“Terrorism has no religion”. This banner held up by a beautiful young Moroccan girl in my home town of Imlil says it all. Terrorism has no religion and no place in humanity and yet it is the scourge of our age.
I was walking in the street in Essaouira last week when I was stopped by a friend Annika, “Have you heard?” she asked. “About the two women murdered at Sidi Chamharouch?” I couldn’t take in what she was saying at first. Two women murdered in the Atlas Mountains, the glorious, heart-lifting mountains, on a route that I hike and run all the time by myself? How could this possibly be true? Details started to come out and I thought maybe it was some kind of horrible “accident”, that the men were on drugs, had wanted to party with the girls and it all had escalated and gone terribly wrong. Or perhaps it was someone who was mentally ill.
Within two days, the truth had emerged. The women had been vilely murdered by three men who had come to the mountains expressly for this purpose. Their deaths are unimaginable. Suffering such fear and pain and having those moments captured on video to promote a code of hatred and twisted religion. I can’t think about it. I pray they found some peace at the very end. My thoughts are constantly with their families.
When I got back to Imlil, I found the community devastated. “We are so sorry. We are so sad.May God show mercy to them and their families. This is not our way. This is not Islam. How could this happen here. In our mountains?” My landlord, a deeply religious and good man, came in to see me. He is in his mid-fifties with four daughters and a grand daughter. He sat on my sofa and as we talked, tears came. “They were our daughters too,” he said.
On Saturday, it was the annual mountain festival in Imlil. Usually it is a big celebration, but this year it was dedicated to Maren and Louisa and transformed into a commemoration. Hundreds of people from all the surrounding communities came to pay their respects. A shrine to the women was set up with a path leading to it marked by white roses and candles. We were all given a white rose to lay. The Girl Scouts sang and we formed a huge, silent circle to show our solidarity. The air was thick with grief. Every conversation started with, “I am so sorry…”
I was asked to speak because I am a foreigner living here and I speak Arabic. I said what I feel and believe and I would like to say it again to you.
“My deepest condolences to the families of Maren and Louisa, may God be with them. I live in Imlil, just up the hill, and this act is against everything that I have experienced here. These terrorists are men with no heart and no soul. Their evil extremism does not represent Moroccans or Muslims. What I have found here in Morocco, amongst you, is hospitality, honesty, sincerity, kindness and love. I am honoured and proud to live here with you. Peace be upon you.”
I travel all round Morocco on my own and I hike and run in the mountains all the time on my own. Do I still feel safe and is it safe for you to visit? Yes and yes. But please do use a guide when you come and do not camp on your own in isolated spots. As well as ensuring your safety, a guide will also be able to tell you all about the Atlas and the people who live here, so you will have a better experience.
Of course, I had an initial sense of fear. I have passed the spot where the women were killed many times and the men hid out in Tizi Mizik which is my main training run. However, I also go on the bus in London and I walk across Westminster Bridge. I will still do those things, even though terrorists have killed there. I will still go to Brussels and to Paris and to Madrid and to New York and to Strasbourg.
Terrorists exist to spread fear. We must not allow them to win. We are all in this together. Each of us can take a stand simply by being a little bit kinder and more understanding and being the best people we can be.