The Only House Left Standing – The Middle East Journals of Tom Hurndall
As the book opens we are presented immediately with Tom’s words from NOVEMBER 2001:
“What do I want from this Life?…
I want to be proud. I want something more.
I want to look up to myself and when I die
I want to be smiling about the things I’ve done,
not crying for whatI haven’t.”
With a page turn we see the first of Tom’s photographs, of the masses that marched in defiance of our governments’ eagerness for war with Iraq in 2003. I remember that day, with my infant son in his push-chair as millions marched in cities across the world pleading for restraint, dialogue and, above all, truthful analysis. Our leaders did not listen, and as we know, the ‘coalition of the desiring’ opened a new chapter of killing that even a decade later adds to its pages with a daily toll of death and greater destruction.
If you know about the story of Tom Hurndall, you will know that his life ended in tragic death amidst the destruction of the Rafah refugee camp of Gaza. What this book tells you though, through his photographs and his writing, is that he died, as he began, with a heart full of love.
The journey begins with photographs of us, on 15th February 2003 – the day after those flowers and messages of love have been exchanged in their annual ritual. We are gathered on street corners carrying placards, marching down Whitehall protesting what we see as the inexplicable rationale behind going to war. Within a week Tom was accompanying a group of “human shield” volunteers making their way to Baghdad to show solidarity, of the human not the political kind, with the people there. The West’s mighty war machine assembled its forces ready to begin the aerial bombardment of Iraq.
“This is it. This is where the realisation begins to sink in,” he writes on a stop-over in Amman Jordan.
Throughout the book we can trace the chronology of events and the ordering of Tom’s thoughts. His diary missives and emails back home to family and friends serve as a continuous narrative, just as his images reveal his surroundings and those he encountered along the way. The photographs are raw, honest, unencumbered by the expectation of others, they show us what he saw, and through Trolley’s expert editing and flowing layout, we keep up with how he felt.
One may say the photography, Tom’s words and even his actions, were naive, but deeply embedded in the imagery and sentiment is a sense of caring and of wanting to be able to account for oneself. These are not qualities to dismiss and as one reads further one realises that Tom was not blind to the the arguments for and against the war, he was not even blind to the danger he was putting himself in. He questions the motives of others and the book includes all the evidence for us to see how he thought about things and worked hard in his mind to decide what he was doing, and what he wanted to do.
Tom left Iraq and returned to Jordan, he felt he had more to offer outside of the media spotlight, without the circus that followed the “Human Shields”. He watched the countdown to the bombardment of Iraq from the comfort of a hotel room in Amman. It was to be one of his last comfortable nights, choosing the following day to visit and spend time at the Al-Reieshed refugee camp where we see him smiling and playing with children, digging ditches and putting his back, as well as his heart, into it.
Among the children and the families whose hardship he momentarily shared in the cold desert camp, Tom tells us in a poem that his thoughts are refocused, he has seen a way forward.
“I have a new sense lent to my life…
Though before I knew the pain, now I see the cause…
I have learnt to feel my thoughts.”
Tom’s photographs here are of the refugee camp and its daily life. The joy and energy of his images of children or of him playing football are intermingled with desert scenes of sunsets, clouds on the horizon and TV grab shots of children in Iraq, crying on hospital beds, presumably injured by the clinical western bombing campaign underway across the border.
The realisation that echoes in these images is one of narrowing one’s gaze, connecting the dots and identifying clearly the causes and effects. Having left Baghdad somewhat disheartened by the lack of control he had over the Cause, Tom is buoyed by the ability he has found to work to mitigate the Effect. As the chapter ends in the book, staring into the eyes of a five-year-old girl looking up at the photographer, Tom knows that for this child and many others like her – born a Palestinian refugee and always a Palestinian – there is no going back to Iraq, and there is also no chance either of a homecoming in Palestine.
