“He risked all for others”: Tom Hurndall’s mother remembers her son

Tom visiting the pyramids in Cairo, Egypt. (Kay Fernandes)

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 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 around him.

www.tomhurndall.co.uk (click to visit)

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