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Tom Hurndall was a young man with a dream…he paid for it with his life

A young British photographer shot by an Israeli soldier on the Gaza strip has died after nine months in a coma. Sally Pook and Nicola Woolcock report.
Originally published by The Telegraph.

Tom Hurndall left England with a dream to document the lives of people living under conflict. A first year photography student at Manchester Metropolitan University, he hoped to emulate his hero, the renowned war photographer Don McCullin.

He travelled first to Iraq, before moving to Jordan and then on to Israel. It was a trip he had saved for and planned for some time, a trip that would form part of his degree course and one he knew would prove deeply challenging.

The son of middle-class parents from north London, Mr Hurndall was politically aware and passionate about human rights. He took part in anti-war demonstrations in London before leaving for Iraq.

His sense of adventure, together with his love of photography, propelled him to document the lives of ordinary people in areas of conflict in the Middle East.

His mother, Jocelyn, a teacher, described him as highly intelligent, articulate and inquisitive, a young man with an adventurous spirit who continually asked questions. It was typical of her son, she said, to put another’s safety before his own.

“It used to worry me that his feelings for others would override any care for his own safety,” she wrote before he died.

Mr Hurndall’s journey began in February last year, when the 21-year-old travelled to Baghdad with a group who would act as human shields. It was his passport into the country. “I want to put a real face on the situation,” he told reporters at Heathrow.

“He saw that war with Iraq was looming and saw it as his chance to do what he wanted to do,” his sister, Sophie, said yesterday.

“The college tried to stop him. While he was there he had an e-mail from his tutor trying to pressure him to come home. But he had absolutely decided what he was going to do.”

He quickly became disenchanted with Iraq when he was denied access to the places and people he wanted to see.

“He disagreed sometimes with what was going on. He went out there as an observer. But they wanted him to stand in front of buildings such as factories. Tom said he would protect schools and hospitals but that was it,” said Miss Hurndall. “So they asked him to leave.”

Mr Hurndall left for Jordan, where he spent time in refugee camps taking photographs, building tents and buying supplies.

Once again, he became frustrated, feeling he was not making enough of a difference, and tried to return to Iraq. It proved too difficult and too expensive from Jordan. So he chose Israel.

Although he has been labelled a peace activist, his family insist he was primarily acting as an amateur photo-journalist in Israel. According to his family, he wanted to cut through the propaganda.

“He wanted to find out for himself what was going on, cover these stories and bring the truth back to Britain,” said his sister.

He chose to gain access to the refugee camps by joining the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), which required him to undertake a short training course before he travelled to Gaza.

His decision to sign up with the ISM was initially a way of getting into the refugee camps; but he also joined because he wanted to cover the story of the death of Rachel Corrie, the 23-year-old American member of the movement who was crushed to death by an Israeli armoured bulldozer weeks before Mr Hurndall was shot.

“He also wanted to work alongside them. He believed in their cause,” said Miss Hurndall.

“Three days before he was shot he saw a child shot in front of him. That is why he acted when he saw children being shot at and tried to protect them, he knew there was a chance they could be killed.”

During his five days in Gaza, Mr Hurndall photographed children and ISM activists opposing Israeli bulldozers. Other photographs show children playing in the ruins of bombed homes in Rafah, members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, a family living in a house directly in front of an Israeli tower.

In photographs taken of him at the time, he appears fresh-faced and enthusiastic. On the morning of April 11, the day he was fatally wounded, he e-mailed one of his professors to tell her how excited he was about the pictures he was compiling. He said he would be back in England soon.

That afternoon, he travelled to Rafah, carrying his camera and wearing an orange day-glo jacket.

It was broad daylight still, at around 5pm, when he was shot in the head as he tried to shepherd two young girls to safety. Witnesses said a group of Palestinian children had been trapped under fire in the Yibna area of Rafah.

Mr Hurndall twice crossed the line of fire. He managed to get one child, a boy named Salem Baroum, to safety but as he went back for the two girls he was shot in the head.

According to witnesses at the scene, there were no Palestinian gunmen in the area.

At the European hospital near Rafah, a brain scan found that the bullet had left hundreds of particles of shrapnel in his head. Mr Hurndall never regained consciousness.

His family travelled to Gaza to begin their own investigation into the shooting. They believe he was targeted by the Israeli Defence Force as part of a strategy of suppressing foreign witnesses in the occupied territories.

“The soldier had a telescopic lens and we have been told by a military expert that he could have taken the buttons off Tom’s coat,” said Sophie.

In May, his family managed to get Mr Hurndall flown back to England where he remained in a deep coma at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability in Putney, south-west London.

He died on Tuesday night, aged 22, after contracting pneumonia, just as his mother had left his bedside to buy some coffee.

“The doctors said on Monday that he had less than a week left to live,” said his sister.

“My father and brothers, Frankie and Billy, stayed with him on Monday then my mother took over for a shift early on Tuesday. She had been with him all day, and just went to get a coffee. The doctors rang her on her mobile to say what had happened.”

In his diary, Mr Hurndall appeared to have anticipated his fate, writing that he would not wish to survive if he was severely injured.