RAFAH, Egypt — Driving in this Egyptian city hard against the border with the Gaza Strip, one observation comes to mind after the gridlocked streets of Cairo: Traffic sure moves smoothly.
Except in the neighborhood of Salah Eddin. There, pickups and tractor-trailers clog the narrow streets, carrying loads of almost anything: cookies, canned food, tanks of cooking gas, cement, construction steel. What comes into the neighborhood, however, leaves it only through a network of secret tunnels that are the major conduit for goods headed into Gaza, where 1.2 million Palestinians live under an Israeli blockade.
Salah Eddin is unquestionably one of the largest clandestine cargo ports in the world, though no one keeps track of what goods pass through it. Their value is no doubt in the tens of millions of dollars, if not more, all of it illegal. Some of it may even be weapons, spirited out of Libya's chaos from Moammar Gadhafi's vast stores.
A visit to the tunnels proves the ineffectiveness of Egyptian and Israeli efforts to shut them down, efforts apparently so drastic that, Palestinian officials claim, they sometimes include Egyptian authorities flooding the tunnels with wastewater. Three cousins died last month, Palestinian medical officials say, from injuries they suffered when a tunnel collapsed from a sewage-water leak while they were smuggling goods through it.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
More typically, however, the Egyptians use explosives to blow up tunnels they uncover or, in one case last week, fill it with tires and rubble, when using explosives would damage nearby houses.
But there are many other tunnels to pick from, and residents of the neighborhood all share one dream: that someday one of the tunnelers will find his way from Gaza into their backyard, allowing them to share in the smuggling profits. All the tunnels are dug from Gaza into Egypt, smugglers say, never the other way around.
Access for journalists is granted under one condition: "No names and no pictures," said the crew boss at one tunnel whose owner had authorized a visit. He broke briefly from overseeing five workers unloading a truckload of cement to give a tour, which began in a hut covered with palm leaves that masked the tunnel's entrance.
Inside, a narrow rail line stretched through the tunnel on which carts loaded with goods ran. Light bulbs glared every 30 feet along a tunnel that was only 5 feet high for the first 50 yards before the ceiling rose enough that a man could stand almost upright.
An intercom was fixed to the wall.
"We are 22 meters" — about 70 feet — "underground. No cell phone signals down here; they use the intercom for communication. There's one installed every 300 meters," said a Palestinian who helped arrange a reporter's tour of the tunnel and accompanied him on the subterranean visit.
The tunnel's owner is a 29-year-old Palestinian-Egyptian who had the same condition as his crew boss: "Before we sit or talk, no names and no photos," he said.
"I am no different than you are," he began. "You came all the way here and risked walking into a tunnel just to make a living by writing your articles. I also walk across tunnels every day with dozens of workers just to make a living, and sometimes we never come out."
Tunnel ownership apparently pays well. The tunnel owner drove a brand-new air-conditioned sedan and used two smartphones. He said he'd graduated from an Egyptian law school but could find no work in Egypt. After two years working in an Arab Persian Gulf country he declined to name, he came home to Rafah in 2008.
"I came back as bankrupt as I went; I found a job at a tunnel owned by another local and now I own my tunnel, several cars and a house; thanks be to Allah," the owner said.
"Look at those villas and vehicles. Where do you think all that money came from? Did you see a single factory or farm in town? That is all tunnel money," he added, pointing to nearby homes with olive tree orchards.
The tunnels are illegal in Egypt, but Palestinians here say their cousins in Gaza pay $3,000 to the Hamas-led government there for licenses to register as tunnel owners.
"The Palestinians dig all the way here," the tunnel owner explained. "If they agree with a house owner, they come out in his yard. I know people that pray every night that a tunnel digger would arrive one day with an offer to use their yard."
The tunnels, the owner said, are a "business that employs hundreds of people and raises hundreds of children."
He detailed the accounting: "Each shipment through the tunnel pays wages to at least two drivers, five workers on each truck for loading and unloading, at least 10 workers for packaging goods and at least five watchmen to secure the perimeter, not to mention rentals of trucks and warehouses for storing and packaging. All those workers are on the Egyptian side. The same process consequently takes place on the Palestinian side of the tunnel."
"If any of the men risking not returning to their wives and children found a respectable job that covers their basic needs, they will never work in tunnels; the same applies to me," he said.
There is, of course, no official tunnel count. But smugglers estimate there are as many as 1,000 in the three-mile stretch from the Mediterranean to the central part of Rafah. Some tunnels are more than 100 feet underground, and they're divided by specialties: consumer goods and construction material in some, cars in others.
The ones that carry people, weapons and drugs are never spoken of.
The tunnelers have given up smuggling gasoline and diesel fuel. "it was very inefficient and dangerous to smuggle it in jerrycans," the owner said. Now fuel is pumped across the border in clandestine pipelines.
"This is why my tunnel that you saw smells of gasoline," the owner said. "There was a pipe running right above it and it broke. It leaked some fuel into my tunnel, but fortunately we contained the situation."
He said that one car tunnel in Rafah was customized to carry Hummers that a Palestinian had bought from a Libyan. "He couldn't fit them and did not want to lose the deal, so he decided to renovate his tunnel a bit," the owner said.
Rafah still bears the scars of the violence that broke out here in January as the town joined the protests that led to the toppling of former President Hosni Mubarak. On both sides of the main street, the buildings that house state security, the police, the immigration department and a school are still charred, with bullet pockmarks and ragged holes torn by exploding rocket-propelled grenades.
The police still haven't returned here in force. But that doesn't mean the tunnel business is especially good. A surge in competition over the past three years has cut the prices the owners can charge.
Back in the day, just after Israel imposed its Gaza blockade in 2006, there were only about a dozen tunnels, and it cost $15,000 to smuggle a ton of goods through one of them. A worker made $300 a day.
"Now we get paid a maximum of $700 per ton. It's not worth the risk anymore. The only reason why we keep working is the unending demand from Gaza, and the workers that we don't want to lay off," the tunnel owner said.
Smugglers and tunnel workers describe their business as honorable. "We saved the Gaza Strip from starvation. There was a time when the only goods in Gaza came from Egypt, through our tunnels, carried on our shoulders," the owner said.
The risk is real, however. Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, a Palestinian human rights group based in Gaza, reported that since 2006, 200 people have died and 600 have been injured in the tunnels.
Twenty of those died in Israeli bombing raids, the rest in accidents, Al Mezan found. "The exact number of tunnels is unknown," said Samir Zakkot, an Al Mezan researcher. "New ones are dug and others are collapsing every week."
Zakkot predicted that there'll be no end to the tunnel business as long as the siege of Gaza persists.
The tunnel owner agreed.
"If you have a wife and kids waiting for food, you will never refuse the tunnel money. You will find yourself standing in my position when I first got offered tunnel work in 2008," he said. Then he excused himself. "I have to go supervise the night shipment."
(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy on Twitter.