x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Morocco fights to end shanty-town squalor

Life has improved but 'outcast' residents complain about lack of basic services in new neighbourhoods around Casablanca.

Hicham Mouchtak trims a young customer at his new shop in Selim 2, a state housing project in outer Casablanca.
Hicham Mouchtak trims a young customer at his new shop in Selim 2, a state housing project in outer Casablanca.

SIDI MOUMEN, MOROCCO // One morning in March 2008, an impoverished barber, Hicham Mouchtak, picked up a sledgehammer, took a deep breath and battered his house to rubble. Then he walked out of the slum where he grew up and into a new life in a public housing complex.

Mr Mouchtak is among thousands of urban poor that Morocco's government has re-housed over the last few years in a bid to wipe out shanty towns where poverty has provided a fertile breeding ground for religious extremism. But some say the effort is falling short, with basic public services lacking in the new neighbourhoods. "Life is more comfortable here," said Mr Mouchtak, leaning against the elevated chair in his shop. "But we're still outcasts, as we were outcasts in the slum."

The story of Morocco's shanty-towns begins in the early 20th century, when poor migrants flocked from the countryside to cities expanding under French colonial rule. The biggest draw was Casablanca, the country's main port, which gave the French language the word bidonville - "slum" - coined from the labourers' shanties made from flattened tin drums, or bidons. Most workers never intended to stay, but the slums have remained: along railway lines, around many towns and scattered throughout the suburbs of Casablanca.

Mr Mouchtak's parents fled the countryside in the 1960s seeking a better life. They ended up in Douar Skouila, a slum in the Casablanca suburb of Sidi Moumen. Named after a former Spanish school - or escuela - Douar Skouila is a maze of cinder-block houses trailing down a hillside. The bare feet of children slap through the alleys. Higher up is deserted ground where cows and sheep feed on piles of rubbish.

Some residents have shops nearby, and many hawk cigarettes, shine shoes and scrabble for day-labour work in Casablanca. Others lose themselves in bottles of wine and bags of glue. With most families earning around 2,000 Moroccan dirhams (Dh908) a month, "they're living in terrible conditions a mere stone's throw from people in nice houses", said Elarbi Zahidi, a co-ordinator for civil society groups in Sidi Moumen. "There's a feeling of being held in contempt."

During the 1990s, extremist preachers discreetly gained influence among alienated youth in the neighbourhood. The wake-up call came in May 2003 when 14 young slum-dwellers detonated rucksack bombs in central Casablanca, killing 45 people including 12 of their own number. More attacks in 2007 killed a policeman and seven bombers, including residents of Douar Skouila. As police moved into shanty towns to arrest terrorist suspects and shut down unofficial mosques, the government launched a nationwide programme in 2004 to provide new housing for around 1.5 million slum-dwellers by 2012.

In return for demolishing their shanties, participants can buy state-subsidised flats for a fraction of the market rate. "We're not going to force people to leave their homes if they don't want to," said Fatna Chihab, director of social housing and real estate affairs at the housing ministry, who is in charge of the programme. "We're trying to convince them by offering a good product." Nothing remains of Mr Mouchtak's old life, save photos on his mobile phone of a black doorway and a roof of zinc sheet. Today he shares an apartment with his parents and three of his four siblings in Selim 2, a housing project overlooking Douar Skouila. Downstairs in the barbershop are the traditional chair and mirrors, and a TV in the corner tuned to a channel playing French ballads.

"That's what I moved here for," he said. "My parents and the chance to have my own place." A woman enters with a small boy. Mr Mouchtak drapes a smock over the boy's shoulders and flicks on his electric shaver, and the boy begins to wail. "Now now, it's only a haircut," says his mother, wrestling him into the chair. Mr Mouchtak smiles to himself as black tufts land among the wood shavings on the floor. Afterwards he contemplates the five dirhams paid to him.

"I used to get 20 dirhams when I worked in the high street," he said. "Here we're cut off from the centre and there's no public transport - or even street lamps." Night is falling. Outside, horse-carriages are rattling through the darkness, past a tent where boys sit smoking hashish and drinking from a bottle of red wine. Mr Mouchtak shaves another customer and gets ready to close the shop. "We lack schools, we lack green spaces," he said. "At least I'm still with my family."

"The problem is that sometimes we rehouse people before other departments have got public services in place," said Mrs Chihab, from the housing ministry. Amenities are on the way, she said, pointing to the disappearance of shanty towns in 39 of 83 target cities as evidence of progress. "Giving people a new house isn't enough," Mr Zahidi said. "You need to provide work, education and a social fabric. The government has a programme - it just needs to move forward."

jthorne@thenational.ae