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Sketches From A War-Torn World: A British Illustrator In Syria

  • Ahmed, 10, was hit by a rocket on Feb. 13 and lost his leg. There doesn't seem anything more mundane than drawing when you are next to a child who has lost his mother, his brother and his leg within 48 hours. Father Yassar — his face wracked with worry — sits next to Ahmed in a clinic at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing. Ahmed keeps pulling an adult-sized oxygen mask off his little face.
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    Ahmed, 10, was hit by a rocket on Feb. 13 and lost his leg. There doesn't seem anything more mundane than drawing when you are next to a child who has lost his mother, his brother and his leg within 48 hours. Father Yassar — his face wracked with worry — sits next to Ahmed in a clinic at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing. Ahmed keeps pulling an adult-sized oxygen mask off his little face.
    Courtesy of George Butler
  • The border with Turkey near Cilvegozu, 24 hours after after a bombing that killed 14 people and wounded dozens more. At the time, the border remained shut; no aid could not get in, and people could not get out.
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    The border with Turkey near Cilvegozu, 24 hours after after a bombing that killed 14 people and wounded dozens more. At the time, the border remained shut; no aid could not get in, and people could not get out.
    Courtesy of George Butler
  • Although they are in Turkey, many Syrian refugees are so scared of the regime that they will not allow their pictures to be taken; even drawing takes some persuading. I felt such compassion for these people, but none more so when they thanked me for drawing them. So generous and so brave.
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    Although they are in Turkey, many Syrian refugees are so scared of the regime that they will not allow their pictures to be taken; even drawing takes some persuading. I felt such compassion for these people, but none more so when they thanked me for drawing them. So generous and so brave.
    Courtesy of George Butler
  • Ibrahim is 24 and describes himself as a general in the Free Syrian Army. He was shelled last May in Idlib and is getting used to his new leg, which he has had for a month. He says he would like to return to fight Bashar Assad, the Syrian president.
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    Ibrahim is 24 and describes himself as a general in the Free Syrian Army. He was shelled last May in Idlib and is getting used to his new leg, which he has had for a month. He says he would like to return to fight Bashar Assad, the Syrian president.
    Courtesy of George Butler
  • Although the need for new limbs is huge, no one has an accurate estimate of how many. This clinic in Reyhanli has made and fitted 10 so far. The limbs are made from high-density polyethylene and are relatively cheap to manufacture. Molds are carved with kitchen knives, power tools and cheese graters. The results restore some of the patients' functionality and, most important, their pride.
    Hide caption
    Although the need for new limbs is huge, no one has an accurate estimate of how many. This clinic in Reyhanli has made and fitted 10 so far. The limbs are made from high-density polyethylene and are relatively cheap to manufacture. Molds are carved with kitchen knives, power tools and cheese graters. The results restore some of the patients' functionality and, most important, their pride.
    Courtesy of George Butler
  • A peaceful demonstration in a village near Taftanaz, Idlib province.
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    A peaceful demonstration in a village near Taftanaz, Idlib province.
    Courtesy of George Butler

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George Butler lives between two worlds. One is his apartment in London, and the other consists of conflict-ravaged places like West Africa, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan and Syria.

The British illustrator recently returned from his second trip to Syria, and his reportage illustrations are a powerful account of life in the country's north, where the fighting is heavy and rebels now control many areas.

Halid is one of the bravest people I am ever likely to meet.
Courtesy of George Butler

Halid is one of the bravest people I am ever likely to meet. After his family fled their home, his mother unwittingly told a Shiite mother in their new village that her three eldest sons were fighting in the Free Syrian Army. The neighbor told the shabiha, mercenaries paid by the regime. Halid's father answered the door to meet gunfire that, as Halid describes, "turned his father into two pieces." Halid and his mother escaped through a window and boarded a bus headed to Turkey. But as they approached a checkpoint, Halid's mother dropped him from the bus and told him to "escape, move." He did as he was told, but at a safe distance watched as his mother was beheaded. He waited for hours until the checkpoint moved on. Some civilians found his mother's body; her head was never found. Halid's 16-year-old brother has been killed in the fighting; another is missing. The only vaguely positive note to Halid's story? He has been adopted, by "Mama Nazak," and they are safe — for now.

— George Butler

The illustrations are not just about the sorrows and pain of Syrian refugees and the wounded, but often about Syrians' stubborn insistence that life will carry on despite the pain.

For example, his drawings capture the little shops set up by refugees at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey or a demonstration in the northwestern province of Idlib.

With pen and watercolor, the 27-year-old draws Syrian cities like Maaret al-Nuaman and Azaz that have been destroyed by war, but also the faces of Syrian refugees. He sits down and collects their stories in hospitals, clinics and makeshift homes.

Butler says he is trying "to get away from statistics, like '70,000 people have died or 700,000 refugees in Turkey,' and make it personal again." He hopes his work resonates with people in America and England.

"These numbers are so huge, they are almost impossible to relate to, so I hope that these drawings and stories accompanying them can reconnect with people because something needs to be done about it," Butler says. "It is just impossible to know what."

At first, Butler bought a ticket for Turkey, where he thought he would be drawing refugees coming across the border. Someone suggested he should go to Azaz and do work there.

"I think they described it as relatively safe for the moment," Butler recalls. "So I spent three, four days as a sort of guest, I suppose, of the Free [Syrian] Army [anti-government forces], and they were very keen to ... describe their side of the story."

Butler admits that sometimes he feels like an intruder when he draws Syrians.

He describes one of his recent works, depicting a boy who lost his leg a day before they met. The boy is lying in bed, wearing an oversized oxygen mask; his father is by his side.

"The father could hardly sit still; his face was wracked with worry. He was fine with me drawing, probably because he had too many things to worry about," Butler says.

"The only thing I understood [the father] said is that art is no help to us in this situation," he adds.

"There is no comparison between arriving in Syria from London on a plane and standing there in clean clothes and making drawings and then flying off two weeks later," Butler says. "It doesn't compare in any way, shape or form."

Butler doesn't feel brave when he thinks about his work.

"I try to explain these people in extraordinary situations who continue to treat me as a person, and I'm always sucked in by their generosity, and I think that is why I always go back and pick perhaps unusual, perhaps scary places to draw other people, but I don't feel particularly brave in doing it," Butler says. "You can do it, certainly, in a quite safe, measured way, and I think that is worth the risk if you are telling the stories of these people."

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