Ahmed is a tunnel digger. He says he’s 19, but doesn’t look much older than 16. We walk with him through the wreckage of a demolished house in Rafah, within site of the Egyptian border, asking questions about his work. Unlike Abu Anfaq, he’s not afraid to admit what he really does:
“I bring in weapons for the resistance, to fight Israel. And to make money.”
But the occupation is over. Like Youssef Siam said, the weapons are now just arming Palestinians to kill other Palestinians.
“No, it’s not like that,” Ahmed maintains. “I don’t get involved in that. They’re fighting the Israelis.”
Like everyone else we’ve spoken to so far about the tunnels, he says he does it because there’s no other work available. It’s only partly true – the other reason is that there’s no other work available that can make you as much money as trading through the tunnels.
“I want a car, a nice house, to get married eventually…”
Later, he takes me to a tunnels he and his friends are working on. Their all 19, perhaps early 20’s. One of them carries a Kalashnikov, unloaded. He lets me hold it, and shows me how to cock the gun. I quickly give it back, admitting I’m not comfortable with guns. I’m also just trying to read these kids, to see if I can trust them with their offer to let me down into the tunnel to film.
I climb down the chute, four metres deep, gripping the walls with my hands and feet to lower myself down slowly. They pass the camera down carefully. Ahmed crouches down and slides into the tunnel’s opening, telling me to follow him. The opening is barely wide enough for me to fit through, and I have to scrape my elbows against the rough, sandy ground to hold the camera in front of me at the same time. It’s hot down there, I can hardly breath for the first five or six metres, the walls so close I can taste sand. Ahmed moves much more easily down here, scurrying in ahead of me like a rabbit. My knees are scraping against the floor, my head against the roof. My trousers fill with sand every time I brush against the tunnel’s roof.
At one point, still early on, I have to pause to ask myself if I can continue. Slowly, it becomes easier to breath as I get used to the staleness of the air. I’m already breathing heavily only a few minutes into the crawl, a combination of the physical effort and my own nerves.
Perhaps ten metres in, Ahmed points to the right, showing me a breathing hole used to allow fresh air into the tunnel. Then he asks if I want to go on.
“How much further is it?”
“It goes all the way to Egypt, but there’s just ahead where we can rest and turn around.
I decide not to go all the way to Egypt. Another five metres ahead, and the tunnel suddenly opens widely as it hits an underground spring. The kids call it the rest stop. They spend time here relaxing, sometimes having dinner.
Ahmed sits in complete darkness, but I’m filming with an infrared light. Every time I point the camera at his asked face, his eyes glow green. I scan the room, feeling only slightly more comfortable now that I have room to stand up straight. The truth is, I want to get out of there as fast as possible, but that means going back through the narrow tunnel.
It feels so vulnerable crawling through there. Anything could happen, and I would have no way to run. I imagine the tunnel filling with poisonous gas, the gas the Egyptian authorities throw down when they find smugglers under their border. I couldn’t even turn around. People sometimes die down here just from panic.
Half way back down the tunnel, and my muscles are in pain. I’m breathing more heavily now, as though exercising. My muscles aren’t used to this. Crawling is painful now, my knees and elbows scraping raw against the dirt. I can see the light ahead, but it’s still an effort, those last five metres. I emerge, looking up to see the others looking down at me. I’m covered in sand, under my clothes, filing my hair.
“how was in,” one of them asks.
“difficult…” I mumble.
Earlier, we went to buy two chickens for Ibrahim, the creepy man who welcomes guests into a tent amidst the row of destroyed houses that directly face the wall. He took us down into the opening of a disused tunnel, showed us around, told us the story of his brother who was killed by an Israeli sniper when he approached a house here suspected of holding a tunnel.
Ibrahim wants money, but Laila and Fida are certain he’s going to use it to buy cigarettes or drugs while his children run around barefoot, so we agree to barter. He wants a pair of trousers. Laila and Fida are afraid he could sell the trousers, so we suggest a chicken. He wants two chickens – fresh - so he gets in the car with us, driving around the market of Rafah until we find a man selling fresh chickens.
He slits their throats, drains the blood, boils the body, pulls out the feathers, and guts the two birds in a few brief minutes. All on the porch of his shop. From living chicken on my right to cleaned and gutted meals on my left. Ibrahim takes the bag, satisfied, and we drive him back to his house.