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Morocco's earthquake crumbled much of this adobe village nestled in the mountain

Souad Ait Hmad el Haych (left), 25, grieves as the body of her cousin is buried in Imi N'Tala, Morocco, on Sept. 13.
Carol Guzy for NPR
Souad Ait Hmad el Haych (left), 25, grieves as the body of her cousin is buried in Imi N'Tala, Morocco, on Sept. 13.

IMI N'TALA, Morocco — One of the villages hardest hit by Morocco's recent earthquake was also one of its most iconic. Nestled below a cliff in the Atlas Mountains, Imi N'Tala was renowned among tourists and trekkers who ventured to the remote region for its natural beauty and a dose of Berber culture.

But Imi N'Tala is no more.

Part of the cliff was sheared off onto the village, and its adobe houses are a pile of rubble after the 6.8 magnitude earthquake shook the area on Sept. 8, causing mass death in mountain villages like this one close to the epicenter. The official death toll from the disaster in Morocco has climbed to nearly 3,000 people.

Civil protection and rescue workers who had been digging out a body from the rubble of a devastating earthquake run in panic during an aftershock in Imi N'Tala, Morocco, on Sept. 13. There is danger of more rock falling from the mountain that destroyed the town.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
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Carol Guzy for NPR
Civil protection and rescue workers who had been digging out a body from the rubble of a devastating earthquake run in panic during an aftershock in Imi N'Tala, Morocco, on Sept. 13. There is danger of more rock falling from the mountain that destroyed the town.
Rescue teams and civil protection members search the rubble for bodies of victims that perished in the devastating earthquake in Imi N'Tala, Morocco, on Sept. 13.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
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Carol Guzy for NPR
Rescue teams and civil protection members search the rubble for bodies.
Rescue teams and civil protection members search the rubble for bodies of victims that perished in the devastating earthquake in Imi N'Tala, Morocco, on Sept. 13.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
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Carol Guzy for NPR
After hours of digging, rescue teams and civil protection members lift the body of an earthquake victim in Imi N'Tala, Morocco, on Sept. 13.

The few residents of Imi N'Tala who survived the quake now stay in white tents set up by the authorities on the hillside below their former homes. And the destruction — and aftershocks — have made rescue and recovery efforts difficult.

Fifty-eight-year-old Brahim Ait Ougadir made it out with his two children. He said they were lucky to be in a part of their house that had no roof and was open to the sky. He broke down talking about what life in Imi N'Tala used to be like.

"This was a very safe and generous village," he said. "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."

On the day last week that NPR visited, there were rescue teams with sniffer dogs scrambling over the rocks.

"There's no life here," said Dutch rescue worker Saad Attia. His team came with sniffer dogs trained to look for people who were still alive. Other teams had cadaver dogs that seek out corpses, which were the ones working at this site.

"You can smell the death here," Attia said. "You don't even need a dog to tell you there are no survivors. But it's good to have the dogs to isolate where the bodies are and show the rescue workers where they should dig."

Walking wounded residents wait as rescue teams and civil protection members search the rubble for bodies of victims that perished in the devastating earthquake in Imi N'Tala, Morocco, on Sept. 13.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
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Carol Guzy for NPR
Walking wounded residents wait as rescue teams and civil protection members search the rubble for bodies in Imi N'Tala, Morocco, on Sept. 13.
A man feeds his chicken on the rubble below a cliff in the Atlas Mountains in Imi N'Tala, Morocco, on Sept. 13.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
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Carol Guzy for NPR
A man feeds his chicken on the rubble below a cliff in the Atlas Mountains in Imi N'Tala, Morocco, on Sept. 13.
Survivors of the devastating earthquake shelter in tents and receive humanitarian aid in Imi N'Tala, Morocco, on Sept. 14.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
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Carol Guzy for NPR
Survivors receive humanitarian aid in Imi N'Tala, Morocco, on Sept. 14.

Moroccan rescue teams were busy digging at two sites. The bodies were deep below the rocks, debris and soil, and the difficult work went on for hours under a blistering sun.

Buildings in this area — including houses, a hostel and a restaurant — were all made of mud earth bricks and stones. Some were a couple of stories high.

