An underground photography mission
Gaza-Egypt border in the southern Gaza Strip
By Mohammed Salem
It was not easy to get in to the tunnels’ area on the Gaza-Egypt border. I had to make an enormous effort to obtain a permit from the Hamas-run interior ministry because there is a ban on photography in this area for apparent security reasons. Once I had the permit, I headed straight to the area where I was stopped at several police checkpoints before finally getting to one of the smuggling tunnels. It took me a few minutes to take in the area and see the real situation with my own eyes, not as it is described by others. Hundreds of tunnel entrances were covered by tents in an attempt to hide the location and Egyptian army tanks were close by, guarding the border.
One of the tunnel workers, Abu Mohammed, offered to let me see his tunnel. At the entrance, his colleagues were sleeping and having a rest after some hard work while the other shifts were working underground. Abu Mohammed decided to accompany me to help me while I was photographing inside the tunnel. I was surprised and a bit frightened to see a 20 meter-deep hole, and wasn’t so happy about going down into the dark. Abu Mohammed encouraged me, saying that you descend on a rope operated by an electric generator, assuring me that the rope was strong enough to carry heavy construction materials. I tied my cameras around my body and the adventure began.
I had a very weird feeling while going down, but it was interesting. When I arrived underground, two of the tunnel’s workers shouted a warm welcome as they saw me as a guest. They were very happy to see a new face. Cautiously I began walking inside the underground passage, which runs about one kilometer (0.6 miles) to the Egyptian side. For my part, it was like a trip to another planet or a completely different world. The workers continued their work and I managed to document them while they were repairing their damaged tunnel and resting. I could hear some murmurings and sounds coming from a neighboring tunnel that was separated from us only by a wall of sand. I almost got lost and started to enter another tunnel run by other people, but the workers notified me. It was not an easy hour. It was very hot and humid, and shooting pictures was very difficult due to the weak light. Even breathing was not as easy as I thought.
I looked at my mobile and saw there was no connection. But the workers have their own telecommunication network. They have one handset at the entrance of the tunnel and another two handsets underground to facilitate their work. The handsets were connected by a cable running along the tunnel.
I had a break with the workers and was very impressed by their hospitality. Abu Mohammed ordered coffee for us by the communication system and minutes later the coffee was delivered by the same rope. Chatting and having fun, I wondered if they were not afraid of the Egyptian security forces’ crackdown campaign on tunnels. They agreed that life was not easy.
The tunnel network was established as a result of a blockade intensified by Israel after the Hamas movement seized Gaza Strip from its rival Fatah in 2007. Egyptian security forces have stepped up a crackdown campaign on smuggling tunnels since Egypt’s Islamist president Mohammed Mursi was toppled last June.
When I decided to leave, the guys helped me ascend the rope and waved goodbye. The adventure taught me that some people work underground to live, or survive, on the ground.