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A Descent Into Hell

Reflections on a staged exhibition of the tunnels of Gaza, and what it might mean to bear witness

Chloe Yale Pinto
February 07, 2024
The exhibition, created by the 7/10 Human Chain Project, approximates the harrowing conditions experienced by those still held captive by Hamas

Courtesy the author

The exhibition, created by the 7/10 Human Chain Project, approximates the harrowing conditions experienced by those still held captive by Hamas

Courtesy the author

And so, we go down.

With every step we descend further underground, approaching the entrance of the “Tunnels of Gaza.” This temporary art exhibition opened secretly in East London for one week only, shielded from the public for the sake of safety. Designed meticulously according to numerous testimonies from released hostages following the Oct. 7 massacre in Israel, the exhibition approximates the harrowing conditions experienced by those still held captive by Hamas. It is a glimpse into the depths of hell.

This hell is structured meticulously, a spider’s web of connected cavities. It is dark and damp. Tentatively tracing the path set by a volunteer, we move from room to room organized by theme and by hostage. Once a garment factory, now the exhibition space trades textiles for texts, treading the thin line between fact and affect. From a staged morgue, to a surgery and then a control room, we inch through the tunnels.

Mannequins stand in for individuals. Their faces are curiously blank, a canvas pasted over by our associations. They stand separately as inanimate, abject objects exuding a palpable loneliness. However, in one corner a soiled mattress carries the weight of a mannequin covered in a bloodied sheet, arm outstretched to a companion tied up at the wrists. Both are blindfolded. Their cell is dedicated to the victims of sexual assault.

This hell is made up of empty spaces in crowded dungeons. With every movement we confront the question: How do, or should, we engage with the theme of absence? Representing the stories of those stolen from the present raises a unique set of challenges concerning the limitations of exhibitions, archives, and language. Curated by the 7/10 Human Chain Project, the exhibition permeates public space in plain sight. Mere moments away from my university campus, I had hurried past it countless times on my way to give lectures.

The exhibition, a mobile unit memorializing the contemporary, requires physical engagement. Distance was no longer an option. Such physicality demands not only the telling, but transmitting, of inconceivable pain currently being experienced elsewhere. The exhibition’s own dynamism, its constant relocations and re-curations across the country, evokes the forced movements of the hostages themselves, perpetually shuffled through the skeleton of tunnels under Gaza.

With every movement we confront the question: How do, or should, we engage with the theme of absence?

From inside the exhibition, the underbelly of the staged tunnels of Gaza, we receive an invitation. A screening was about to begin: Bearing Witness. My fellow visitors turn pale, they whisper in low tones. “Are you actually going to watch it? Can you bear it?”

What might it mean to bear witness? For Jacques Derrida it is a matter of the impossibility of witnessing one’s own annihilation and subsequent entanglement with the mortality of another. Such half-garbled quotations flood my mind as my body takes a seat. Surely I would be protected by years spent studying. I could bear witness.

This is hell.

This hell is an archive of raw footage. Raw in every sense: unprocessed, crude, gritty, painful. Gathered and released by the IDF’s Spokesperson’s Unit, the film consists of footage captured directly during the Oct. 7 attacks from dashcam recordings, CCTV and mobile phones belonging to those who survived, those who didn’t, and those who ensured they wouldn’t. This archive is now in its 19th edition, with new material constantly being added. It is diachronic, evolving and mutating. Hell happens across different iterations of obliteration.

The apocalypse unfurls over a single day; the Aristotelian condition for tragedy. The film is structured along the axes of time and space, moving forward chronologically and sideways geographically, across kibbutzim, army bases, family homes, roads, sidewalks and festival grounds. Over 47 minutes of film, 138 people are killed. This is fewer than 15% of the total murdered that day.

Death. Mutilation. Torture. Violence. Such a stream of words can never do these acts justice. Suffering. Annihilation. Terror. Loss. The film intersplices different types of footage together and imitates immediacy. One second, we are inside a car, cruising along to cheerful tunes. Next, the windscreen cracks, we veer sideways, off the road, into a ditch, the body of our passenger slumping while dying. Next we assume the first-person perspective of a Hamas militant’s body cam, stalking a domestic street. A black Labrador bounds up the pavement, someone’s beloved pet. A gunshot sends the dog spiraling, its tiny body ricocheting across the pavement from the sheer force of impact. The camera’s gaze drops to the hand holding the gun. Such constellating perspectives underscore the unanswerable. How are we to approach this?

