All For Others"
22 July 2003
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
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 attach/ 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 Rover.
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' behaviour.
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 recovery.
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
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.
This article originally appeared in The Scotsman newspaper. To donate
to the campaign, visit www.tomhurndall.co.uk