90.1 FM San Luis Obispo | 91.7 FM Paso Robles | 91.1 FM Cayucos | 95.1 FM Lompoc | 90.9 FM Avila
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
All On Demand services are currently unavailable. We are working on a solution. Thanks for your patience.

In Morocco's Atlas Mountains, survivors of the quake take stock of all they've lost

Brother and sister Boujemaa and Aicha Ounasser return home to their birthplace in the Atlas Mountains on Sept. 12 to view the rubble of the devastating earthquake in Tnirte, Morocco.
Carol Guzy for NPR
Brother and sister Boujemaa and Aicha Ounasser return home to their birthplace in the Atlas Mountains on Sept. 12 to view the rubble of the devastating earthquake in Tnirte, Morocco.

ATLAS MOUNTAINS, Morocco — Boujemaa and Aicha Ounasser are going home to their birthplace in the Atlas Mountains — to see whether anything is left of it.

The brother and sister survived the Sept. 8 earthquake. They live in different cities, where they felt only tremors. But they grew up in Tnirte, a mountain village near the epicenter. They hadn't been back in six years.

Boujemaa and Aicha Ounasser are embraced on returning to Tnirte after the earthquake. "This was our paradise," Aicha says. "Everyone in this village is like family to me, and our family is now shattered."
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
/
Carol Guzy for NPR
Boujemaa and Aicha Ounasser are embraced on returning to Tnirte after the earthquake. "This was our paradise," Aicha says. "Everyone in this village is like family to me, and our family is now shattered."
Amid debris, Aicha Ounasser sits with neighbors under a damaged door in Tnirte on Sept. 12.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
/
Carol Guzy for NPR
Amid debris, Aicha Ounasser sits with neighbors under a damaged door in Tnirte on Sept. 12.

Last week, they met up in Marrakech and hitchhiked up into the mountains, until the roads became impassable. Then they started walking alongside donkeys ferrying water and blankets over narrow dirt roads strewn with fallen stones.

"All of our memories, will they still be there?" asks Aicha, who's 74. She wears a bright blue robe and beige headscarf.

"Our elementary school! Our late grandmother's house!" her younger brother Boujemaa, 58, says. "I can't get my head around them all being gone."

On the village's outskirts, a cousin, Mohammed Ounasser, comes out to greet them — and shares his own staggering loss: His wife and two daughters are all dead.

Mohammed takes Aicha's hand and guides her uphill, pointing out damage. This once-idyllic hamlet, nestled in apple and apricot groves, is now just a giant pile of red clay bricks and debris.

More than 50 residents died underneath it, in a village of just a few hundred.

Boujemaa and Aicha spot the remains of their grandmother's house. It's destroyed.

"This was our paradise," Aicha says. "Everyone in this village is like family to me, and our family is now shattered."

"It's a big wound that will never heal," she says.

Survivors in the foothills give thanks that they're alive

Nearly every building is cracked or crumbling in the town of Amizmiz, population about 15,000, in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. It has nevertheless become a staging area for aid convoys heading uphill to villages like Tnirte that are even more devastated.

Imane Erbeen, an 18-year-old student, was home on vacation from college and was having a slumber party with her sister and cousins when the earthquake hit in Amizmiz, Morocco.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
/
Carol Guzy for NPR
Imane Erbeen, an 18-year-old student, was home on vacation from college and was having a slumber party with her sister and cousins when the earthquake hit in Amizmiz, Morocco.

In Amizmiz, Imane Erbeen points to her shattered second-floor window. A pink hoodie sweatshirt dangles from exposed rebar.

"We were sitting there, and we were smiling," she recalls. "Then suddenly, we were screaming."

Erbeen and her family gather in an enclosed space on her grandfather's land, where they have been sleeping since the quake hit.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
/
Carol Guzy for NPR
Erbeen and her family gather in an enclosed space on her grandfather's land, where they have been sleeping since the quake hit.
Erbeen escaped her crumbling home. A pregnant neighbor and others perished.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
/
Carol Guzy for NPR
Erbeen escaped her crumbling home. A pregnant neighbor and others perished.

Erbeen, 18, was home from college on summer vacation, having a slumber party with her younger sister and two cousins on the night of Sept 8. They were in their pajamas, giggling over Instagram posts, when the 6.8 magnitude earthquake hit.

The girls fled into the dark street as the house caved in behind them. Erbeen's phone is still in the wreckage somewhere. She left without shoes.

Her home's facade was sheared off, like a dollhouse. The next-door neighbors' house fell down completely. The bodies of a pregnant woman and her mother were pulled out the next day.

"They were friends of my grandmother. They used to come to our house," Erbeen says. "We ate together, smiled together, laughed."

Erbeen is greeted by her aunt Saadia Wahman, who wept when they embraced.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
/
Carol Guzy for NPR
Erbeen is greeted by her aunt Saadia Wahman, who wept when they embraced.
Erbeen's neighbors sit in a tent near their street, which was reduced to rubble, on Sept. 11. Their sheep has a broken leg from the earthquake.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
/
Carol Guzy for NPR
Erbeen's neighbors sit in a tent near their street, which was reduced to rubble, on Sept. 11. Their sheep has a broken leg from the earthquake.

For now, an olive grove on land owned by Erbeen's grandfather on the outskirts of town has become Erbeen's temporary new home, with about 30 of her relatives. By day, they shelter under a row of solar panels in a field. At night, they roll out blankets.

She was supposed to go back to college last week, after summer vacation.

"I don't think about the future right now. I just want my family to be OK, you know?"

As night falls, this family who lost everything makes tea under the stars — and gives thanks that they're alive.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Erbeen's mother pours tea and offers food to family members and guests.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
/
Carol Guzy for NPR
Erbeen's mother pours tea and offers food to family members and guests.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.