Back-breaking and life-threatening labour in the tunnels the only option, say teenagers in the State of Palestine
By Catherine Weibel
GAZA, State of Palestine, 9 January 2013 - In the small patch of land that runs along Gaza’s southern border with Egypt, the sound of generators roars amid hundreds of white tents planted in the landscape of sand and bullet-riddled ruins.
Located on the edge of the town of Rafah, the tents hide entrances to tunnels that have been used to smuggle food, fuel and construction materials under the border since the beginning of the closure five years ago. Israel says some of the tunnels are used to smuggle weapons into Gaza.
Inside one of the tents, a dozen teenagers sit around a big hole, waiting for the last of their friends to rise up to the surface. The tunnel, with its walls of bare soil with wooden supports, is tall enough for a man to stand with his head bowed.
Accidents are rife. Since 2009, eight children have been killed and another three injured in collapses, electrocutions, explosions of gas cylinders and air strikes.
Children working in tunnels are a not a rare sight, but no one knows how many there are. Many tunnel owners find it easier to hire children, who are less likely to complain about working conditions or the pay. Parents claim they have no choice but to send their children to work in the tunnels to help feed the family.
Tunnels or tombs?
Sixteen-year-old Mohammed* was sent to work in tunnels when he turned 14. “One morning, my mother took me in her arms and hugged me, crying. She said that I was a man and that, from now on, I would no longer go to school but had to work because my father was too old to find a job,” he says. “I was forced to drop out of school and ended up in a tunnel.”
Mohammed can barely keep his eyes open as he talks, his frail body numb with exhaustion. “The first time I arrived at the tunnel, I freaked out and I cried,” he recalls. “I did not want to work underground; the tunnel looked like a tomb. One of the workers gave me a small pill to relax.”
The pill was Tramadol, a mild opioid painkiller of poor quality imported through the tunnels from Egypt. It has become a popular drug in Gaza and can be very addictive. Many children working in tunnels say they take it regularly. “Sometimes my body is aching too much, but I still have to go to work, so I take a pill,” says another teenager.
“What choice do I have?”
Mohammed earns up to 120 shekels (about US$30) per back-breaking shift in the tunnel. He says he could find a job on a construction site, but the heat is excruciating and the salary is only a third of what he currently makes. “I wish I could become an electrician, but I don’t really know how to get there,” he reflects.
Mohammed’s friend, 16-year-old Ahmad, keeps going to school every day after his night shift. “My teacher says I should stop working in the tunnel, but what choice do I have? I cannot leave my family without bread on the table,” he laments, adding that he keeps falling asleep in class. “I fear that, in the end, I will never graduate from school.”
Risking their lives
Mohammed and Ahmad recall how they almost died together in a tunnel collapse. “We knew that help was on the way and there was some air left, but one of the gas cylinders we were transporting started to leak, and we suffocated,” remembers Mohammed. “We panicked and we thought we were going to die.” The children were rescued in time, but Mohammed was hospitalized for a week.
Mohammed says that his cousin, who worked in another tunnel, was not so lucky. “The gas cylinders he was transporting exploded when he lit up a cigarette, and he died,” the child says, softly. “I hate gas cylinders. I don’t want to carry another one in my life, but I have to work.”
Saqer is an educator in a UNICEF-supported Adolescent-Friendly Space in Rafah. He says that he sometimes comes across children working in tunnels and tries to talk them into quitting their jobs.
“I have convinced a teenager to go and work in a bottle factory instead, and I am now trying to find him vocational training, as he does not want to go back to school,” the educator says. The teenager is still working in the tunnels from time to time because it is more profitable.
Since the closure was slightly eased in 2010, the number of tunnels has decreased, and work has started drying up. “I don’t go underground as often as I used to,” says a 15-year-old tunnel worker.
He does not seem to know whether it’s a good or a bad thing.
* All names have been changed.