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Syria: a window on a world at war

There is a picture painted in November 2011 by Elizabeth White, director of the British Council in Syria, that shows her peering out of the window of her Damascus flat on a dark night.

She has two companions – a cat and a canary – and all three share the same tense, alert expression.

"I could hear a demonstration at the end of my street, and the chant: 'The people want -' but I couldn't hear whether they wanted the fall of the regime or the president to stay," explains White. "Then the sounds passed and I had no idea what was going on." She and her pets are left staring into the blackness, confused and anxious.

That vignette of life in Damascus during the early months of the revolution was one of 30 painted by White. She produced them as "a sort of diary" while stuck at home on Fridays, when the British Embassy advised British nationals to stay off the streets to avoid being caught up in demonstrations beginning from mosques after prayers.

"I found on those Fridays that I couldn't focus," says White, speaking at the British Council's offices in Edinburgh. "I was watching the news, listening to the radio, reading websites, calling people all over town and worrying and worrying and worrying, but I found that if I couldn't do anything useful, I could draw."

White drew scenes from her life and people who were on her mind: demonstrators she had observed, the experiences of her friends and colleagues, and those who had been arrested or killed. The result is a deeply human record of lives in turmoil, and while in Scotland she featured the pictures, albeit rather shyly, in a talk about the British Council's work.

Today, White – who previously worked for the organisation in Kazakhstan, St Petersburg, the Czech Republic and Yemen – lives in Beirut, having left Damascus along with other British nationals in January 2012 after two large car bombs exploded. The work of the British Council within Syria has ceased. However White plans to return as soon as possible, to start work again and be reunited with some of those she features in her paintings.

Some of the images are poignant, some lighter. There is surprising humour, for instance, in her illustration of a wary-looking taxi driver carrying a group of weeping men in his car. "This was a story told to me by one of my colleagues who had been on an anti-government demonstration," she explains. "The police had attacked them with tear gas, which is where the tears had come from. But after the demonstration, they couldn't walk home because if you walk home in tears, the police will know you've been on a demonstration and will arrest you. So my colleague got a taxi and immediately another five men said: 'Can I travel with you?' There they all were, all crammed into a taxi, these six men weeping, and the taxi driver was thinking, 'Who are these people?'"

Another painting features a man standing behind a stall with red and white cans in front of him. Coca-Cola is said to take away the sting of tear-gas if poured over a scarf and placed over the nose and mouth, so there were stalls selling only cans of Coke on Fridays outside Midan mosque in the capital. Another shows Oussama Ghanam, the country's foremost theatre director, who was arrested and held for two days before being released.

White mentions Syrian artists such as Yaser Safi, Youssef Abdulke and Fadi Yazigi who have been working throughout the uprising, producing "magnificent work"; her paintings, she stresses, are "nothing of the kind"; she is not a trained artist. Through her "much humbler" paintings, she offers a personal view of what life was like in the fraught Syrian capital as the revolution unfolded.

When the uprising began in March 2011, White had been running the UK's international cultural relations organisation in Syria for three years, providing English teaching and promoting cultural and educational exchange between Syria and Britain. She describes this period as "the best of times", when Syrian officialdom was opening doors to co-operation with the West. The council fostered strong links between Syria and the UK: many junior academics came to Heriot-Watt University to do their PhDs, young volunteers from Aleppo came and volunteered with Glasgow community organisations and Syrian festival managers came to Edinburgh in August. The playwright David Greig went to Syria to work with young dramatists, an experience that led to his 2007 play Damascus, while the work of two young Syrian playwrights was performed by the National Theatre of Scotland and at the Traverse last year.

The council had 60 staff, including 30 teachers. After the troubles began they operated near normally for months before eventually having to close.

Damascus remained relatively calm for a long time, but it is now buffeted by the conflict that has engulfed cities such as Homs and Aleppo. "It's got very much worse since I left, and very much more dangerous," says White. Explosions are no longer confined to the suburbs but can occur anywhere. There is a lot more criminality, particularly kidnapping, as well as violence in schools, where a classroom fight can quickly become political. There is frequently no electricity and both bread and fuel for heating can be hard to find. White has a senior colleague, a university professor, who has been spending 10 hours a day wrapped up in all of her blankets and coats. There are about two million internally displaced people – one in 10 of the population – and nearly one million refugees. At least 60,000 people have died in the civil war acccording to the United Nations. White worries for young volunteers she knew. "A lot of people have been arrested and a few people haven't come back."

White is focusing on planning for her return and helping those who have fled to Lebanon. She has met children "who have seen things that children should never see" and families who have lost everything. "What's humbling is the generosity of these people – you go to visit them and they want to give you food and drink." The British Council hopes to set up a programme of English language teaching, particularly with child refugees, 50% of whom do not go to school, but at the same time everyone hopes they might soon be able to return home. White is not in the prediction business, but prays for an end to hostilities. "There was a friend of mine in Syria who said at the beginning of the revolution that we could see clearly where we wanted to go. He said: 'Now we're all together crowded in a dark tunnel, hurrying forwards, and nobody knows where the tunnel is going. The only thing we know for certain is that it is the rats who are digging the tunnel.'"

She sighs and offers a weak smile. "I hope to God that 2013 will see an end to this."

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