And so he is compelled to go to Israel, where love and hate mix so fluidly, where right and wrong are so conveniently interchangeable and where life and death find equal place on the pedestal of righteousness.
Like Tom’s own thoughts and his journal entries, Trolley’s book seamlessly bridges the divide between Jordan and Israel as it does again between Israel and Gaza. Reaffirmed in his purpose Tom joins up with the “Internationals”, a group of volunteers who together have formed the International Solidarity Movement. Their aim is simple, to show the people of Gaza, the children especially, that there is still love, that there are reasons not to fear, and that people out there, in the rest of the world, do care. The job of the Internationals is simple, to spend time with families, sleep in their homes and share their meals to make them feel safer. And when the Israeli bulldozers come to redraw the borders by demolishing homes or to erect menacing sniper towers from which to watch and shoot at the people below? The Internationals will stand in their way, quite literally.
Tom’s images are of yellow jacketed young men and women, from England, Spain and other countries, defiantly blocking the path of the Israeli tanks and bulldozers. His journal entries convey the words spoken to him by the other volunteers, Palestinian activists and local doctors he meets. Tom is assembling the facts on the ground and responding, as he has done consistently since he left London a month and a half before, with warmth, hope and love.
Tom writes without malice about some of the Israeli soldiers he encounters. United by their age but divided by their different fates he does not demonise or blame them individually instead glimpsing the goodness in them without allowing the prejudice of the situation they find themselves in to cloud his view.
One feels reading these images and words that the end of the book is approaching. Like the desert plains of Jordan the sky in these images is growing dark and cloudy. In Gaza the clouds are of dust from the debris that fills the air mixed with the exhaust fumes from the massive mechanised armour that lurks around each corner making easy work breaking bricks and twisting metal of what once were houses and homes.
Tom writes to ask a friend in London to help explain the nuances of the conflict. he feels his friend will explain why things are the way they are. It is not an admission of ignorance but a characteristic of Tom’s that we have grown accustomed to in the book: he leave his judgements aside and deals instead with the here and now, of what matters most.
Tom’s Last Day 11 April 2003. The chapter title could so easily have been called the killing of, the murder of, the inexplicable tragedy of… but instead like the journey we have been through in its pages The Last House Left Standing asks us to keep our eyes wide open and see the banality, the simplicity and the fragility of life.
A moving tribute to Tom is written by the local coordinator of the ISM. That this man wishes to remain anonymous tells us of the fear he has for his safety and those around him in Gaza despite the passing of almost a decade.
Dear Tom rest in Peace ends the activist.
The final photograph on the following page, in black and white is heartbreakingly graphic. It shows the moment Tom was carried by colleagues having been shot squarely in the head by a sniper.
A brief lull in the destruction of homes and houses had been shattered while children played on a mound of sand nearby to where Tom sat. Without hesitation we are told, Tom had jumped into the line of fire, coming from Israeli soldiers masked in their watch towers and hidden inside the turrets of their tanks, to rescue the children. He had managed to bring one child to safety but when returning with the second child in his arms, a young girl – like perhaps the one whose eyes had so beckoned him in Jordan to come to Gaza – the sniper’s bullet had hit its target. The sniper’s target was simply a man who dared to care, who dared to help, and a man who also dared to believe that surely a young soldier, unthreatenned in his vatage point, would not really wish to shoot and kill children or those who try to move them to safety.
Are we naive to want to believe this too? Are we naive to hope that Tom’s love could be a greater guide to life than another’s hatred? I, for one, do not think so. The corrupt morality that permitted this soldier, a representative of his nation, to take a life with such little concern sadly still thrives today in all its gross disguises. Trolley Books have made a publication of the utmost importance that remembers and celebrates Tom’s life while insisting his killers and their commanders are brought to justice.
The Only House Left Standing
The Middle East Journals of Tom Hurndall
256 pages, Hardcover
Foreword by Robert Fisk
Trolley Books 2012
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=19BZUS3Hyto – Music by Koudlam