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: dirt poor, neglected and dependent on its illegal cannabis crop to survive.
The well that swallowed Rayan was dug by his father in a vain bid to forage for water so he could grow cannabis, or marijuana. Rayan’s mother, Wassima Khersheesh, bitterly referred to the well that took her son as “that hole of dust.”
Rayan’s plight riveted world attention during five days of grim but vain efforts to save the little boy. Hundreds of Moroccans kept watch as rescue workers dug a parallel hole to extract the child from the 32-meter-deep (105-foot-deep) well outside his small brick home. 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 dark hole.
Despite five days of heroic efforts, Rayan was dead when rescuers finally pulled him from the well last weekend.
Such wells, many far deeper, dot the rugged Rif region, dug by villagers in need of water for their cannabis plants. The well outside Rayan’s home was abandoned because his father, Khaled Oram, couldn’t afford to dig deeper like some neighbors. He now does odd jobs in nearby villages.
“As the saying goes, the one who cooks the poison has to taste it,” said Mohammed, a relative of Rayan who, like other villagers, identified himself only by his first name. Many cited concern for their illegal farming of cannabis.
Mohammed is among those who grows cannabis, long a vital crop for the economy of the village and the region. He showed an Associated Press reporter his own working well — at some 90 meters (nearly 300 feet) deep, it is three times the depth of the abandoned well that swallowed 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 worked to dig out Rayan smoked hashish, a cannabis derivative, around bonfires. Sacks of the cannabis plant were seen around the house of Rayan’s grandfather, where the wake for the little boy was held.
For the government of Morocco — a top world producer of cannabis — the illegal growing of the crop, centered in the Rif region, is diminishing.
An Interior Ministry report presented to a parliamentary commission last April said an estimated 400,000 people farm the illegal crop, helping around 60,000 families, according to Moroccan media reports. Among the main centers of production is Chefchaouen, the province where Ighran is located.
The government mostly turns a blind eye to the illegal farming. But for many villagers, it represents a stain on their reputation.
Saeed, a former villager, complained about “the lack of the three important things: water, electricity and education.” He moved to the large city of Tetouan to spare his children, opening a clothing shop.
Hidden in the Rif mountains, Ighram is reached by narrow dirt roads and then a short hike. Villagers claim that rescuers arrived late at the well where Rayan was trapped because of the difficult access.
Neglect of the vast Rif region, known for its rebellious streak, 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 gave his yearly Throne Speech in nearby Al Hoceima.
Masoud, a young man whose family farms cannabis, said that people fear being stopped by police because their ID card showing they are from the region makes law enforcement suspicious.
“If we didn’t live off kif (cannabis), we would have been braver to ask for our rights,” Masoud said. “But we are under its sword.”