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  • A woman tries to recover some of her possessions from her home in the village of Tafeghaghte, near Marrakesh, Morocco.Mosa'ab Elshamy/The Associated Press

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In a Moroccan city in mourning for its earthquake victims, throngs of tourists with shopping bags walk past a collapsed two-story building where, just hours earlier, rescuers found two bodies beneath the wreckage.

Marrakesh, one of Africa’s most fabled tourist draws, is the closest large city to the epicentre of the 6.8 magnitude earthquake that hit the country Friday night, killing more than 2,100 people. Rescuers on Sunday were still scrambling to find survivors under the rubble.

The epicentre was in a remote mountainous region, about 70 kilometres southwest of Marrakesh, where entire villages were flattened. Moroccan authorities are expecting the death toll to rise further.

Marrakesh is caught between the desire to mourn the losses of families and friends, and the need for economic survival on its traditional tourism business. On Sunday, the city’s residents were trying to keep the tourism going, even as the signs of the earthquake were everywhere.

Crumpled trucks covered in bricks were abandoned next to packed restaurant terraces. In the local souks, or markets, residents strung up plastic sheets as temporary awnings, where ceilings have caved in. Cobblestone streets end out of nowhere, turning to rubble.

The famous minaret of Marrakesh’s Koutoubia mosque, a nearly 900-year-old city landmark, broke during the earthquake. Near the mosque, a family of five with a newborn baby sleep on cardboard mats surrounded by garbage and old shoes. There is dried blood on the father’s lip.

Moroccans sleep in the streets for third night following an earthquake that took more than 2,100 lives

“We see all these cameras taking photos of ruined buildings, stores,” said Adil Amor, who works in a cosmetics shop just down the street from the collapsed two-story building. “It’s like they only care about the material stuff. There are people who have lost their daughters. Their mothers. There are more important losses to worry about.”

All that remains of the collapsed house on his street is a pair of empty kitchen chairs, a sink, and a door that may have once led to a patio.

Knowing the toll that the earthquake has taken both inside Marrakesh and on its heavily-affected outskirts, it’s hard coming back to work, Mr. Amor said. But there are appointments to honour, groups to host, tours to run.

July and August are Morocco’s slowest months for tourism, when Marrakesh temperatures can reach 49 C. September is when it picks back up: Vendors can’t afford to miss out on business, especially with tourists cancelling their trips to Marrakesh in the wake of the earthquake.

Serge Sasseville, a 65-year-old Montrealer, was at a birthday party just outside Marrakesh when the earthquake hit: “At the time, we didn’t know what it was, we were all in shock,” he said in a phone interview. “I felt like the ground was falling out from under me.”

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People walk through the wreckage caused by the earthquake, in the town of Amizmiz, near Marrakech, on Sept. 10.Mosa'ab Elshamy/The Associated Press

Mr. Sasseville said he would stick to his vacation plans and leave the country only later next week: “The last thing Morocco needs right now is tourists … leaving the country,” he said, referring to the economic benefits brought by visitors who spend their money locally.

“We count on September,” said Mohamed Lakhsim, who works at the same cosmetics shop as Mr. Amor and lives in the medina.

Mr. Lakhsim has spent the last two days sleeping in the street with his brother and his brother’s two children. Nobody wants to go home, he said. He is one of many survivors prepared to spend more nights in the open rather than in their homes, fearing aftershocks like the one that hit the city earlier this morning.

“On the one hand, there are a lot of things that are happening that look like normal,” said Amanda Mouttaki, a Marrakesh resident. “I saw a tour group this morning with a guide. And yet at the same time a mile away, there are people still digging through houses to find people.”

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A woman stands amongst the rubble of her home in Moulay Brahim, Morocco on Sept. 10, after an earthquake measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale hit the central part of the country.Carl Court/Getty Images

Photos and videos continue to circulate of that fateful night when the seemingly untouchable city of Marrakesh descended into a state of panic and chaos.

Miguel Ángel, visiting Marrakesh from Seville, Spain, was at a rooftop bar in the city when the earthquake struck. He heard what he thought was an explosion. Then, screams and the sound of a city in panic.

“It was like a horror movie. I thought I was going to die,” said Mr. Ángel, who escaped the building by running down several flights of stairs into the street.

On Sunday, he was one of hundreds of people lined up outside the Centre régional de transfusion sanguine (CRTS) Marrakesh, a blood bank five kilometres north of the city’s medina. Here, men on scooters carrying bottled water piled three or four cases high weave through the heavy traffic, passable only by foot, outside the blood bank’s gates. Teenagers collect bags of bread, medical supplies, and clothes to donate to the earthquake’s worst-off victims.

“A lot of people are hurt,” said Youness Lakhouadri, a 23-year-old Marrakesh resident who’s lining up to donate blood. “I want to give blood because they need it. They really need it.”

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The blood bank’s desperate call for donors, which over the last 24 hours has circulated on social media, was heard loud and clear here in Marrakesh by residents and tourists – so much so that too many people have showed up. The blood bank has started turning away donors at the door.

Providing medical care and supplies to hospitals treating earthquake victims remains a challenge. Doctors have been asking for donations of everything from suture kits to femur rods to treat the wave of injured people arriving in Marrakesh from its outerbanks, as road access opens up.

Many of these communities have been blocked off for days, unreachable to rescuers and their families living on the outside. Authorities believe the majority of deaths and injuries caused by the earthquake are in these areas.

In the city, the battle for survival has now turned into a mission of recovery and repair. City worker Brahim Tariq, who lives in the medina, survived the earthquake that destroyed parts of his beloved Marrakesh.

On Sunday, he laid down on a piece of cardboard next to a dump truck filled with sand. He’s taking a break after he and his crew worked day and night this weekend to clear and repair the streets that the disaster broke open.

“But it’s only just the beginning,” he says, referring to the long road to recovery for Marrakesh.

With reports from Frederik-Xavier Duhamel and Reuters

The death toll in Morocco's earthquake soared past 2,000 in the early hours of Sunday (September 10), as rescuers continued digging through mud and rubble for possible survivors, while many in Marrakech spent a second night sleeping on the streets.


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