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Last Updated: Monday, 14 May 2007, 10:06 GMT 11:06 UK
Surviving war: Mildred Akello
Ugandan mother Mildred Akello, 53, recalls when she and her five children survived being burnt alive when their home in the camp of Abia in the war-torn north, was set on fire by rebels from the Lord's Resistance Army.

Mildred Akello
Mildred hates seeing herself and how she is now made up of scars
It is the smell that I still cannot forget. The stench of burning flesh stays with me.

It was an hour before sunset - about 1700 hours local time - when we realised that the rebels had infiltrated us. They were dressed in new uniforms.

It happened so quick - the realisation that the rebels were among us.

But when we did, we took refuge in our homes, remembering the government soldiers' promise that if the camp was attacked, they would protect us.

They failed us that day. It was Wednesday 4 February 2004.

Shiny new gumboots

Gunshots filled my ears as I pushed my children under our bed and then lay, face down on the floor, looking through the thin gap under our door... a gun was pointed at us.

Mildred Akello's burnt scared arms and hands
Someone poured water on me and my flesh slid down my arms
Mildred Akello, 53

Right in front of my eyes were a pair of shiny new gumboots.

I heard voices shouting: "Hello! Hello! Today we are going to kill all you residents of Abia."

Peeping through the gap under our door, I saw a boy begin to sneak out of the next-door hut. He was shot and fell back inside the door.

Then the rebels started pulling out some of the thatching grass from our roofs and set it alight.

I think they didn't want us to escape.

Madness

Before long the heat and noise was so much. Our house was on fire, my children were screaming. All I could think was that we were all going to die.

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Moses Odia holds a calabash to represent his late mother, Beca

But then I saw that the gumboots had moved away from our door.

There was fire everywhere and it was dropping onto us as I was scooping up my children and carrying them outside.

People were running. Madness had come. I remember hearing gunshots and screams and blowing whistles. There was also ululating and celebrating from the rebels. They shouted: "Today we have killed all the people of Abia."

But then I heard my daughter screeching, "Mama, mama, I'm burning," and it pulled me back into the flames.

Trapped

She had hid behind our bed and was now on fire.

Mildred Akello's son
Mildred's son was not burnt as badly as her youngest daughter

She was trapped under the fallen roof poles and the flames were eating her, our clothes and our mattress.

My neighbours and a few soldiers came to help. But then some of the rebels returned. They were trying to push the door open but the soldiers kept holding it shut.

Somehow the rebels went and we got out.

I had been so worried about my children that it was only then that I realised that I was burning.

Someone poured water on me and my flesh slid down my arms.

I don't remember what came next.

Made up of scars

A military truck took me and the three of my children who had also been burnt to Lira Hospital where we stayed for four months.

Mildred Akello's burnt scarred back
Mildred received special medical treatment for 13 months

Then a good samaritan took me to the capital, Kampala. They looked after me for nine months and paid for all my operations and special medicine.

I survived and so did my children. We are lucky because all our neighbours did not.

But I hate seeing myself. I am completely deformed. I am made up of scars.

I feel that I fail to convince my children to believe in themselves.

My husband has deserted me and our children. Since the attack he only stays with his other wife.

Medically I am not allowed to do any physical work but if I don't go and dig then my children will not be able to go to school.

I thank the World Food Programme for the food aid they give us. It really helps me.

Interview and photographs by Robyn Hunter and translation by Victor Ochen.


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