By Abdellah Laaboudi
As I got off the truck in the heart of the Talat N'Yaaqoub commune, I found myself in a state of bewilderment, vulnerability, and deep sorrow. Before me lay the aftermath of an earthquake that lasted less than a minute, but was powerful enough to alter the lives of thousands of Moroccan families forever. This natural disaster stirred a multitude of emotions and carried profound significance; its impact was indelible, and the scale of destruction immense.
On that evening following the earthquake, as the tremors subsided and the horrors of the night unfolded, I made my way to the bustling square of Jamaa El Fna. My heart was heavy with the fear that I might never lay eyes on the iconic Koutoubia Minaret again. I wished to bid farewell to this place that held so many memories. Little did I anticipate the scene that awaited me—a sea of Moroccans and foreign tourists, finding refuge in the open sky. It was a sight that shook me to my core, and in that moment, I understood the profound significance of being a refugee.
The once-jubilant sounds of the square had now vanished, drowned out by the wailing sirens of ambulances, the urgent calls of civil protection teams, and the unwavering presence of national security forces. It was a haunting scene, forewarning of the gravity of the injuries sustained and the monumental impact of the earthquake.
News began to trickle in from various sources, painting a grim picture of the earthquake's epicenter in the Al Haouz province, where thousands of Moroccans lay trapped beneath the rubble. It was at this critical juncture that a rallying cry echoed through the nation, from the highest echelons of power to the hearts of the citizens: "Hasten towards what is noble."
Without a moment of hesitation, I answered that call. I joined the frontlines of the humanitarian caravans orchestrated by the High Atlas Foundation (HAF), a nonprofit dedicated to sustainable development and the empowerment of communities across diverse domains. Given HAF's longstanding commitment to the High Atlas region, its presence on the ground held great significance. Its volunteers and members had forged strong connections with the community over the years, and were well aware of its intricacies.
The inaugural humanitarian convoy set forth on Sunday night, loaded with essential food supplies destined for the villages of Moulay Ibrahim, Imlil, and Achbarou. Upon our arrival, the landscape began to transform, unveiling a panorama of devastation and wreckage.
HAF’s aid distribution to villages affected by the earthquake. September 2023. Photo by: HAF
The Talat N'Yaaqoub commune and the villages scattered across the Al Haouz province of Morocco, the epicenter of the earthquake, was our next destination. Although this was my first visit to this region, my colleagues from HAF, who have engaged for years with this community, spoke of the liveliness and vibrance that mark this area. Today, however, it stood as a desolate testament to destruction and silence. As I stepped off the truck and took a moment to reflect, the sheer magnitude of the devastation and chaos defied my imagination.
The scene that unfolded before me seemed almost surreal. Thousands of Moroccans now called the open sky their roof, forsaking their familiar homes. Each gaze I met seemed to carry their burdens, their pain, and their silent cries. This was a profoundly moving sight, and it offered me a stark understanding of what it is like to be a refugee, to lose everything.
The pervasive silence that enveloped the area filled me with a sense of helplessness. There was no sound louder than the blaring sirens of ambulances and the urgent cries of the injured. Yet, amidst this silence, a message of resilience and unwavering determination emanated—a testament to the strength of the human spirit.
The tireless relief teams pressed on, scouring the area and working ceaselessly to rescue those trapped beneath the rubble. We received a constant stream of reports detailing painful and harrowing incidents, but they were also replete with stories of courage and unyielding optimism. The call that had resounded through the nation, both from the monarch and the people, was unequivocal: "Hasten towards what is noble." And this became our rallying cry as well.
Volunteers hailing from diverse corners of the kingdom and various countries, representing a mosaic of backgrounds and faiths, came together with a shared purpose—to extend a helping hand. These were moments that unified us as individuals and brought our entire nation together. The world, too, felt the collective anguish as Morocco grappled with this tragedy.
Our responsibilities spanned from providing vital first aid and nourishing meals to distributing essential provisions and extending psychological support. These efforts were emblematic of the indomitable human spirit and the enduring bonds of solidarity that thrive in times of adversity.
My sojourn to the villages of the Toubkal commune unveiled profound lessons and insights. I spent two days and a night there, and the night, in particular, stands out as the most sacred in my life. In that moment, I felt as though I was an integral part of a greater whole—a social organism known as humanity, with all its intricacies and noble dimensions.
I ascended spiritually, viewing the world from a vantage point I had never before attained. With unwavering dedication, we worked diligently to deliver vital aid to the residents of the affected areas. I had the privilege of entering their cracked, near-collapsing homes. In the eyes of the inhabitants, I saw the dry tears that spoke volumes of their profound grief for the memories forged within those walls, alongside their families.
Most houses collapsed and some suffered cracks as a result of the earthquake that hit the region. September 2023. Photo by: High Atlas Foundation
These villages held countless stories—tales of defying death, of relentless struggles for survival, of heart-wrenching losses, and of the horrifying moments during the earthquake and the ensuing panic. These narratives offered unprecedented experiences and imparted profound lessons in resilience and cooperation. They reinforced the notion that humanity is more than just a word; it is a living experience—a collective endeavor to make a positive impact in the lives of others.
This experience cemented my belief that true change originates from within, and that volunteering and aiding others is a sacred humanitarian obligation that demands unwavering commitment. Those moments I spent extending a helping hand to the victims of the Al Haouz earthquake will forever remain etched in my heart, and my dedication to assisting others will endure—anytime, anywhere.
Abdellah LAABOUDI is a Program Manager at the High Atlas Foundation