AP PHOTOS: Moroccan earthquake shattered thousands of lives

AMIZMIZ, Morocco (AP) — With their arms around each other, three boys walked through the streets of their town at the foot of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains.

It could have been a scene like millions around the world that day. But in the Moroccan town of Amizmiz, the boys were walking through rubble, one week after an earthquake rattled their community’s homes, schools, mosques and cafes. Their possessions were buried beneath tons of mud and clay bricks, along with an untold number of people whom the boys knew.

A little girl held her palms to her cheeks, stunned at the destruction.

The 6.8 magnitude earthquake hit Morocco at 11:11 p.m. on Sept. 8, causing mass death in mountain villages near the epicenter that have collapsed in on themselves. A magnitude 4.9 aftershock hit 19 minutes later.

Entire villages higher up the mountains were leveled. In many, at least half of the population appears to have died.

Photos of the disaster show how fathers, mothers, children and their animals remain trapped under bricks, appliances and fallen ceilings. Going without power for days, residents see at night by the light of their phones.

“It felt like a bomb went off,” 34-year-old Mohamed Messi of Ouirgane said.

When mud and clay brick — traditional materials used for construction in the region — turn to rubble, they leave less space for oxygen than collapsed construction materials in countries like Turkey and Syria, which were also hit by quakes this year.

The day after the quake, hundreds of residents of the mountain town of Moulay Brahim gathered to perform funeral rites, praying on rugs arranged neatly in the street before carrying blanket-covered bodies from the town’s health center to its cemetery.

“People are suffering here very much. We are in dire need of ambulances. Please send us ambulances to Moulay Brahim. The matter is urgent. This appeal must reach everyone, and on a large scale. Please save us,” said Ayoub Toudite, the head of a community group in Moulay Brahim. “We hope for urgent intervention from the authorities. There is no network. We are trying to call, but to no avail.”

The United Nations reported that roughly 300,000 people were likely affected by the earthquake. UNICEF said that likely included 100,000 children.

As the Moroccan government approved only limited assistance from four countries and certain NGOs, Salah Ancheu, a 28-year-old from Amizmiz, told The Associated Press that nearby villages desperately needed more assistance. Residents of his town swept all the rubble off the main road so that cars, motorycles and aid crews can reach villages further along the mountain roads. A giant pile of steel rods, baskets and broken cinderblocks lay just off the center of the road.

“It’s a catastrophe,” he said. ‘’There aren’t ambulances, there aren’t police, at least for right now. We don’t know what’s next.’’

In parts of Amizmiz that weren’t leveled by the temblor, families began to return on Sunday to sort through the wreckage and retrieve valuables from homes where at least one floor remained standing. People cheered the trucks full of soldiers speeding through the road bisecting the town, as women and children sat under tents eating bread, cheese and vegetable stew.

Hafida Fairouje, who came from Marrakech to help her sister’s family in Amizmiz, said smaller nearby villages had nothing left, expressing shock that it took authorities about 20 hours after the earthquake to reach some of the nearby villages.

Morocco on Monday created a special government fund for earthquake-related efforts, to which King Mohammed VI later donated the equivalent of $97 million (91 million euros). Enaam Mayara, the president of the parliament’s House of Councilors, said it would likely take five or six years to rebuild some affected areas.

A foul stench permeated the air through the beginning of the week as rescuers worked to dig out bodies and sort through wreckage in smaller villages.

In Tafeghaghte, residents estimated that more than half of the 160 people who lived in there had perished.

Aid began to arrive and piles of flour, blankets and yogurts were stacked in villages where most buildings were reduced to rubble. People said they had been given food and water, but they still worried about shelter and their long-term prospects.

Moroccan military forces and international teams from four approved countries — Qatar, Spain, the United Arab Emirates and United Kingdom — erected tents near Amizmiz while their teams wound through mountain roads to contribute to ongoing rescue efforts in villages such as Imi N’Tala, where a slice of mountain fell and destroyed the vast majority of homes and killed many residents.

Young boys sang “Hayya Hayya” — the theme song of the 2022 World Cup hosted in Qatar — as the country’s trucks drove through the mountains.

“The mountain was split in half and started falling. Houses were fully destroyed,” a local man, Ait Ougadir Al Houcine, said Tuesday as crews worked to recover bodies, including his sister’s. “Some people lost all their cattle. We have nothing but the clothes we’re wearing. Everything is gone.”

Families and children relocated to yellow tents provided by Moroccan authorities as fears set in about the time it would likely take to rebuild their homes.

“We just started the new school year but the earthquake came and ruined everything,” Naima Ait Brahim Ouali said, standing under an umbrella outside of a yellow tent as children play inside. “We just want somewhere to hide from the rain.”

After King Mohammed VI donated blood in Marrakech and later presided over an emergency response meeting, Moroccan officials said the government would fund both emergency relief and future rebuilding for residents of roughly 50,000 homes that were damaged or destroyed by allocating cash, depending on the level of destruction.