Rescue mission to save Moroccan child Rayan from a well brings out the best of his countrymen

The five-year-old’s body was recovered by rescuers on Saturday night, dashing the hopes of his family and supporters alike. The show of solidarity, however, has prompted admiration inside and outside of Morocco

People watch as Moroccan emergency services teams work on the rescue of five-year-old boy Rayan from a well shaft he fell into on February 1.
Francisco Peregil

Ighrane, the village where little Rayan lived, awoke practically empty on Sunday. Three youngsters were taking six goats to eat at around 9am. The last journalists still present were packing up their things. The mountainside was dotted with little bottles of water, one of the few traces left behind by the hundreds of youngsters who were present during the several nights that the rescue effort lasted. Poor people from all over Morocco were traveling to this poor part of the country. And many found a place to sleep. But now, the home of the little boy whose body was recovered from the well where he had fallen some four days previously appeared to be emptier than ever. The family had disappeared, exhausted after so many nights without sleep.

There were still some members of the gendarmerie in Rayan’s house. One of them chatted with new arrivals, showing them the huge hole that was opened up over a four-day period and even holding on to a reporter to avoid them from stepping on the 45-centimeter-wide well that Rayan fell down. The well was right next to the house, by a wall. And after the rescue effort, there is now a vertiginous slope measuring more than 30 meters.

The views from Rayan’s house, the Rif mountains where people live in poor conditions and under the shadow of the hashish trade, is full of steep ravines, narrow dust roads and places where an unexpected scare can come at any minute. Life is hard in places like Ighrane. And Morocco is full of villages like this one, where people live from day to day, with their stone ovens on their doorsteps.

Perhaps because of this, because they knew that the family from Ighrane is one of so many who have to fight to put bread on the table, so many Moroccans took Rayan’s rescue as their own, as if the plight of the child had touched something inside them. Right until the last minute, even when the rescue teams removed his lifeless body on Saturday night at 9.32pm, the hundreds of youngsters who had congregated there believed that he had come out alive. But immediately afterward the Moroccan media broadcast a message from the Royal Palace in which King Mohammed VI conveyed his condolences to the family.

The message said that “his majesty” had closely followed the rescue and that he had given instructions to use “all efforts possible” to save the child. “But the will of God is unstoppable and the child has responded to the call of the Highest,” it continued. The monarch gave thanks for the show of “solidarity” toward the child’s family.

In Rayan’s house, at 11pm on Saturday night a female member of the family began to scream and two men grabbed her and took her into one of the rooms. After news of the death broke, the suffering began in silence. In Rayan’s village, everyone at that moment tried to help the person next to them – whether it was an offer to drive someone to the nearest town, some 15 kilometers away, or offering a phone charger, or simply smiling at a stranger.

During the four days of the rescue attempt, much of the country appeared to be immersed in that feeling of brotherhood. Morocco’s international soccer stars, such as the former Real Madrid player Achraf Hakimi, posted messages on social media. In Algeria, a country that is having an ongoing diplomatic dispute with Morocco, the rescue was the most-followed news story. Algerian sports stars, such as Youcef Belaïli, Riyad Mahrez and Ismaël Bennacer, sent messages of support to the family. The policy of hostilities between Algeria and Morocco continued, however – no one expected anything different, at least not for now. But the solidarity between citizens who are very close also persists.

Pope Francis

From the other side of the Mediterranean, messages also arrived. On Sunday, while three children from the village cleared up the trash, Pope Francis sent a message from St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, in French, thanking the entire nation. “All of the people were there to save a single child,” he said. There were also messages of condolence from nearly all the embassies in Morocco, as well as a message from French President Emmanuel Macron for Rayan’s family and the Moroccan people, in which he said he shared their pain.

The rescue attempt brought memories for many – including the people of Morocco – of a similar incident involving a Spanish child called Julen, back in January 2019 in Totalán, in the southern province of Málaga. Rayan was five years old and Julen was two. The borehole that Julen fell down was 25 centimeters wide and that of Rayan, 45. The hole that Rayan fell down was 32 meters deep while that of Julen some 100 meters. The operation to try to save Rayan lasted four days, and that of Julen 13. The definitive autopsy on Julen, which was made public three months after the failed rescue attempt, revealed that the boy had died from two blows he suffered when he fell down the hole. He died the same day as his fall, on January 13. Rayan, however, was still alive after falling down the well last Tuesday, as a number of relatives were able to prove to EL PAÍS, having recorded a video of him by lowering a cellphone down the hole tied to a string.

Like everywhere, there are always tragedies in Morocco. On January 24, for example, three Nigerian children all under the age of seven died in a fire when the shanty town they were in went up in flames. Their mother, who was with them at the time, died days later from her injuries.

But it was Rayan’s drama that has had the country on tenterhooks – and that brought the best out in everyone.

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