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Syria: The point of no return

Syria: The point of no return

Syria, Azaz. 06.08.2012
These I believe will be the first drawings out of Syria, where I have been this week in the northern town of Azaz.

At Kilis the border is almost entirely open. After walking 4km from the Turkish post you are greeted by casually dressed men, who are the Free Syrian Army or the rebels as they are described. At best one has a badge and one has a kalashnikov. I am told 5 days ago there was no such thing as a passport stamp here, which goes to show the newness of their control in the area.

I was asked 'What did I want to do?' and 'Make some drawings' was not necessarily the answer Abu Yousef was expecting. But then I wasn't really ready to be offered a car, a translator and a place to stay in what had become a war zone. However, the FSA welcomed an attempt to show the rest of the world what they described as indiscriminate shelling and destruction carried out by the government forces.

The fighting, in the centre of Azaz, at least, (although the airport is host to regular shelling) had stopped two weeks ago allowing the displaced to drift back in finding their shops had been caught in the crossfire, raided or their houses shelled. The main damage though lies on the road running to the Turkish border town of Kilis. 5 destroyed tanks, a blown up lorry, a mosque with one side missing and grenaded shop fronts, now blocked up with stones to protect what little remains inside.

Whilst I sat and drew it occurred to me that the most shocking thing, perhaps, was the children playing as they do, in amongst the tanks and the rubble - this has obviously become normal for them and with the schools now shut in Azaz this is unlikely to change....

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A week later the shelling in Azaz started again, 40 killed on the first day. These drawings, done in situ, are not designed to compete with the news teams or the photographers but I hope offer a different angle to that moment in Azaz between too battles, an insight into how people react at a wholly vulnerable time.

Below are some extracts that accompanied the drawings back to The Guardian and The Times.

Battle Scene: (double spread)
If you arrive from Kilis, Turkey this will be the third thing you see, the first is an abandoned tank, the second a petrol station blown inside out, and this the third, around the corner from the bakery and in the shadow of the mosque tanks lie half buried. Children rotate the turret of one of them. An older kid sits in the bottom of one picking out the bolts for later use. It becomes all the more real when you stand on a pile of bullet casings in the knowledge that someone was here being shot at, shooting back... who knows what happened after that but this scene is the eventual result.

Ismail and his Goats: (double spread)
For me this scene is important, many of the other illustrations are primarily conflict based, prisoners in the local prison, children playing in the mess or the refugees in their cars, fleeing. I hope this offers a sense that life carries on relatively normally despite the context. Here Ismail, with the help of a little boy waters his goats at a tap.

Market (Cover of G2)
Since I first arrived in Azaz when the town was relatively empty, people have been arriving back, either from the countryside or from Aleppo.
This is the beginnings of old habits starting up in the market, men taking up their favourite spot to stand and watch, the bike riders in position for the next delivery - it's reassuring to see and they react with all the generosity that you might suspect welcoming a friend into a home, bringing over chairs or drinks or advising on what to draw.