The thoughts of one Moroccan schoolteacher immediately turned to her pupils when she felt the 6.8-magnitude earthquake strike a week ago.
Nesreen Abu ElFadel was in Marrakesh – but Adaseel, the mountain village that was home to her school and pupils, was closer to the epicentre.
The Arabic- and French-language teacher returned to Adaseel where she went searching for the children.
She discovered that all 32 – ranging from six to 12 years old – had died.
“I went to the village and started asking about my kids: ‘Where is Somaya? Where is Youssef? Where is this girl? Where is that boy?’ The answer came hours later: ‘They are all dead.’
“I imagined holding my class’s attendance sheet and putting a line through one student’s name after another, until I had scratched off 32 names; they are all now dead.
Ms ElFadel describes her lost students – seen here before the earthquake – as “angels”
They were among the almost-3,000 people killed by the strongest earthquake ever recorded in Morocco, which struck on the evening of 8 September.
The hardest-hit areas were those south of Marrakesh, where many mountain villages were completely destroyed. Adaseel was one of those places.
Ms ElFadel recalled how she heard about what happened to six-year-old Khadija.
Rescuers found the body of the child lying next to her brother Mohamed and her two sisters, Mena and Hanan. They had all been in their bed – probably asleep – during the quake, and they all went to Ms ElFadel’s school.
“Khadija was my favourite. She was very nice, smart, active and loved to sing. She used to come to my house, and I loved studying and talking to her.”
The language teacher described her students as “angels”, and respectful children who were eager to learn. Despite struggling with poverty and a crushing cost-of-living crisis, the children and their families thought of going to school as “the most important thing in the world”.
“Our last class was on Friday night, exactly five hours before the quake hit,” Ms ElFadel said.
“We were learning Morocco’s national anthem, and planned to sing it in front of the whole school on Monday morning.”
The school where Ms ElFadel worked was badly damaged by the earthquake
Despite her calm voice, Ms ElFadel has been suffering with trauma. She still cannot process what happened to her students and to her school.
“I don’t sleep; I’m still in shock,” she said.
“People consider me one of the lucky ones, but I don’t know how I can continue living my life.”
Ms ElFadel loved teaching Arabic and French to children in a village populated by Amazigh – who mainly speak their own language, Tamazight.
“Arabic and French were very hard to learn, but the kids were very bright, and they were almost fluent in both languages,” she recalled.
She plans to continue her career in teaching, and hopes authorities will rebuild Adaseel’s school – which collapsed during the earthquake.
A total of 530 educational institutions have been damaged to varying degrees, including some of which have completely collapsed or suffered severe structural damage, according to official statements.
The Moroccan government has temporarily halted classes in the hardest-hit areas.
“Maybe one day when they rebuild the school and classes are back in session, we can commemorate those 32 kids and tell their story,” Ms ElFadel said.