The Moroccan region held a recipe for death for a boy trapped in a well | Economic news

By MOSA’AB ELHAMY, Associated Press

IGHRAN, Morocco (AP) – The death of a 5-year-old boy trapped for days in the dark depths of a well symbolizes for many villagers a curse that haunts their remote mountainous region in northern Morocco: poor in soil, neglected and dependent on its illegal cultivation of cannabis to survive.

The well that swallowed Rayan was dug by his father in a futile attempt to fetch water so he could grow cannabis or marijuana. Rayan’s mother, Wassima Khersheesh, bitterly called the pit that took her son “that dust hole”.

Rayan’s plight captured the world’s attention during five days of grim but futile efforts to save the little boy. Hundreds of Moroccans stood watch as rescuers dug a parallel hole to extract the child from the 32-meter-deep (105-foot-deep) well outside his small brick house. Volunteers poured in hoping to lend a hand, including a man with snorkeling gear and a skinny boy whose father thought he could slip into the black hole.

Despite five days of heroic effort, Rayan was dead when rescuers finally pulled him out of the shaft last weekend.

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Such much deeper wells dot the rugged Rif region, dug by villagers who needed water for their cannabis plants. The well outside Rayan’s house was abandoned because his father, Khaled Oram, could not afford to dig deeper like some neighbors. He now does odd jobs in nearby villages.

“As the saying goes, whoever cooks the poison must taste it,” said Mohammed, a relative of Rayan who, like other villagers, only identified himself by his first name. Many mentioned their concern about their illegal cultivation of cannabis.

Mohammed is among those growing cannabis, long a vital crop for the economy of the village and region. He showed an Associated Press reporter his own working well – about 90 meters (nearly 300 feet) deep, that’s three times the depth of the abandoned well that engulfed Rayan.

The smell of cannabis, which includes marijuana and hemp plants, permeates the air in Ighran, home to up to 1,000 people. Young men trying to stay warm as rescuers scrambled to dig up hashish smoked by Rayan, a cannabis derivative, around bonfires. Bags of the cannabis plant were seen around Rayan’s grandfather’s house, where the little boy’s funeral wake was held.

For the government of Morocco – one of the world’s leading producers of cannabis – the illegal cultivation of the crop, centered in the Rif region, is declining.

An Interior Ministry report presented to a parliamentary committee last April indicates that around 400,000 people cultivate the illegal crop, helping around 60,000 families, according to Moroccan media. Among the main production centers is Chefchaouen, the province where Ighran is located.

The government generally turns a blind eye to illegal agriculture. But for many villagers, it’s a stain on their reputation.

Saeed, a former villager, complained of “lack of the three important things: water, electricity and education”. He moved to the big city of Tetouan to spare his children, opening a clothing store.

Hidden in the Rif Mountains, Ighram is accessible by narrow dirt roads and then a short hike. The villagers claim that the rescuers arrived late at the well where Rayan was stuck because of the difficulty of access.

The neglect of the vast Rif region, known for its rebellious side, goes back decades and monarchs. King Hassan II never set foot in the Rif, crushing uprisings there in 1959 and 1984. His son and current ruler Mohamed VI broke the pattern and in 2018 delivered his annual Speech from the Throne in the city neighbor of Al Hoceima.

Masoud, a young man whose family grows cannabis, said people fear police arrest because their identity cards showing they are from the area make law enforcement suspicious.

“If we weren’t living off kif (cannabis), we would have been braver to demand our rights,” Masoud said. “But we are under his sword.”

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