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Residents reel after earthquake leaves Marrakesh’s historic Jewish quarter in ruin

MARRAKESH, Morocco — Hafida Sahraouia surveyed the rubble after an earthquake ripped through the historic Jewish quarter, part of the old city in Morocco’s tourist center of Marrakesh.

“It’s as if it was hit by a bomb,” she told AFP on Saturday, following the overnight 6.8-magnitude quake, centered southwest of Marrakesh, which killed hundreds of people.

Sahraouia’s own home was reduced to rubble, she said among the narrow streets clogged with the broken wood of roofs and other debris from collapsed buildings in the centuries-old area.

“We were preparing dinner when we heard something like explosions. Panicked, I quickly went outside with my children. Unfortunately, our house collapsed,” said Sahraouia, 50.

She and her family sought safety in a large public square on the edge of the district, and now face an uncertain future.

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“We lost everything,” she said.

Residents take shelter outside at a square following an earthquake in Marrakesh, Morocco, on September 9, 2023. (Fadel Senna/AFP)

A neighbor, Mbarka El Ghabar, also saw her home destroyed by the quake, the strongest in Morocco’s history.

The old city, or medina, of Marrakesh is on the UNESCO World Heritage list, drawing tourists who help account for about seven percent of Morocco’s economy.

Though the Jewish Quarter historically housed many of the city’s Jews, the departure of the population to Israel following the establishment of the Jewish state and persecution by the Muslim population has left the population in the low hundreds.

“We were asleep when the quake hit. Part of the roof fell and we found ourselves trapped inside but my husband and I managed to escape,” Ghabar recounted after the “nightmarish” events.

For others, the losses were even more painful.

Fatiha Aboualchouak said her four-year-old nephew was among the more than 800 who were killed, according to official figures.

“I don’t have the strength to talk,” Aboualchouak, in her 30s, said in a frail voice.

Moroccan Interior Ministry data on Saturday listed at least 13 quake fatalities in Marrakesh, known for its views of graceful red buildings set against palm trees and snow-capped mountains.

‘A painful ordeal’

One of its landmarks, Jemaa el-Fna Square, provided refuge for hundreds of residents and tourists seeking safety after the disaster. Some slept on the bare ground, without even a cover over themselves.

Others, like Ghannou Najem, in her 80s, spent a sleepless night.

Najem had arrived in Marrakesh from Casablanca, further north, just hours before the quake.

A man looks on as residents navigate through the rubble in the earthquake-damaged old city of Marrakesh, Morocco on September 9, 2023. (Fadel Senna/AFP)

“I came to visit the city with my daughter and granddaughter,” who had gone out and left her in their hotel room when the quake hit.

“I was nearly asleep when I heard the doors and the shutters banging. I went outside in a panic. I thought I was going to die alone,” Najem said.

Not far from her was Rabab Raeess, 26. Wrapped up in a quilt, she said the quake was “the most traumatic experience” of her life.

“I saw people running from everywhere. There was a lot of dust from the collapsed buildings,” said the resident of Marrakesh.

“It’s a painful ordeal. My heart goes out to the families of the victims.”

Mohamed, who lives in Marrakesh’s old city, considered himself lucky he wasn’t among those victims, considering “the very poor infrastructure” of the area.

“We lost a neighbor over there. And there, a young girl died and her brother’s leg was hurt,” he said, giving only his first name.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.