Grieving residents seek answers in Meknes tragedy
By Mawassi Lahcen in Meknes and Siham Ali for Magharebia in Rabat — 23/02/10
Residents of the Moroccan city of Meknes rallied on Sunday (February 21st) to mourn the 41 killed and 86 injured in the collapse of a historic mosque's minaret during Friday prayers.
Chanting slogans condemning neglect of the ancient city's monuments, residents demanded that those responsible be held accountable and called for an investigation into the fate of funds allocated for city maintenance.
The disaster at the Lalla Khenata mosque in the Ismaili capital brought demands for officials across Morocco to take action. This winter, collapses of houses were also reported in Fes and Casablanca.
Maintenance is a key issue in Morocco's older, walled cities. According to landscape architect Hind Bassiri, development work on historic sites is not carried out in accordance with best practices. Dwellings in these areas require special treatment, but the high cost of such work makes is difficult for local administrators to shoulder.
The Lalla Khenata mosque was built during the reign of King Moulay Ismail El Alaoui, who ruled Morocco from 1672-1727 and who made Meknes the country's capital. The mosque is in the ancient Bab El Berdiyine area.
Following the collapse, sadness swept Tezimi Street, where the mosque is located. Each household had a story about one of the dead or injured; residents were grieving and angry at the authorities. Men wept in the street, shoulder to shoulder, and wished each other well.
Mohammed, who was injured in the collapse, was pleased that his friend Abdullah had prayed in a different mosque on the day of the tragedy. "I was worried about you, my friend; thank God you survived," he said.
"I asked about you, too," his friend responded.
Abdullah described his good fortune to Magharebia: "I chose to pray in the nearby Zaytuna mosque simply because the imam starts his prayers a lot earlier than at the Khenata mosque."
Several district residents had reported problems at the Lalla Khenata mosque prior to the incident.
"We made many complaints to officials about the status of the historic mosque, but they didn't take our warnings seriously," said Abdul Kabir Annahayfe.
"On … the day of the incident, a group of people warned the local official, informing him of soil settling at the mosque", he said. "But the person in charge didn't care. In addition, worshippers warned the imam before the Friday prayers began, and the imam said he would take a look after the completion of prayers."
One eyewitness said that the minaret fell at about 1:58pm on Friday, at the start of prayers. "The minaret toppled and a big part of the roof fell on the congregation, which had gathered for the prayer," he said.
Although the heavy rains and strong winds that recently lashed Meknes are the direct cause of the collapse, MP Abdellah Bouanou cited other reasons as well.
He called the structural problems in historic homes and other buildings a "time bomb", and said responsibility lies with a number of parties, including the interior and housing ministries.
Bouanou revealed to Magharebia that there was a serious fire last July in a carpenters' workshop adjacent to the mosque.
"The fire continued for more than two hours before it was put out by fire-fighters", he said. "The combination of fire and the pressurised water used to put it out caused erosion at the base of the minaret; despite all of this, officials did nothing after the incident."
Experts say immediate action is required to preserve Morocco's historical sites and guarantee safety.
Jamal Lokhnati, general secretary of Morocco's national association of architects, said that the government should assign appropriate budgets to maintaining the country's heritage. He also recommended the establishment of a special institution to sort out the problem.
The Bab El Berdiyine district is the target of a recent EU-sponsored revitalisation programme. Nevertheless, said Bouanou, the programme "only cares about the facade of the houses and antique tiled alleys... there has been no repair or maintenance indoors".
According to the Housing Ministry, the law on dwellings at risk of collapse will be launched in 2010. The ministry has already embarked on several restoration projects across a number of cities, including Fes, Rabat, Marrakech and Tangier. From 2002 through 2009, more than 1.1 billion dirhams was provided for this work, benefiting more than 120,000 households.
The UN Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation (UNESCO) will send experts from around the world to help in the restoration of the 400-year old Bab El Berdiyine mosque in Meknes and assess the structural integrity of other old mosques in Morocco, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said in a press release on Monday (February 21st). Meknes was added to UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1996.
Subscribe to our newsletter and get Magharebia's latest articles delivered to your inbox.