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Story Publication logo February 24, 2015

Afghanistan: "Drawing War Not What I Imagined"


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What happens when after 13 years a foreign fighting force pulls out of a country and the world turns...

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Teaching training with a project run by Afghan Connection and the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan. Image by George Butler. Afghanistan, 2014.

When I was offered the chance to draw in Afghanistan with the Britain's 16 Brigade I jumped at the opportunity to see a part of the world I had only read about. At the same time I was at Kingston University in 2006 admiring other illustrators' work from the past. Many of them I learned had depicted the subject of "war." In fact, throughout history war and art have been coupled often.

As it turned out "drawing war," as I imagined it, was not what I would be doing in Afghanistan.

For two weeks in September 2006, I drew in the British and American bases from Helmand to Kandahar to Kabul. And although it frustrated me not to be allowed to the frontline (with good reason) my subject became more and more relevant as time passed.

While the filmmakers and photographers documented the action at the Forward Operating Bases I drew British soldiers waiting to go to war—cleaning their guns, sitting around, training, on guard – waiting. This was not as sensational as I had imagined war to be. This was not Don McCullin in Vietnam or Ronald Searle in a concentration camp in 1942 in Japan. However it did represent the majority of time spent by soldiers in our armed forces. A record of their time served. Something that the news at the time failed to do.

Eight years later I finally had the chance to go back to Afghanistan but this time without influence or protection of the military—however, still with the objective of drawing.

With daily explosions in Kabul, the timing of my arrival could not have been worse. The end to foreign occupation was imminent and the future of the government increasingly uncertain.

That said, over the next few weeks as I moved around Kabul, Herat and Takhar Province, I discovered that regardless of foreign occupation, regardless of functioning ministries in the capital, life, by and large continued as normal.

Early one morning, as I drew the Chahar suk, the old market in Herat, people bustled around me. One man came up behind me and suggested I move a little. I was standing in his spot on the pavement, which he used to polish people's shoes. A rather aggressive policeman, who we later found out was called Aziz, kicked children out of the way as they crowded around to see what I was drawing.

As time went by Aziz began to realize his lack-luster clips round the ear were futile and a broad smile appeared on his face. He gave up and his officer came out with tea and the Afghan equivalent of boiled sweets. Ten minutes later I was drawing him, ironically attracting an even bigger crowd.

A week earlier I had been in Takhar province with a charity called Afghan Connection that establishes schools for girls and boys. I arrived at the gate, snow-tipped mountains looking down on us. The girls dived for their veils, covering their faces and burying their heads in their books. Slowly but surely they appeared, some braver than others.

There was not enough space inside the classroom so this week they were taking their exams outside—perhaps the most beautiful exam room in the world. It was brilliant to see: Girls' education is often high on the list of subjects to discuss in Afghanistan not least because it wasn't always a priority for families. In Worsaj Province however it clearly was and much to the benefit of everyone.

Back in Kabul I had been drawing with Police District 10, who work across much of central Kabul. Sulwar was a young policeman who had been told to stand beside me while I drew the checkpoint. Back at the police station I managed to communicate to him that I'd like to draw him. He lay on the top bunk whilst I did. I don't think he really wanted to face me either because his feet would be near the pillow or because his feet would be facing Mecca. But when we all realized this would be almost impossible to explain to each other, as we shared no common language, he did it anyway. This is perhaps an example of the things people will do for strangers in Afghanistan. Twenty minutes later he was cooking me lunch, which we shared in the office.

Quite often I come back from a country like Lebanon or Syria or Afghanistan and I feel I might be disappointing editors or colleagues, friends or family by not having endless stories of adventure and near death. "Any close shaves?" is the question on most people's lips after they say "good to have you back." As an illustrator it is not my intention to be caught in this situation.

The three weeks I spent in Afghanistan in November and December 2014 were the start of a continuing diary of violence. Daily explosions, fighting inside Camp Bastion, and attacks on western NGO guesthouses were all ongoing—as was life on the streets and in the homes.

These drawings purposefully show life a pace back from the violence: people washing for prayers, shopping, farming, building, living and learning. I believe at this stage, for Afghanistan, this is a far more important narrative than the story of war regurgitated and one that would benefit Afghanistan in the long term.


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