MK lives in a small bungalow in Gaza, the sole breadwinner of a family of seven small children. Five months ago, despairing at the poverty and frustration of the family’s beleagured life, he finally decided to escape from Gaza in the hope of being able to earn a decent living for them all in the city of Eilat, that favourite Egyptian holiday destination on the Red Sea.
His plan was to make his way through the southern tunnels. From there, for the sum of £500, a Bedouin friend who lives in the north of Sinai would guide him on the arduous journey through the desert to the Egyptian-Israeli border. He knew the risks he was running: imprisonment, a bullet in the head from Egypt’s border guards or the Israeli forces who comb the border to prevent the smuggling of strangers to the occupied city of “Um Al Rishrash”. But his Bedouin friend had pointed out that this route was much safer than passing the eastern border with the Gaza strip where the fence is wired up to sensors and tracking devices.
Steeling himself for the journey, he set off for the city of Rafah in the southern region of Gaza, where he was scheduled to meet and negotiate terms with the owners of the tunnels. There, hours passed in waiting and negotiation. For he had fallen prey to the greed of the traffickers. They assumed he was on the run from some crime, or being hunted by the authorities. Some of the tunnels’ owners asked him to pay up to 2000 dollars to smuggle him through to Egypt.
Once in the network of tunnels, the power failed, and MK was enveloped in total darkness. He plunged on down one of the tunnels, running and falling, using the faint glow from his cell phone to light the way ahead. After at least an hour of walking – though it seemed like a year - he reached the mouth of the tunnel on the Egyptian side. It was closed with a piece of wood covered with a pile of dirt and bushes to mislead the Egyptian security. But finding an axe on the ground, he broke his way through. Climbing out, he found himself in the corridor of a house belonging to one of the Bedouin families in the Egyptian city of Rafah. Calmly, he managed to leave the house and put through a call to his Bedouin friend.
The next two weeks he spent negotiating the mountain range along which the Israeli-Egyptian border runs. So high are the mountains that all efforts so far by the Egyptian and Israeli authorities to erect a concrete wall along it have failed. Still, the Sudanese continue their smuggling operations. Still, a trickle of Palestinians cross over, undeterred by the gunfire directed at them from border guards on both sides. After two days of climbing, and ten days of waiting in a cave, living off a meagre ration of bread and water, MK succeeded in slipping through the both sets of border guards to reach Eilat.
Wandering the streets of Eilat, incredulous at having survived the ordeal, he phoned a Palestinian friend whom he hoped would be able to help him find a job.But his delight was short-lived. When he arrived at the place where they had agreed to meet, the Israeli police were there. For the next four months he sat in prison, being interrogated about how he had made his escape. Once his interrogation was over, they shipped him back to the Gaza Strip. All the while, he was in torment. He did not want to believe that his ‘friend’ could have shopped him to the Israeli police. But he came back and back to the same question: “How did the Israeli police know my story and know where I will be?”
Back home with his family, he has made the decision to put the whole ordeal behind him and look on the bright side. He thinks of the many Eritreans, Sudanese and others who have lost their lives trying to cross those mountains to reach the city of Eilat over the last year. ‘I was lucky,’ he says. ‘Most people who cross the Israeli-Egyptian borders illegally spend ages coming to trial, then get long prison sentences. I only got four months. Now I’m home, safe and sound.’
It was a bad idea from start to finish, MK concludes. Yes, the hardships he faces have not changed. But he is just grateful to be alive, and back with his family.