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Book Review: The Beauty Of One Selfless Act In "The Only House Left Standing"

Judy L. Wang |
June 20, 2012 | 10:52 a.m. PDT

Books Editor

British photojournalist Tom Hurndall (Trolley Books)
British photojournalist Tom Hurndall (Trolley Books)
It’s hard to begin a book when you already know how it ends, especially with an ending like this.  

Tom Hurndall was a British student and photojournalist who went to the Middle East in February of 2003 as a volunteer for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). He left not knowing what was ahead of him in an unfamiliar territory on the verge of war with his homeland Britain and the United States. Yet, whatever fears he nurtured he still went on, and the best sign of his courage was not to turn back:

“When a man must lie to himself to do what he knows he should, that is when you know he is terrified.”

The book is a compilation of Hurndall’s photos, diary entries and emails that document his journey from Baghdad to Amman, then to the Al Rweished refugee camp and finally to Rafah in Gaza where the young photojournalist was killed in April of that same year.  

As you flip through the book, there is an unsettling feeling as you read this young photojournalist’s ponderings and self-revelations because you know where the story ends, yet each day for him is in suspense of that exact moment. He shows every hint of cowardice and courage, and it’s not quite clear what keeps him going other than to abandon every emotion he’s ever felt and simply go on from destination to destination.

The glossy photos transport the reader to uncomfortable places: children holding bullet casings, crowds of men wearing ski masks carrying guns, homes riddled with bullet holes and a young boy throwing rocks at a tank.

At one point Hurndall details "the only house left standing," the story of Dr. Samir and his family that inspired the title of the book. Dr. Samir lives in the only house standing "where there used to be over 20." The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have scared many people out of their homes, but Dr. Samir would not leave and because of his decision, his home faced illegal raids by IDF. In one of the raids, they placed all the men downstairs and had Dr. Samir's 7-year-old daughter, Reem, "show them around the house at gunpoint." According to Hurndall, besides raiding, the IDF riddled the house with bullet holes and even "left the family's prayer mats in the toilet." 

Hurndall travelled with a brave crowd ready to die for people like Dr. Samir and his family. He went through the emotional ups and downs of having to live with hearing stories of children shot while playing, while getting a glass of water at home. He was shaken by many things that he saw, yet all the while you don’t sense that Hurndall is trying to sway you in any one direction, rather he is showing you truth for you to judge, oceans away, because you cannot see it for yourself.

At the very end, we reach the inevitable last pages (days) of Hurndall’s time in the Middle East. On April 11, he was shot in the head by an Israeli sniper bullet while trying to save two children trapped by a storm of gunfire. He was the only one who ran to save them and he was shot even though he was wearing an internationally recognized orange peacekeeper jacket.  

At the very beginning of the book, an entry from Hurndall’s diary in November of 2001 said this:

“What do I want from this life? What makes me happy isn’t enough; all those things that satisfy our instincts complete only the animal in all of us…When I die I want to be smiling about the things I’ve done, not crying for what I haven’t.”

Isn’t that what we all want: the courage to live without regret? And Hurndall did exactly that, without hesitation. 


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