The Day the Earth “Didn’t” Stand Still

The tents started in ones and twos, and progressed to an almost solid wall on either side of the road. Outside many of them, people were working around fires, making tea and breakfast. I had yet to see any physical earthquake damage, but the strain on the faces of the people, and the sheer numbers of tents, removed any doubt one may have had about the severity of the last few days’ events.

I was enjoying the company of some new friends in Rabat, when a news report of an earthquake near the coastal city of Al Hoceima, that had occurred early on the morning of February 24th, appeared on the television. There weren’t any photographs or video, and the initial commentary didn’t give much detail. As most of us do when we see this kind of thing on the news, I took it in for a moment and then promptly went on to enjoy my breakfast of milwee and tea.

For the next couple of days I had no access to a television or radio and had let the news slip from my mind, but upon my arrival in Meknes, I began to hear reports of severe aftershocks and a large number of dead and injured. I was again enjoying a meal with a friend and his family when I made the decision to venture north and see if I could help. I had long had a desire to get involved in humanitarian aid but had never made the jump. I was hopeful that my skills as a fire fighter, paramedic and nurse would be useful in the apparently worsening situation. Easier said than done.

After securing a ticket on CTM, the Moroccan bus line, I began the overnight journey to the beautiful Mediterranean coast. I tried to sleep, but with the sound of many passengers vomiting in the stairwells, and my own brutal nausea, it was a lost cause. It was hot inside the bus and the roads, while in good condition, were never straight for long. I had never had a travel sickness problem…until now. At one of the stops along the route, I left the bus and feverishly dug through my pack for some Phenergan to ease my suffering. I wasn’t sure I was even going to be able to keep it down until it kicked in, but willpower, or maybe just luck, prevailed and my insides stayed inside. After a nice drug-induced nap, I awoke just as the sun was coming up and we were entering Al Hoceima. The amazing view of the blue sea and the serene mountains belied the destruction that had occurred here.

With the scale of damage, I had no doubts I could be useful, and set off to find a way “onto the field”. I stopped at a hotel, where a French journalist told me of a staging area down the road, a mile or so, where the efforts were being coordinated. I walked into a school that had been commandeered by the military, and in my broken Moroccan Arabic and French, I explained my desire to help to one of the guards. He told me to wait in the lobby for the “mayor”, who would arrive soon, and who could give me permission to join the operation. I wandered into an adjoining room where several journalists were eating and awaiting a press conference. After accepting the cook’s offer of breakfast, I inquired with several of the reporters about what agencies were involved. I was given the name of the head of the U.S. Aid Contingency and told that I could find them at a hotel a short distance along the street. After waiting an hour for the “mayor” to show up, I shouldered my pack and tried again.

The clerk at the hotel desk told me the U.S. aid folks were in a meeting, and that I could wait in the lobby for them. When they walked out of the meeting I introduced myself to the officials and volunteered to help in anyway I could. They were very polite but promptly declined my offer as they said they didn’t have time to find a place for me. Get this…they were “late for another meeting.” One of the guys took my number and said he would call me when he got a chance. To his credit he did, nearly ten hours later, to tell me he had found nothing.
Dejected, after the lobby dismissal, I headed out to the street to try and find someone, anyone, who could use assistance. A Spanish medical team was pulling out of the parking lot in Land Rovers, and I was able to attract their attention. They thanked me for my willingness but said they had no room in their vehicles for another person. Strike three.

It was nearly 9 am, and I decided I would secure a hotel room in town, take a shower (as it had been a few days) and continue my search. As I was checking into the hotel, a group of Spanish journalists asked me if I was a colleague. I told them I wasn’t and explained my situation. I learned that they were preparing to leave for Imzouren, a town about 20 km away that had suffered heavy damage; they had a spare seat in their car, and it was mine if I wanted. The shower would just have to wait. I could live with the odor, though I wasn’t sure the Spaniards would be so happy.

Crammed into the extra “seat” between where a passenger would normally sit, and the door with a giant TV camera in my lap, we headed southeast to Imzouren. Nearly 25,000 people call Imzouren home and it appeared that the majority of them were now living in tents, distributed by the Red Crescent Society and Moroccan military. The radio was now reporting the death toll at over 500, with many thousands more injured by the 6.3 quake. By comparison, Morocco’s worst earthquake was in 1960, when over 12,000 people lost their lives. Federal police lined the roads and the military manned the checkpoints at the entrances to the city. We were waved through and directed to a field where a few other TV trucks were parked. I climbed out, thanked the crew, and made my way through a city of tents, roughly 300 meters long and 150 meters wide. It had been set up in a field to the east of the city and I found it surprisingly well organized. There were people in and around all of the tents, as well as lined up against metal barricades that the military had erected. In a destroyed building nearby, there appeared to be an active search and rescue operation occurring, as men in orange jumpsuits worked in and around the collapsed structure.