"Adobe has excellent thermal properties," said Mehrdad Sasani, a structural engineering professor at Northeastern University. "It keeps houses warm in winter and cool in summer, but when it crushes, it becomes like soil and powder, filling in all the spaces, so there are no air pockets for people to survive."

The earthquake struck around 11 p.m., so many people were inside and in bed.

As workers tried to pull out the body of a woman from the rubble, they strung up a blanket around the dig site to protect her privacy.

Rescue teams and civil protection members search the rubble for bodies of victims that perished in the devastating earthquake in Imi N'Tala, Morocco, on Sept. 13.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
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Carol Guzy for NPR
A member of the Moroccan civil protection takes a break after hours of digging under the hot sun to try to recover the bodies of earthquake victims in Imi N'Tala, Morocco, on Sept. 13.
Rescue teams and civil protection members search the rubble for bodies of victims that perished in the devastating earthquake in Imi N'Tala, Morocco, on Sept. 13.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
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Carol Guzy for NPR
Rescue teams bring the body of an earthquake victim, which they have spent hours freeing from the rubble, off the mountain in Imi N'Tala, Morocco, on Sept. 13.
Rescue teams and civil protection members pray as a body is buried in Imi N'Tala, Morocco, on Sept. 13.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
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Carol Guzy for NPR
Rescue teams and civil protection members pray as a body is buried in Imi N'Tala, Morocco, on Sept. 13.

As the work stretched on, a few onlookers perched precariously on surrounding rocks and rubble. One man who villagers said was the woman's son clung to the top of a slanted slab of fallen sandstone, painfully watching the workers toil to extract his mother from the rubble.

After hours of digging, they pulled the woman's body out and immediately placed it in a body bag. Seven rescuers carried her down the mountainside — almost like pallbearers.

Walking wounded residents wait as rescue teams and civil protection members search the rubble for bodies of victims that perished in the devastating earthquake in Imi N'Tala, Morocco, on Sept. 13.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
/
Carol Guzy for NPR
Walking wounded residents wait as rescue teams and civil protection members search the rubble for bodies of victims who perished in Imi N'Tala, Morocco, on Sept. 13.
Rescue teams and civil protection members search the rubble for bodies of victims that perished in the devastating earthquake in Imi N'Tala, Morocco, on Sept. 13.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
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Carol Guzy for NPR
A man injured in Morocco's earthquake gets his head bandaged by a civil protection worker in Imi N'Tala, Morocco, on Sept. 13.
A dog with an injured leg on the mountain road as rescue teams and civil protection members search the rubble for bodies of victims that perished in the devastating earthquake in Imi N'Tala, Morocco, on Sept. 13.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
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Carol Guzy for NPR
A dog with an injured leg on the mountain road leading to the village of Imi N'Tala, Morocco, on Sept. 13. Many farm and domestic animals were also killed and injured in the earthquake.

Within minutes she was placed in the ground again, but this time with a proper burial.

A line of men bowed their heads and prayed while women wept in front of her new grave in a patch of earth that has become Imi N'Tala's new cemetery.

Moments later, an aftershock hit the mountain and rescue workers scrambled to get away from the cliff face. Work in Imi N'Tala was called off for the rest of the day.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Survivors sort through donated clothes and aid in tent camps in Imi N'Tala, Morocco, on Sept. 17.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
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Carol Guzy for NPR
Survivors sort through donated clothes and aid in tent camps in Imi N'Tala, Morocco, on Sept. 17.
Members of a Moroccan scouts' association dress in costumes to entertain child survivors of the earthquake in Imi N'Tala, Morocco, on Sept. 17.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
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Carol Guzy for NPR
Members of a Moroccan scouts' association dress in costumes to entertain child survivors of the earthquake in Imi N'Tala, Morocco, on Sept. 17.
A rainbow appears as children play in a tent camp after Morocco's earthquake ravaged their village on Sept. 17.
/ Carol Guzy for NPR
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Carol Guzy for NPR
A rainbow appears as children play in a tent camp after Morocco's earthquake ravaged their village on Sept. 17.

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.