Published: 23 February, 2012
BY ANDREW JOHNSON
With a tragic prescience, Tom Hurndall, a young peace activist and photographer, wrote an email to his friends almost nine years ago, saying: “Am in East Jerusalem... just finished training to go into Rafah, southern Gaza tomorrow, will be there for a few weeks until my money runs out or I’m shot.”
He was shot, in the head by an Israeli sniper, a week later, on April 11 2003, as he attempted to rescue a young girl who was cowering from the gunfire.
He was 21 and had joined the international volunteers in the Gaza strip who were attempting to defend civilians by placing themselves in the line of fire.
The bullet put him into a coma from which he never recovered. Nine months later he died at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead.
The near decade since has seen hundreds of articles written about Tom, who lived in Tufnell Park, explaining how as an idealistic young man who wanted to be a photojournalist, he had originally gone to be a human shield in Iraq.
As the complexities of Middle East politics unravelled before him he found himself in Palestine, trying to protect ordinary families from the random, terrorising, sniper fire of the Israeli army. He didn’t intend to become so involved, just to find out. His email continued: “...this is the first time I’m doing this and it’s getting really hard to be objective, plus some of the stuff I’ve seen is pretty heavy and is just making me lose it. It’s like being undercover and I’m watching myself slipping into a role when I wanted to be as detached as possible.”
The years that followed his death have seen his parents, Anthony and Jocelyn, continue a remarkable David versus Goliath battle against the Israeli state which finally, and unprecedentedly, saw the soldier who fired the bullet, Tasyir Haybe, jailed for eight years for manslaughter. He was released last year, two years early.
The Hurndalls have spent the past few years ploughing through their son’s emails, journals, poetry and photographs to piece together the intense months he spent in the Middle East.
With the help of his former girlfriend, Kay Fernandes, they have painstakingly matched Tom’s words to his pictures to tell his story and follow his journey in a book, The Only House Left Standing.
“I think what he’s written has been far more difficult for me than the photographs because I’ve always seen him far more as a writer than a photographer,” Mrs Hurndall says. “His writing was particularly difficult to go through because one’s handwriting is so intensely personal and evocative of that person. In Tom’s case I’d see his stance, he’d be writing in his room, invariably feet up on a window ledge, pen in hand, with these very modest notebooks, and he’d be writing there.
“Tom was dyspraxic so he had this very slow handwriting. But he had this very fast brain and actually it worked in his favour. If you look at Tom’s journals there’s hardly a single crossing out, a single changed thought. As you read Tom’s handwriting you gain the impression that
every word mattered, every single phrase had been chosen.”
There is no doubting from the book that Tom had a youthful idealism – a desire, his mother says, “to remember everything in his life and find something different about the next day and something to celebrate every single day” – yet there is also a remarkable maturity and detachment to his writing.
It is also a testament to his courage, something the Independent’s Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk points out in his foreword: “He showed more courage than most of us have dreamed of,” he writes.
The book was launched earlier this month at Channel 4’s offices in Westminster. There, Tom’s old Housemaster from Winchester School, Rob Wyke, spoke about Tom’s “challenging” teenage behaviour. But he added: “As Tom grew up he became not exceedingly principled but profoundly so. He kept smiling and remained impatient. This morning I was able to tell 250 schoolboys about Tom, and did they listen.”
The book is also testament that Tom’s death was not entirely in vain. “A number of British Parliamentarians want to see this book,” Mrs Hurndall says.
“I don’t think satisfying is the right word. But I’m glad that so many Parliamentarians want to read Tom’s book and have asked for it. It is something, isn’t it? Tom wanted so much to make a difference. When you get influential people, people in a position to make policy in this country, then Tom’s book will help to make a difference.”
The final word in the book goes to his Palestinian friend – who can’t be named – who describes Tom’s last moments as he tried to rescue a Palestinian girl who was pinned down by Israeli sniper fire.
“I saw him falling on his knees with his arms outstretched to carry the girl,” he writes. “I felt devastated as I saw the blood spilling from his head... Nearly nine years on, I am writing these lines in the name of his unforgettable memory and courageous soul.
“Tom paid with his life to give life to others. His blood was unlawfully spilt on our roads, yet it has marked a step in the road to a free Palestine. Tom’s soul and priceless sacrifice will always remain engraved in our minds and hearts.”
• The Only House Left Standing: The Middle East Journals of Tom Hurndall. Foreword by Robert Fisk. Trolley Books, £24.99