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


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

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."