The doorbell rang over and over, but the house was gone. Like almost every building in Douar Tnirt, a village high up in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, the home was a rubble of broken mud bricks, its broken doorbell insisting in vain that, even after a powerful earthquake, it was still a place where humans could live.
At first, the villagers had hoped to find survivors underneath the rubble of their houses. Right after the quake struck on Friday, they started search and rescue with their bare, untrained hands, eventually adding shovels and picks.
By Sunday, the government had sent neither emergency responders nor aid to Douar Tnirt and several other mountain villages visited by journalists for The New York Times. The villagers were on their own, stuck at the end of winding, narrow mountain passes, at the mercy of the monumental landscape where they lived.
“That night, everyone was screaming,” said Zahra Id al-Houcine, who was watching a few of her male neighbors sifting through the debris of her collapsed house in search of her relatives on Sunday afternoon. “We heard screams until we stopped hearing anything,”
The list of loved ones Ms. Id al-Houcine knows she lost in the earthquake is unbearably long: her late husband’s son, the son’s wife and three of their children, including a baby, all of whom had lived with her. Then there are those she knew must have died, even if she had not yet seen their bodies: A 5-year-old and the two children of her husband’s brother.
When the house started shaking, Ms. Id al-Houcine had just gotten into bed and was about to put on the late-night radio program she started listening to earlier this year to keep herself company after her husband died, one in which Moroccans discussed their problems and their life stories. Then the ceiling fell on her “like an elevator,” she said.
The only thing that kept her from dying, too, was her mattress, which the force of the collapsing house folded on top of her as it came down. She screamed for help, her mouth filling with dust, until men pulled her out.
Now she sat alternately on a pile of rocks and a cushion someone had found somewhere, surrounded by the wreckage of her home: chunks of concrete, bamboo rods used for roofing splayed everywhere, a twisted refrigerator, a satellite dish plopped on top of it all. Somewhere down there were the other children. She had not heard them scream.
A few amateur rescuers from the neighborhood stood atop the heap, throwing down clothes or other salvageable items as they found them. Did anyone have masks, they asked? The smell of the corpses was getting to them.
Throughout Douar Tnirt, rescuers said, the bodies of the dead were emerging in such terrible condition that relatives were rushing to bury them without washing them — skipping an essential part of the Muslim funerary ritual — or having a prayer said. In some cases, they did not even dig holes, simply throwing earth over the dead in an effort to restore their dignity as quickly as possible.
“They don’t want to see them, and, well, it’s about respect for the dead,” Ms. Id al-Houcine said.
Some had been rescued alive, including several pulled out on Saturday, but left to wait so long for transportation to Marrakesh hospitals that they died before someone could load them into their car or onto their motorcycle, residents said. Ambulances were nowhere to be seen.
“If you make it, you make it,” said Abdessamad Ait Ihia, 17, one of the volunteer diggers. “If you don’t, you don’t.”