What might it mean to bear witness?

Desperate for an anchor in the agony, I home in on details. Jade green leaves of snake plants speckled with blood. Remnants of Shabbat dinner flung across a kitchen floor; some potatoes, what could be a small salad. Faint shimmers of pink nail polish on crumpled, lifeless fingers still clutching a sign. “The Nova Festival Is an Eco-Friendly Site.”

As minutiae become meaningful, vague associations emerge, a way of making sense of horrors too graphic to grasp. How the sinews of a soldier’s beheaded neck resemble the roots of an orchid; how a child’s charred flesh smoldered into pajama fabric decorates the pattern, severing circles into skewers. Words will never come close.

But I must try. There is one woman I must speak of, for she haunts my every thought. The image opens on her shoes. Thick black boots, dusty soles evidence of an evening spent dancing. Hazy observations—she’s about my age, I own those same boots. The camera’s eye slides over the spiked angles of her splintered legs. Parts of her body are missing, her skin gray, purple, black as her boots. We linger on her face, burned beyond recognition, agony etched into an ashen skull. Wispy tendrils of dark hair dangle in dirt around her corpse. I ache for her. In another life, on another day, we could have been friends.

It is rare to see something so real. The undeniable, unequivocal evidence screened in the simulacra of Gaza’s tunnels. Antisemitism is a complicated prejudice, malleable in nature and chameleonic in character. It delights in disguise. Indeed, it is rare to see antisemitism so brazenly, so gleefully, recorded in its most gruesome reality.

Psychoanalytically, to encounter something beyond imagination, beyond signification, too painful to be grasped, is to approach “the real,” which lies beyond words and images. It is an unapproachable black hole of meaning, about which nothing can be said, but can speak back to us. Or rather, it can only cry out in anguish.

Kind eyes meet mine as I choke on sobs. Packets of tissues are thrust into my lap, generous gifts from a stranger. “Pray for them,” he says. “If you pray, they can hear you. Pray for them. You have to pray for the dead. I’m a volunteer at this exhibition, I pray for them every day. I’ll pray with you.” Our languages overlay, his Arabic, my Hebrew. A flicker of faith as divisions between us dissolve in grief. “Pray for them. If we pray, maybe they can help us heal this world.” This essay is another sort of prayer.

Staggering out the doors into crisp winter sun, I draw my first conclusion. This exhibition, these replicated tunnels bravely curated by those voicing pain for the voiceless, offering an image for the unimaginable, was unique in another sense. It was the only place I’d ever been where posters of the hostages remained completely intact.

As Rachel Goldberg-Polin, on day 76 of her son Hersh’s captivity in Gaza’s tunnels, expressed so powerfully:

“I once learned that in Judaism the version of hell is just … you watch a video of your life, and you see all the opportunities that you missed. All the times that you should have been kind, or patient, or generous, or done the right thing. All the missed opportunities. And that would be torture enough. And I’m saying to people now, you have an opportunity now. Don’t miss your opportunity.”

Approaching hell means bearing witness for someone you’ve never met, never really seen, because you miss them. Approaching hell means leaving the abyss with only the option to look back. To the disbelievers across the diaspora clamoring for more evidence, more videos of our sisters being raped, more proof that our babies were burned and beheaded, our loved ones torn limb from limb, here it is. Feast upon our carcasses. Will our suffering ever satiate you? Let the unfashionable, perhaps controversial, principle that no person deserves to be held hostage underground be our start. That no individual deserves to die, to suffer, to have their world blown apart, their body desecrated, because of where they were born. Let our eyes linger on one tragedy and know it does not diminish another. Let the blood dry, and our prayers be answered.

It is easier to stay silent. It is easier to hurry away from hell.

And yet, we must look back.

Chloe Yale Pinto is Assistant Professor in English Literature at Northeastern University London and a supervisor in English across multiple colleges at the University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on representations of antisemitism and gendered violence in literature, film and critical theory.