They didn’t blindfold me when they took me to look at the tunnel. But I could only take pictures inside, photograph only the walls – not the people who dig and transport cargo.
The first tunnel that I saw was in the middle of a residential area. You couldn’t see it from the air, no matter how hard you tried. Everything that comes through the tunnel is taken in small quantities to secret places where it is loaded up.
The tunnel itself looks like a 28-meter-deep well. There is a chain on a winch, and a seat is attached to the chain. A guy gets on that seat, turns upside down and disappears in the well, all the while joking around. Suddenly light comes on at the bottom. People use oxygen tanks in the tunnels. Sometimes they blow up, people get killed, but you cannot breathe without them.
The guys are making fun of me as I look inside the well. They are trying to convince me to get down there and promise that if all of a sudden power comes off, they will not leave me there at the bottom alone. I ask them what “fuel” they take that makes it possible to dig tunnels in this heat and have the strength to joke around. One pharmacist told me that he didn’t have anything like that, but his neighbor did, and the tunnel diggers buy these drugs from him.
“We have to stay alert, it’s our job. We are glad you came to Gaza from Russia. It takes courage to come here, right? We don’t take any special drugs. It’s dangerous, because we have to be fully aware of what is going in. So we say a prayer and get to work,” explains a guy who just ran up and down the well like a ninja.
Israelis bomb the tunnels. They could collapse at any point – the tunnels are dug out in sand and they remind of monastery cave-cells. The tunnels are not used in the rain, because there will definitely be a landslide. After the rain they have to be cleared out again.
“Before there were few tunnels, workers were paid good money. Now it’s 30 shekels a day. In some other tunnels people get a 100,” says this child from the underground.
People that are not familiar with the industry told me that workers here make $100 a day.
My friends don’t look like people with a lot of money.
It is not allowed to smuggle drugs, alcohol, weapons and money through the tunnels. The owners of the tunnels control that. If they fail, they will have a lot of problems. That’s what the workers told me. And people at the Parliament confirmed it.
The second tunnel that I saw looked like a wide corridor going down – a carriage could fit in some places. There was not a lot of air there either, but it had ropes to secure cargo.
Here the workers look like Japanese stunt actors. They look like respectable people, but when they led me to the tunnel, they were making fun of me too. They told me that up until now they had not given tours to foreigners.
There is a rumor that some tunnels are really wide — a car could fit through there. You can see new cars in Gaza, and they all came through these tunnels. Apparently people pay double for them. I have only seen this kind of transportation on film. And I saw how one of these new cars had an accident in the city’s center: all traffic stopped. Other drivers, donkey and horse riders, passers by and children came up to the driver to express their sympathy. They were not gloating because a rich man got screwed, which you could except from a million of poor people. No, they really felt sorry for him.
“Why do they sympathize with him? Because everybody understands that this rich man could have left, but he stayed in Gaza and shares in our troubles,” that’s how the Palestinians explained the essence of their solidarity to me.
Two women from former Soviet republics, now married to Palestinians, told me that they got to their families through these tunnels, after they got tired waiting for a permit from Israeli authorities. It was before the 2008-2009 war. Back then there were few tunnels, they were very narrow, it cost $1,000 to pass through it, and even more in some places. But they were allowed to pass for free. One Mom was crawling down the tunnel with her children, “My sons were crawling in front of me, and I was behind them. Sometimes I would get stuck, breathe out, get all my strength together and keep moving. The rain season was about to start. We crawled 700 meters.”
You can’t find the tunnel on the Egyptian side, it is invisible. They remove a layer of dirt in someone’s garden and say – jump. Good thing I used to go camping all the time,” Natalya told me.
I ask the tunnel diggers what will happen if this blockade continues, and Egyptian authorities build an iron wall, 20 meters deep.
“Then we will figure out how to go around this wall,” says a boy with a big smile who risks his life every day.
Then I ask what will happen if the blockade is lifted and the tunnels will no longer be needed.
“Then we will have normal jobs”