Afghanistan: Tanks, Bazaars and Wheelchair Basketball

Faizabad, Badakhshan province. On one side of the market square, people stream out of the mosque; on the other, they sell hair products to anyone and everyone. Women are covered in beautiful blue chadors, men in their picturesque pakols. Illustration by George Butler. Afghanistan, 2014.

The Darul Aman meaning 'abode of peace' abandoned since its destruction by the Mujhadeen in the early 1990's. The new government building now being built behind it. Illustration by George Butler. Afghanistan, 2014.

Cars rolled in and out of this exhaust pipe fitter in Herat, it could have been almost anywhere in the world. Illustration by George Butler. Afghanistan, 2014.

Men from Herat washing before they entered the Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque) for afternoon prayers. Illustration by George Butler. Afghanistan, 2014.

The ICRC run a wheelchair basketball teams for men and women in their programme. It is brilliantly competitive and a great spectators sport. Illustration by George Butler. Afghanistan, 2014.

You can buy a pigeon in Bird Street for $5. Sohrab was one of the many little boys selling birds in this extraordinary part of town. Illustration by George Butler. Afghanistan, 2014.

It will cost you 4000Af to buy an electric sewing machine off Hajji Mirwais in Herat. He says he sells about 300 a year. Illustration by George Butler. Afghanistan, 2014.

Eight years ago, I visited Afghanistan as a guest of the British army. For two weeks, I drew soldiers in the British camps in Helmand and Kabul. However, I was aware that, outside the foreign fortifications, ordinary life continued for most of the Afghan villagers. Towards the end of last year, I had a chance to go back and see this for myself.

While drawing the Chahar Suq bazaar, in the ancient western city of Herat, a wide variety of locals, young and old, gathered around to watch. A policeman aggressively cleared them away, his AK47 hung high around his neck. It turned out that watching a foreigner draw was too intriguing for the onlookers, despite the threat of a clip round the ear. After the policeman’s third attempt to clear the small crowd, a smile broke out on his face. He hurried back to his post, found an officer who spoke fluent English and, as so often happens in Afghanistan, returned with welcoming cups of tea.

A week earlier, I had been in the Worsaj valley in north-east Takhar province, drawing girls sitting their end-of-year exams. It reminded me of the gym hall where I had sat my own exams; as in England, the classrooms were too small for all the children. Here, however, they take exams outside, surrounded by the snow-capped foothills of the Hindu Kush. It was wonderful to see.

Over the next few weeks, I drew Faizabad market, the police station in Kabul’s District 10, a Red Cross (ICRC) prosthetic limb clinic and the scenes outside Herat’s blue mosque. I drew exhaust-pipe fitters and stovemakers, pigeon sellers and Hajji Mirwais, a sewing-machine vendor. Of course, this is a country where the British have had a mixed reception over the past 13 years, but not once was an unfriendly word directed my way.

That’s not to say I wasn’t aware of the situation that Afghanistan finds itself in today. Almost each day I spent in Kabul, there was an explosion or an attack from an armed group. But I soon realised that, despite the uncertainty and insecurity, the majority of Afghan life continues to be as close to normal as possible.

It was this Afghanistan that I found overwhelmingly inspirational to document. What saddened me was that so many of the articles and reports I read before I arrived – although consistently accurate in detail and honest in their approach – made me expect the worst. This was far from the case in the small parts of Afghanistan I saw, especially in the north and west, away from Helmand and other parts of the south and east, where most of the reports seen on our televisions in UK have come from.