The day that changed my life forever started with a beautiful dawn. I greeted the sunrise by facing east and making the first of my five daily prayers to Allah. It was the spring of 1994, at the end of the dry season. I was about twelve years old (our tribe keep no record of birthdays). After prayers, I got ready to go to school. It would take me an hour to walk there and an hour back again. I was studying hard because I wanted to be a doctor when I grew up.
This was a big dream for a simple, African girl like me. I come from the Nuba tribe, in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, one of the remotest places on earth. I lived in a village of mud huts with grass-thatch roofs, nestled in a fold of the big hills. My tribe are all hunters and farmers and most of them are Muslims. My father had a herd of fifty cattle, which meant that he wasn't a rich man, but he wasn't poor either.
After a day's hard study at school, I came home and did my chores. Then my mother cooked the evening meal. My father had been out in the fields getting the harvest in and my brothers had been helping him, so they were all very hungry. When we had finished eating, we went out into the yard to listen to my father's stories. I remember sitting around the fire in the yard laughing and laughing. He was a very funny man, my father, a real joker. I loved all my family dearly.
It was a cold night so we did not stay out for long. I went to bed as I always did, cuddling up to my father. There was a fire burning in the middle of the hut to keep us warm all night long. My little cat Uran curled up on my tummy. My mother lay on her bed, across the fire from us. Soon, we were all fast asleep. But we hadn't been sleeping long when, suddenly, there was a terrible commotion outside. I woke up, startled, to see an eerie, orange light flickering over the inside of the hut.
"Ook tom gua!" my father shouted, jumping up. "Fire! Fire in the village!"
We ran to the doorway to see flames reaching skyward towards the far end of the village. At first, we thought that someone must have accidentally set their hut alight. It did happen quite often in our village. But then, we caught sight of people running among the huts with flaming torches in their hands. I saw them throwing these firebrands onto hut roofs, which burst into flames. The people inside came running out, but they were attacked by these men and dragged to the ground.
"Mujahedin!" my father yelled. "Arab raiders! The Mujahedin are in the village!"
I still didn't really understand what was happening and I was frozen with fear. Then my father grabbed me by the arm.
"Go lore okone!? Go lore okone?!" he shouted, "Where can we run? Where can we run?"
I could feel my mother standing close to me, trembling. I was terrified. I had Uran clutched in one arm and my father's hand in the other. Then we started to run.
"Run to the hills," my father shouted. "Follow me! Run! Run!"
We ran through scenes from your worst nightmare - my father leading, me following clutching his hand tightly and my mother right behind us. I still held Uran in one arm. There were so many huts on fire, the whole night sky was lit up with the flames. Women and children were running in all directions, crying and screaming in confusion and terror. I saw the raiders cutting peoples' throats, their curved daggers glinting in the firelight. I saw them grabbing hold of children and pulling them out of their parents' arms.
"If anyone tries to grab you, hold onto me for dear life, Mende!" my father yelled.
Through the smoke and the flames I realized that my father was heading for the nearest mountain. But as we approached the cover of the forest and the hills, we noticed a ragged line of Mujahedin on horseback up ahead. They were brandishing swords at us and looked completely different from the men in our tribe. They had wild, staring eyes, long scraggy beards and they wore ripped, dirty clothes. They had blocked the only obvious escape route. I could see terrified villagers running toward their trap. As they caught sight of the ambush, the villagers started screaming and turned back, trying to find some other way to escape. There was complete chaos and terror and the sound of gunfire.
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