin their academic year on Monday.

A military field hospital, erected near the southern end of the regional highway in the small town of Tafingoult, appeared to be quiet; only one bed in his air-conditioned emergency tent was occupied and the sterile operating room was empty. Built less than two days after the earthquake, the hospital had received about 600 trauma patients: broken bones, punctured stomachs and broken backs. Most had been sent to permanent hospitals or discharged.

“Now we are mainly dealing with chronic diseases,” said Dr. Noureddin El Absi, pointing to an elderly patient who was being treated for advanced diabetes, exacerbated since she lost her medication in the rubble of her home. The worst is over, he said. No patient they had treated so far had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Near the top of the mountain pass, Hassan Ikhoudamen, 36, was sweeping up broken glass bottles and dented soda cans that fell from the shelf behind the bar of his cafe and modest guesthouse on the night of the earthquake. .

A week later, he decided it was time to reopen his café.

He considered himself lucky: although his house was destroyed, his wife and three children had survived, and the cafe he ran for 11 years had only suffered cracks.

“The most important thing is to fix the building before winter,” Ikhoudamen said.

Eager to be distracted from the misery they had witnessed, a group of young people from a nearby destroyed village came to play pool and hang out on the cafe’s couches.

“Death is not here,” said one, smiling.

About 20 minutes down the road, in what was left of the town of Tinmel, Soufiane Aarrach, 26, was digging through the rubble of her older brother Abderahim’s bedroom, looking for identity documents so she could declare him dead.

Abderahim was one of 45 people working to restore an ancient mosque nearby and died when the earthquake hit. The back half of the mosque, built more than eight centuries ago, was destroyed, as was the back of a house across the street where Abderahim rented a room with his childhood best friend, Mohamed El Ouaryky, who He was also working on the renovation. .

Their bodies were found intertwined in the rubble of their shared bedroom, Aarrach said.

“They were scared,” he said. “They were protecting each other.”

He dug through the rubble of the house with plastic slides, shoveling bricks and dirt over a growing mound of debris, until he discovered a sealed bag. Inside were clothes: a leather jacket, a white shirt, beige pants. She pressed her shirt and pants to her face and inhaled deeply, her eyes filling with tears.

“These were my brother’s,” he said. “I said a prayer for him.”

Towards Marrakech, where the route is generously widened and levelled, the village of Tijghicht revealed how vital access to the road is.

Giant rocks blocked the path after the earthquake, forcing villagers to dig. They single-handedly destroyed the homes of the survivors and their deceased neighbors with just a pair of shovels.

They made makeshift stretchers from wooden poles and ropes, and carried the seriously injured more than six miles to a nearby town on the main road.

On the fourth day after the earthquake, the mayor, Bouchaib Igouzoulen, lay down in front of a giant excavator on the main road and refused to move until it headed towards Tijghicht. The next day, the road was clear enough to allow ambulances to pass through.

The villagers have since resettled in some farm fields along the river bank, beneath the remains of their houses. They have pitched a row of tents, one for each family, under solar-powered lamps, brought water from a nearby fountain with a long hose and organized rotations of cooks to prepare meals for 250 people over wood fires.

Leading a tour, Igouzoulen alternated between horror and hope, introducing neighbors still reeling from the sudden loss of a grandson, a mother or, in the case of 15-year-old Mourad Ouhida, his entire family. Mr. Igouzoulen hugged the boy, trying to comfort him.

Now that his town was reconnected to the main road, the mayor was thinking about the future: how to rebuild his town and where.

These are decisions and plans that will take time. In the coming months, snow will make much of the road slippery and at times impassable again.

“We have to start today,” he said.

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