The ground shook with a force few had ever felt, thundering through the remote Moroccan village in the dark of night.
When the earthquake was over late Friday, the town carved into the Atlas Mountains lay in devastation – possibly dozens dead, scores of homes crumpled and walls reduced to rubble. Soon crews were listening for desperate sounds of life within the ruins of Moulay Brahim.
A village of fewer than 3,000 people, Moulay Brahim attracts tourists and outdoor enthusiasts with its stunning vistas and proximity to Marrakech. Streets brimmed with small hotels and cafes overlooking gorges and green valleys.
But after the 6.8-magnitude earthquake that killed more than 2,000 across Morocco, the scene in the village is bleak.
People in the poor rural community about 45 kilometres northeast of the quake epicentre live in homes made of clay brick and cinder block, many of which are no longer standing or safe to inhabit. Fallen walls exposed the innards of damaged homes, their rubble sliding down hills.
“We felt a huge shake like it was doomsday,” resident Ayoub Toudite said. “Ten seconds and everything was gone.”
Others, like 19-year-old student Abdelfattah El Akari, said the quake felt much longer as if more than a minute. “The ground moved and homes cracked,” he said.
Chaos and terror followed as frightened villagers sought safety in the streets. When they returned to their neighbourhoods, some used bare hands to clear debris and start pulling out bodies, one after another. People gathered and cried outside a community health centre as news trickled in of more deaths.
Search crews peered into crevices looking for more casualties or people in need of rescue following the biggest earthquake to hit the North African country in 120 years.
Authorities tempered expectations with warnings that many areas remained too fragile to enter while there were still risks of aftershocks that could collapse whatever remained standing. A minaret looming above Moulay Brahim was severely damaged and appeared at risk of toppling if nudged by another tremor.
Hours after the tragedy, with sunlight exposing the extent of the damage, a procession of hundreds accompanied more than a dozen blanket-covered bodies to the town square. Men knelt on rugs and prayed for the dead during a brief funeral before carrying the deceased to a hillside cemetery. According to Islamic custom, burial should happen quickly after death.
Distraught parents sobbed into phones to tell loved ones about losing their children.
Villagers erected a large tent in the square, traditionally used more often for joyous occasions like weddings. In the coming days, the space will serve a much more sombre role as a shelter for those who no longer have homes.
Toudite and other villagers appealed for help.
“People are suffering here very much. We are in dire need of ambulances. Please send us ambulances to Moulay Brahim. The matter is urgent,” Toudite implored Saturday. “Please save us.”
The town also is in need of food and tents for people who have no place to go but the streets, he said.
The bulk of the town’s economy depends on agriculture and tourism. Time will tell how soon visitors will return to a place that stood for centuries.
Moulay Brahim is named after a Moroccan Sufi saint who practiced a form of Islam valuing peace, love and tolerance, emphasizing inward meditation to reach a connection with God. The town’s people speak a combination of Arabic and Tachelhit, the most widely spoken indigenous language.