Saturday, July 19,2003
As written by Tom Hurndall's mother
Saturday, July 19,2003
As written by Tom Hurndall's mother
On Friday 11 April, my eldest son, a photojournalist, was shot in the
head by an Israeli soldier. He was trying to protect two young girls
in the Israelis' line of fire in Gaza. He is 21 and now lies in a
coma, with severe brain damage. We know he is not expected to recover
and our family are endeavouring to come to terms with this. Recently,
we were able to fly him home from Israel and he is now in The Royal
Free in Hampstead, in a room overlooking London, filled with
photographs of his life. Two large sheets covered in wonderful
written messages from friends hang on the walls.
I was at work when I first heard Tom had been seriously wounded. I'm
head of learning support at the Argyle primary school in Camden. My
daughter, Sophie, phoned: a news reporter had called her to ask if
she had been told about her brother. We hadn't appreciated that Tom
had gone down to Rafah in the Gaza Strip that week - we thought he
was in a refugee camp in Jordan.
I went into shock. The first thing I did was to call Tom's father,
Anthony, a lawyer, who was in Russia on business. We decided he would
fly to Israel the next day with Billy, our second son, as Tom had
been airlifted to Seroka hospital in Be'er Sheva.
I followed on the Monday and shortly after that Sophie, 23, and my
youngest son, 12-year-old Freddy, arrived. We were expecting the
worst. The surgeon had told us Tom might not survive even a few days
and that there was shrapnel still lodged in his brain. When I first
saw him, there was a young Israeli girl beside his bed who kept
repeating, "I am so sorry for my country". Tom's head was bandaged up
and there were tubes and monitors everywhere. Tom was a vital young
man who had been so full of life.
As a child, he was very popular at his school. He always threw
himself into things and when he was a teenager, he jumped into the
sea in Cornwall to swim with seal pups, oblivious to their angry
mother. He has always been highly intelligent, articulate and
inquisitive, constantly asking questions, and it seems an awful waste
that his adventurous spirit has led to this.
Tom was studying photography at Manchester Metropolitan University
and had travelled to Baghdad in February with some British "human
shields" for an assignment. He wanted to be a photojournalist. We had
tried to persuade him not to go but he was insistent, saying he had
done extensive research. From Baghdad he moved to Jordan and while he
was in a refugee camp, he hooked up with a Palestinian peace group,
the International Solidarity Movement. He agreed to accompany them to
Rafah, a town on the southern end of the Gaza Strip caught between
the Israeli army and Palestinian fighters.
Soon after arriving, he saw a little boy shot in the shoulder, which
profoundly affected him. He was also shot at, gassed and hit by
falling debris. A few days before he was shot, he wrote in his
journal: "The certainty is that they are watching and it is on the
decision of any one Israeli soldier or settler that my life depends."
A week later, the activists were peacefully trying to stop an Israeli
tank from blocking access to a local mosque when Tom saw soldiers in
a watchtower open fire. Numerous shots were directed at a group of
children playing in the rubble nearby. He pulled one five-year-old
Palestinian boy to safety, then returned to save two little girls. As
he reached out to grab their hands, Tom was hit in the head by the
sniper fire. He was wearing a fluorescent orange flak jacket
demonstrating that he was a civilian.
This was typical of Tom, to put another's safety before his own, to
help the underdog. Only two months before he left for Palestine, he
had squared up to a mugger trying to steal a mobile phone from a
young boy near our home. It used to worry me that his feelings for
others would override any care for his own safety. He had such an
empathetic side and would always listen when someone was in trouble.
Tom wanted to experience everything; he threw himself at life. He had
gone to Israel to see a world outside his own. He kept a beautifully
written journal of his travels. It was found in his knapsack after he
was shot. We value it greatly. He wanted to understand and feel at
first-hand what civilians were suffering in Palestine. He wanted to
find the truth behind the propaganda, seek out injustices.
Tom is the third Westerner to have been wounded or killed in Gaza in
recent months. In March, a 23-year-old American student, Rachel
Corrie, was crushed to death in Rafah by an Israeli armoured
bulldozer while she tried to protect a Palestinian family home from
being flattened. We have detailed evidence and are sure now that the
Israeli army has deliberately been targeting foreigners who go into
the occupied territories to help protect Palestinians and to witness
and record the conditions there.
Very soon after arriving in Israel, Anthony and I went with a
military attaché from the British embassy to the spot where he was
shot. We met the activists he had made friends with and the mother of
the child he had saved. I was still in terrible shock. Everything
seemed unreal. I was taking information in but not processing it.
Fortunately, Anthony had switched into lawyer mode and was asking
hundreds of questions. We had to seek justice for Tom and it has
helped us to deal with our grief and given us a focus. We returned to
Rafah several times and were once even shot at in the same place as
Tom. This was despite the Israeli soldiers having been warned three
times of our approach, in a clearly marked British embassy Range
The Israeli government has consistently denied shooting Tom with
intent, first claiming that he had been carrying a gun, which is
untrue, then saying he had been near a man carrying a gun. This is
also untrue - the family has collected 14 witness statements to the
contrary. Ten weeks later, we are still fighting for an official
inquiry. We want the officer who fired the gun and those in high
command brought to justice.
Tom was in intensive care in Israel for four weeks. So many people
came to support us. Many of the activists would sleep at the hospital
at night. One human rights lawyer even lent us his flat. On 29 May
the hospital said we could risk bringing Tom home - we wanted all his
friends to be able to see him. The horrific reality of Tom's
condition hit me as we followed his ambulance to the airport in Tel
Aviv. It felt as if this was the end of Tom's journey. It's a moment
I will never forget.
I've only recently stopped being in a state of intense shock; now it
is more a feeling of gradual loss. We are gradually returning to some
kind of normality; we are all back at work and Freddy is at school.
Billy stayed out in Israel, documenting footage of the soldiers'
We recently met up with Jack Straw. We sought legal advice in order
to find out how the government was obliged to support us. If we
produce enough evidence to prove there was injustice - and we have
done that now - they are obliged to investigate. We are hoping to
publish a book of Tom's journals and photographs soon. The BBC
correspondent Rageh Omar read from his journals at a recent concert
we held to raise funds for our campaign.
We've had talks about Tom's quality of life; we know he wouldn't want
to be hooked up to a machine. But for now we will play a waiting
game, let nature take its course and ensure that each of us has time
with Tom on our own, to give him comfort and support and to feel
close to him.
At first, whenever we saw the slightest movement, it was easy for us
to imagine he was more cognisant than he actually is. In reality,
these are reflex movements and we now know there is no chance of
I'm intensely proud of Tom. He taught himself to have courage; he
saved a life. We can't all remain in safe little cages. Tom went to
Gaza to expose the injustice. I profoundly respect the fact that he
sought to make a difference. Somewhere along the line he decided to
value life, not just his own, but those around him.
These past months have naturally been a life-changing experience but
we will not be in a permanent state of sadness. Tom understood that
we are not here just to live for ourselves. He may be my son but what
he has done is inspirational.
• To donate to the campaign, visit www.tomhurndall.co.uk
INTERNATIONAL SOLIDARITY MOVEMENT