When the earth seized his house and shook it late Friday night, Mohamed Abarada ran outside with his 9-month-old daughter in his arms. His mother, his wife and his 9-year-old daughter were still inside, trapped.
Mr. Abarada started digging with his bare hands. He dug by day with the help of neighbors and relatives, and by night with the flashlight on his phone.
The two older women were pulled out lifeless, joining the roster of the dead in Douar Tnirt, a village of a few hundred people a long way down a narrow winding road high in the Atlas Mountains.
But on Monday, his daughter Chaima had yet to be found.
With Mr. Abarada’s shoulder injured, his fellow searchers urged him to rest while they kept sifting through what had been his house — broken bricks mingled with broken wood, bamboo roofing, couch cushions, a satellite dish and teakettles, all the flotsam of family life. He ignored them. He had an exact idea of where Chaima had been — on the stairs, trying to flee — and he and the others worked at the hole they had made with shovels, picks and their bare, untrained hands.
All Monday they worked as the sun poured down, Mr. Abarada, his brothers and other neighbors. There were no emergency responders in sight, no officials, no one but them — and then no one but him. When the other villagers left for a lunch break, he stayed, tossing debris from the hole log by log, emptying it of broken stones basketful by basketful.
Roosters crowed, though there were only him and a few others to hear. A tiny kitten darted around his feet, mewing, and he clucked to it. Onlookers from outside the village passed by, snapping photos and shaking their heads, murmuring at the father’s perseverance. He kept working, his green T-shirt increasingly brown with dust.
“Poor guy,” said Fatema Benija, 32, whose house had faced Mr. Abarada’s, and who was now spending her days in a van parked between the two piles of rubble. “For two days, nobody came to check on us. You have no idea what we went through. Hunger, cold.”
And then a lament: “If only they had rescued people earlier.”
It is nothing new for Douar Tnirt, villagers said. Medical care has long been far away, and even schooling is limited to one hour a day at the two-room primary school, the road there narrow and rocky.
The government, people said, seems barely to know they exist.
Then, about 4:45 p.m. on Monday, help, finally, appeared to be on the way. People in boots and helmets tramped up the path to the collapsed house. There were Moroccan government personnel and a Spanish search-and-rescue team, accompanied by a journalist for 2M, Morocco’s state-owned broadcast channel.
Suddenly, Mr. Abarada’s lonely patch of mud bricks looked like the earthquake-rescue scene viewers all over the world are used to seeing. There was a human chain of volunteers in fluorescent vests blocking onlookers from the debris-strewn mountain, a trained dog to sniff out bodies, people in neat uniforms, looking grave and authoritative.
Mr. Abarada stood off to the side of the debris, in the space of a few seconds relegated to a bit player in his own drama.
But many of the gathering villagers had spent the past three days on their own rescuing the people they loved and the people they had grown up with, driving from Marrakesh and Casablanca and from all over the country to get home to help.
And some were furious.
“People came from all over — we buried people, we rescued people,” screamed Omar Ouchahed, 53. “Say the truth: How many hours has it been?”
Two firefighters tried to calm him, pulling Mr. Ouchahed away as another officer directed the crowd to stand back and clear the site. He was having none of it.
“I’ve been working since Saturday morning,” Mr. Ouchahed bellowed, “and now you’re telling me to leave?”
A few minutes later, another man joined the outburst.
“There are people who took commercial flights from other countries and made it here before you,” Mehdi Ait Belaid, 25, who rushed to the village from Marrakesh the night of the earthquake, shouted at an officer. “They’re saying there were no roads, but it’s not true. Even children were digging!”
He and others — some with only sandals and socks on their feet — had pulled out dozens of people, some alive, some dead, he said. When they called the police, he said, they told them the roads were blocked.
The only official presence in the village since the quake had been a couple of auxiliary officers who arrived on Saturday and left after recording the number of missing and dead.
Without ambulances, villagers carried someone six kilometers toward the nearest medical center before a passing driver agreed to help. That person died. But at least the villagers tried.
“If we’d waited for the government, even people we managed to save we wouldn’t have been able to save,” Mr. Ait Belaid said.
Now, for the living, there was the matter of survival.
Hot as it was in the sun on Monday, the cold was coming, and rain — rain that would almost certainly turn the village into one giant mud slick — was forecast for later in the week. Snow often comes to the high mountains as early as September, and nobody in the village had so much as a proper tent.
Mr. Ait Belaid gestured at the reporter for the state broadcaster and his cameraman. “They saw 2M and started acting like they’re working,” he said, with disgust. “They’re just performing for the TV.”
Not long after, the 2M crew set up their shot in front of the rubble, the helmeted rescue team visible in the background. The journalist spoke to the camera about the plight of the village. Then the cameraman put down the camera, the journalist snapped a photo with members of the rescue crew, and every single uniformed person left.
Up on top of the rubble, only a half-dozen villagers remained. They had gotten perhaps two hours of help. Then they went back to work, slamming their tools into the stones.
“God is great,” one of them shouted, raising his shovel, and the rest kept digging.
A correction was made on
Sept. 11, 2023
An earlier version of this story transposed the given and family names of a village resident. He is Omar Ouchahed, not Ouchahed Omar.
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