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Morocco's hardest-hit earthquake victims are high up in the Atlas mountains

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Morocco's devastating earthquake last week hit thousands of people who live in traditional villages high in the Atlas Mountains, and helping them has been fraught with difficulty. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley takes us to the Atlas Mountains for a day to see just how hard it is to get to people in need.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: We're following a Dutch rescue team that's trying to reach one of the hardest-hit villages near the epicenter of the 6.8 magnitude quake. The tiny mountain roads have hairpin curves, no guardrails and are clogged with aid trucks, rescue teams and cars of journalists. One of the problems is getting heavy digging equipment up the mountains. Another is just finding the way.

We're stopping a second time maybe to turn back around again.

SAAD ATTIA: (Non-English language spoken).

IMAN EL HADDAD: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: We get out of our cars to discuss it. Nobody agrees on which way to go. Saad Attia, one of the Dutch rescue workers, says the logistics are so difficult.

ATTIA: Google Maps, they warning us that is earthquake area, maybe the routes are changed. But we don't know whether is the road closed or not. Yeah. But we use this road yesterday, so I think it's accessible. So we have to follow that road.

BEARDSLEY: Nearing our destination, we see boulders have fallen into the road. Iman El Haddad is my Moroccan interpreter behind the wheel.

EL HADDAD: The road is blocked, and the village we're searching for is - there is no network. We cannot follow a map. And, yeah, we can keep walking, like, for 900 meter or kilometer.

BEARDSLEY: We set out on foot. The road is clogged with stopped cars and people. Local humanitarian workers hand out bread from a truck.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: A group of Berber women come up to us. Those are the Indigenous people who have lived here for centuries. One woman smiles and gives me a thumbs up. They don't speak Arabic. Amazigh is their native language. One tiny lady with henna on her palms is 95 years old and says she lost many of her children and grandchildren in the quake.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: They're thanking God.

EL HADDAD: Thanking God for everything. "Thank God. Thank God."

BEARDSLEY: It was God's will, they say. These survivors of Imi N'Tala are now living in big white tents on the hillside below their village.

EL HADDAD: "We are very, very afraid and very concerned about this situation because the mountains still can collapse on us. There are a lot of pieces coming down from there. If it will be rain, it'll bring more stones and bigger stones and there to these tents."

BEARDSLEY: The village itself is a scene of total destruction. The mountain cliffside above has sheared off and fallen onto the village. Beside it, once-colorful adobe houses have collapsed into rubble. We meet Spanish rescue worker Jorge Nacherselva. He says the situation is so hopeless, they changed objectives from looking for cadavers to addressing the needs of survivors who are hungry.

JORGE NACHERSELVA: Yesterday, we are here for finding cadavers with the dogs. OK? But today we have a lot of people here, and they don't have for eating. And we are moving all the food.

BEARDSLEY: Fifty-eight-year-old Brahim Ait Ougadir is picking his way through the debris. This was his home until a few days ago. Miraculously, he and his two children survived. His head is bandaged where a rock fell on it. I ask him what this village was like. He breaks down.

BRAHIM AIT OUGADIR: (Through interpreter, crying) This was a very safe and generous village. We were all living together. Foreigners came here from all over the world to eat and sleep here for a few days. Nobody's ever been harmed here.

BEARDSLEY: Imi N'Tala was a must-see for any tourist venturing into the Atlas Mountains.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Rescue workers digging through the rubble suddenly pull out the body of a woman crushed in the quake. After placing her in a body bag, seven rescuers carry her down the mountainside, almost like pallbearers.

(CRYING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Within minutes, they bury her again, but this time with a proper burial. A line of men bow their heads and pray while women weep in front of her new grave in a patch of earth that has become Imi N'Tala's new cemetery.

(CROSSTALK)

BEARDSLEY: Soon after, a tremor shakes the mountain and sends panicked workers scrambling away from the exposed cliff. Recovery work in Imi N'Tala is called off for the rest of the day.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Imi N'Tala, Morocco.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROYKSOPP'S "IN SPACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.