Drawing on the strength of the Syrian people

There are more than 1.1 million children among the 2.3 million Syrians who have been driven into exile since the civil war broke out in 2011, according to a UN report published last week (November 29). George Butler, an artist and illustrator specialising in travel and current affairs, met some of them earlier this year on the Syrian-Turkish border

At 28, George Butler has seen a lot of the world and has stories to tell about it. His, of course, is a well travelled generation. What marks him out is where he has chosen to go and how he has told those stories.

Over the past few years he has been to the barracks of his uncle’s regiment in Afghanistan, a tuberculosis clinic in Mumbai and a refugee camp on the Syrian-Turkish border. He has accounts on Facebook and Twitter, and uploads the occasional snap on both. Most of his postings, however, are of images that demand a more considered approach: illustrations in pen, ink and watercolour that take him anything from 20 minutes to a couple of hours.

Since graduating with a degree in illustration from Kingston University in 2007, he has driven from London to Libreville, the capital of the West African state of Gabon. He has drawn oilfields in Azerbaijan, firefighters in New York and elephants in India. His work has appeared in several national newspapers and in the publications of  charities including Médecins Sans Frontières.

It was for MSF and the British charity Syria Relief that he made his second trip into Syria, in February of this year. In August 2012 he had walked from Turkey across the border and, as an unofficial guest of the Rebel Free Syrian Army, spent four days drawing people and places in the war-damaged northern town of Azaz. On his return, his brief was to document life in the field hospitals and refugee camps.

He describes his work as “reportage illustration”. “I’m looking to record things the way a photojournalist would; things that I think are interesting or perhaps people misunderstand or don’t know very much about,” he says. “I try to describe them as accurately and with as much feeling for my subjects’ experience as I can.

“In a world that’s almost entirely digital, I think there’s a freshness about something that’s handmade and drawn over quite a long period of time. I also think we’ve become immune to a lot of photography, especially some of the more gruesome images. We can just flick past them…”

In Syria, however, he wondered whether any medium was equal to capturing the horror of what he witnessed and heard. “Some of the people I met had suffered unbelievable trauma,” he says. “A little boy in one hospital, struggling with an over-sized oxygen mask, had seen his mother and brother killed in shelling the day before. He himself had lost his right leg. His father was in such a state he could hardly sit still. I remember trying to draw the father’s hands, which kept moving up and down from his head and stroking his son’s foot.”

Another two of his subjects, drawn in a refugee camp in Turkey, were Nazak Kurdi, a 62-year-old geography teacher from Damascus, and Khalid, an 11-year-old recently orphaned boy she had adopted. Nazak, known in the camp as “Mama Nazak”, told Butler she had suffered herself in the 1980s at the hands of Hafez al-Assad’s regime – she was hanged by her hands for 20 days for her refusal to support the Ba’ath Party – and when the Syrian revolution began she tried to prevent her sons from getting involved. She failed: the eldest was killed while launching rockets; the youngest was shot trying to save him and has lost the use of his hands; and the middle son, in a separate incident, was shot in the back and is now paralysed from the waist down.

Khalid, the boy Nazak has adopted, had fled with his parents from constant shelling in their  village. They were given shelter by another  family near Azaz. His mother, feeling safer, made the mistake of telling her host that her elder sons were fighting for the Free Syrian Army. He betrayed her. Troops of a pro-regime militia came and shot Khalid’s father at the door of the  house. Khalid and his mother escaped through a window, taking a bus to the border, where they were intercepted at a checkpoint. His mother dropped him from the bus, telling him to run. He did, and hid himself. Minutes later, he saw his mother being beheaded with a sword.

“It was a privilege to draw these people’s stories,” says Butler. “Khalid showed a compassion and maturity I found humbling. He told me he didn’t hate the whole regime, just the ones who killed his parents. He said that when he grows up he would like to be a policeman or a doctor. When I asked why, he said: ‘I want to be a doctor to heal the injured people of the war. And I want to protect others if somebody wants to enter their house.’”

Butler has done quite a bit more travelling since his last visit to Syria, most recently to Romania, for the Global Heritage Fund, to draw Saxon villages in Transylvania (a project of which I hope you’ll soon be able to read more in the pages of Telegraph Travel). Syria, though, clearly remains close to his heart. In April, with Syrian Supper Club, a London-based group that combines cooking with fundraising for refugees (and which will shortly become a charity, the Hands Up Foundation), he organised an auction that raised £57,000 for projects run by Syria Relief. “The security situation has worsened since my last trip,” he says, “but it would be great to find a time to go back, see how that money is being spent, and continue telling these Syrians’ stories.” MK

For more about George Butler’s work, see georgebutler.org.
For more about the Syrian Supper Club, see syriansupperclub.wordpress.com.


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