I spotted a Red Crescent Flag and made my way towards it. The tents changed from white to green and the flag marked the center of this military area. There was no clear “front door”, so I made my way through the tents in an effort to make contact. As I rounded a corner a startled soldier with an automatic rifle jumped up and stepped in front of me. I introduced myself and explained that I wanted to help. He looked very uncomfortable and wouldn’t say much. Another man appeared from a tent. His well-embellished uniform made it obvious he was high ranking. “I am the head physician…how did you get in here? This is a restricted area.” After listening to my story and staring at my credentials for a few moments, he told me of a civilian aid group called the Mohammed V Foundation, operating on the other side of the site. “Perhaps they have work for you” he said. I thanked him and ventured off.

I found the three trailers positioned in a u-shape. The first person I approached was a man in a white coat with a friendly face. His name was Shible Sahbani and he happened to be the physician in charge of this operation. He spoke excellent English and was instantly welcoming. He introduced me to the other team members and said that I could stay and assist them. There were a total of six doctors from various specialties, and they also had a few firefighters that were operating as drivers and equipment handlers. In addition, a contingent of military nurses were assisting with the flow and screening of patients.

The operation was very well set up. One trailer was for men, one for women, and one for diagnostics. My first assignment was to stock one of the trailers with medications…not all that exciting but at least I was helping. By the time we’d finished, boxes and boxes of antibiotics and painkillers were overflowing from every possible storage space. After lunch I assisted one of the physicians in his assessments and treatments. Occasionally someone with a serious injury or medical condition would be brought in. Those patients were quickly sent on to the hospital in Al Hoceima by ambulance. Most of the people we treated had minor injuries and complaints.

The physician I was assisting, Dr. Hakim Masrour, was an emergency room doctor with a powerful presence. He was efficient, professional, and friendly, but was growing increasingly frustrated with the number of people seeking free treatment for conditions they had obviously had for years. The operation was set up to benefit victims of the earthquake, and with the long lines outside, I could understand his frustration.

Things slowed down in the evening and I took a break to walk around the camp and take some pictures. Bread and water trucks made regular appearances and the people seemed to generally be in good spirits given their situation. Apparently, I was the only American in Imzouren at the time and wherever I went, large crowds gathered around. At first they didn’t say anything; they just stared at me. It was never threatening, but still unsettling. I used my limited Arabic and French to inquire about their families and homes. Their faces brightened and many of them tried to engageme in conversation. They expressed, over and over, how grateful they were that I was there. I tried to explain to them that I was doing very little, compared to most of the aid workers here, but they would have nothing of it. I was their focus for praise, so I accepted it reluctantly while reminding myself that there were people, still digging through the rubble in this and many other towns, as well as the medical staff at the hospital, engineers, logistics personnel, and scores of others, trying to help these people normalize their lives.

Security tightened that night, as the king was coming to visit. After a few hours of ‘hurry up and wait”, it was announced that he would not be arriving until the next day, so I made my way toward the main part of town to find a taxi back to Al Hoceima. Unable to find the usual collection of old Mercedes “grand taxis”, I began to walk along the main road sure that I could flag one down. For all the hospitality I had experienced in town, I couldn’t get a taxi or any other vehicle to stop and give me a ride. It was late, dark, and I had trekked half the distance from Imzouren to Al Hoceima, when I stumbled across a small collection of buildings and beheld a lovely sight…a CTM bus bound for Al Hoceima. I rounded the front just as the driver was getting on the empty bus. I was prepared to pay him a ridiculous sum of money to take me the rest of the way but he told me to get in and put away the Dirhams. In Al Hoceima, I thanked him profusely as I exited the bus, slogged to my hotel, took that long over due shower, and promptly passed out.

The next morning I joined the Mohammed V Foundation team for breakfast in their hotel; the same hotel the U.S. Aid contingency was staying at. After greeting my Moroccan friends, I looked to the Americans’ table and noted their surprise at seeing me with the Moroccan team. I wandered over and bid them good morning. While not overtly rude, they definitely weren’t extending any effort at conversation. I tried to give them the benefit of the doubt, as I knew they were probably tired as well but I expected more hospitality from my own countrymen. After a hearty breakfast that Shible insisted on paying for, we loaded medical supplies into SUVs and headed to Imzouren, where we were to coordinate with the rest of the team. A smaller contingency was then to travel to some remote villages to render aid, and I was invited.

Crammed in on top of boxes in the back of a Land Cruiser, we pulled through the security gates and began unloading supplies to the trailers. After a bit of planning, Shible came to me with a disappointed look on his face and told me that, due to the King’s impending visit, they were going to have to stay in Imzouren. Bureaucracy is the same the world over. We spent most of that day in clinic again. In the afternoon I was told that the King’s security team would not allow me to stay in the secured area during the visit. Obviously if I had continued to help it would have been a threat to the kingdom’s welfare! Shible attempted to keep me around as long as possible but eventually I had to go. I thanked him for allowing me to participate and headed down the road. Able to secure a taxi this time, I rode back to Al Hoceima to begin making my way north to Spain, to catch my flight home to the U.S.

I had spent three weeks in Morocco and this experience was a fitting end to my journey. I met many wonderful people, made some new friends, and saw first hand the resiliency of human beings. My hope is to return to North Africa in the future and see how the people I saw meandering through a village of tents pulled through. Until then…au revoir Maroc…a bientot!

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