Essaadia Boukdir stumbled through a valley of death in the throes of labor. Her husband, Brahim Bel Haj, held her up on one side. A cousin supported her on the other.
She worried her baby would die, as so many of her neighbors had only two days earlier, when an earthquake struck high up in a valley on the Atlas Mountains on Friday, cracking concrete, hurling giant boulders down the rocky slopes and burying people in their mud-brick and rock homes.
The earthquake, the most powerful to strike Morocco in more than a century, killed more than 2,900 people, most of them in the small villages scattered in mountains near the southwestern city of Marrakesh.
The valley where Ms. Boukdir lives, in the more distant province of Taroudant, is about 50 miles from the epicenter but reachable only by traveling hours up and down winding dirt roads. Residents say the earthquake killed 80 there, including three of Ms. Boukdir’s immediate neighbors. They are now buried in the local cemetery under stones and brambles.
“I was just hoping to stay alive,” Ms. Boukdir, 32, said softly. “I was so scared that the trauma we suffered would kill the baby.” Her family thought so, too.
Many in her family burst into tears in the terraced field where they had stopped, an area that normally serves as the village’s breadbasket, where residents grow corn and wheat along with almonds and walnuts. It has since become a homeless encampment, filling with makeshift shelters as each extended family has strung up tarps to protect them and the few meager belongings salvaged from the wreckage of their homes. This is where Ms. Boukdir had been sleeping, on a carpet stretched over dirt, since she and her family fled in search of safety.
“We knew if she stayed here, she would die,” said her brother-in-law Lahcen Bel Haj. “Nothing was certain.”
They shepherded her down the sand road, weaving around the boulders that had bounded down the jagged pink mountainside like giant balls bouncing down steep staircases, crushing everything in their path. One had crashed through a brick wall into a neighbor’s bathroom. From the road, it was visible where it had come to rest, hovering next to a small sink, its pointy top reflected in the pink-framed mirror.
The road to safety was new, but not finished. Construction workers used excavators to clear the vital link to the outside world, and help. In the meantime, donkeys were ushering down the injured and shuttling up aid.
Ms. Boukdir and her family passed the collection point of donated food for Ameguerniss, the valley’s worst-hit village, another hour up the mountain. The stories from there are the darkest: 36 dead, now buried in a field, too many for the cemetery.
She came to the wreckage of Ouaouzrakt, a village that only a month ago had celebrated the arrival of a new solar-powered water pump, which would save residents from the chore of filling buckets at a spring down the road. There were plans to use it for irrigation.
“It was magnificent,” said Hassan Aouboukdir, the head of a local development organization. “But it all changed in six seconds.” All 30 houses in the village were damaged, he said. Most were now reduced to mounds of rubble. Five people had died.
Ms. Boukdir stopped from time to time, in despair. “She was crying and saying she couldn’t continue,” said Brahim, her husband, who had spent much of their marriage far away in the coastal city of Agadir, working as a bulldozer driver on construction sites. As fate would have it, he had quit his job three days before the earthquake to be closer to his family.
So he was there on Friday night, when a big family dinner was held in his childhood home, which he and his father had built. When the earthquake struck, most of his family was in the courtyard, but his 8-year-old daughter, Ilham, had fallen asleep in the salon and was trapped under the ceiling and a leaning wall. Two relatives had helped her out, including her uncle Lahcen,one of the few residents who, drawn by calls for help, dismissed the aftershocks to venture back into the wreckage. “My only goal was to save people,” he said. He saved eight neighbors, and collected some blankets for his family so they wouldn’t freeze in the cold nights.
They are now piled high in their shelter in the field, along with the few pieces of furniture they managed to salvage from their demolished homes: three small tables, some teapots and a stove with its gas cylinder. They have been using it to make tea, which they offer to visitors along with fruit on a rare unbroken plate.
Brahim Bel Haj 38, and his cousin helped Essaadia down a step rocky trail, over a stream that was flooding the path, and along the edge of a cliff before, an hour and a half later, they finally made it to a sandy clearing. The spot had once hosted soccer games, but since Saturday it has become a depot for the valley’s growing donations. Bags of clothes, blankets, mattresses and pillows rose in giant piles. Cars and trucks now navigate between them, delivering more.
The donors are largely fellow Moroccans who, hearing the government had not yet arrived with aid, were moved to help, traveling in many cases for hours by car across the country. Some in Morocco have begun to criticize the movement, which though inspired by good intentions, is ad hoc, poorly organized and not sustainable.
Brahim Bel Haj doesn’t see it that way.
“It’s comforting to feel we have other brothers we don’t even know who are helping us in our darkest moments,” he said. As for the government, he added, “Where are they?”
A group from the city of Oulad Teima, to the southwest, had arrived with supplies. They quickly hauled a mattress into the back of their pickup truck for Essaadia, and she settled uncomfortably atop it. By then, it was dark. She pulled a blanket over her head and cried faintly as the truck bounced up another windy road.
The single sandy track was not suited for emergencies. With few places to pull over, each face-to-face encounter with an arriving vehicle loaded with aid required much ginger maneuvering and many impromptu traffic controllers. At one point, the truck waited 40 precious minutes before getting through, Brahim Bel Haj said.
An ambulance met them part of the way down the mountain and shuttled them to the valley below.
Brahim held Essaadia’s hand.
“I was just thinking about saving my wife,” he said.
Shortly after arriving at the hospital, she gave birth to a baby girl. When the nurse held up the baby, and her mother saw she was alive, she felt relief.
“I was so happy,” Ms. Boukdir said, kissing her fingers and then passing them to the lips of her baby, now sleeping beside her, a small white hat pulled over her soft head.
She named her Fatima Zahra. In the line to mark Fatima’s weight on her birth certificate, the attendant wrote simply, “good.”
Amid so much death, there was a new life in the valley.
A couple days later, Brahim was greeted by congratulations and hugs as he walked up the same path his wife had stumbled down after the earthquake.
For now, they will stay in the valley, in the home of a relative. A tarp shelter seemed like no place for a baby.
Maybe Fatima Zahra is a blessing, her father said, “not just for us, but for the whole region, after all these deaths.”
But he is not sure about the future.
“We don’t know if we will survive until 1 p.m.,” he said. “Only God who knows.”