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Despite disorganized earthquake response, Moroccan survivors voice support for king


It's not just physical obstacles that are getting in the way of help to earthquake survivors in Morocco. The Moroccan government has been criticized for mishandling the response. But Moroccans in the quake zone insist that they stand behind their king. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.


ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: There are traffic jams on the tiny roads high in the Atlas Mountains as rescue teams, aid trucks and cars full of journalists try to squeeze by each other on hairpin curves. Dutch rescue volunteer Saad Attia says their sniffer dogs are trained to find survivors, so every minute counts.

SAAD ATTIA: When we arrived on Sunday, I thought we can reach the government. But the government there was not really welcoming us. They say, oh, you should get approvement from the embassy, or you go to Rabat to Minister of Foreign Affairs. So that mean, just go away. We don't need you.

BEARDSLEY: So they joined other volunteer rescue teams, but he says they lost a day. The Moroccan government has approved aid from only four countries despite many more offers of help. Unlike in Turkey's recent quake, where Attia also worked, there have been next to no survivors pulled from the rubble in Morocco. To be fair, that's also largely due to the traditional adobe houses in Berber villages. The mud brick insulates well from cold and heat, says Mehrdad Sasani, a professor of structural engineering at Northeastern University. But it collapses easily in quakes.

MEHRDAD SASANI: When it crushes, it becomes like powder, and soil would fill everywhere.

BEARDSLEY: Leaving no shelter spaces or air pockets, he says. When you arrive at a destroyed village, it mostly looks like a giant heap of rocks and earth.

ATTIA: Mission impossible - to find life.

BEARDSLEY: Despite the overwhelming needs, on Thursday, the German Red Cross said it was forced to cancel a plane of humanitarian aid due to an abrupt change in Moroccan regulations. And French offers of help were ignored from the beginning. Morocco's King Mohammed VI is said to have frosty relations with President Emmanuel Macron. The French media speculate it might have been a deliberate snub to Morocco's former colonial ruler. Whether real or imagined, the incident created diplomatic tensions that Macron tried to calm in a video to the Moroccan people this week.



BEARDSLEY: "I want to tell Moroccans directly that France was devastated by this terrible earthquake," he said. "We are ready to provide humanitarian aid, but we await your green light." The message completely backfired, infuriating Moroccans. The country's powerful and frequently absent king was reportedly in his multimillion-dollar Paris apartment when the quake struck. He returned to Morocco later the next day. Former Moroccan journalist Aboubakr Jamai now teaches international relations in France. He says reaction to the earthquake is proof that Morocco is not a democracy under King Mohammed VI.

ABOUBAKR JAMAI: And he remained out of the country for 19 hours. And during this 19 hours, it's as if Morocco didn't have a government and, worse, didn't have almost the state because there was no communication between any official with the rest of the population.

BEARDSLEY: Media here is restricted, and it's hard to find Moroccans ready to criticize their monarch, but most seem sincere in their support. Mountain villagers amid the destruction even yelled out to us, long live the king.


BEARDSLEY: In a town at the base of the Atlas Mountains, men are unloading trucks coming from around the country filled with mattresses, tents and blankets for the remote villages. On every truck is a picture of the Moroccan king. Twenty-three year old volunteer Amin Zairi bristles at criticism of his government's response to the disaster.

AMIN ZAIRI: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: "We don't need help from any other country, especially not France," he says, adding, "long live the king." Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Amizmiz, Morocco.


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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.