Male model Dennis Okwera saw things no boy – no human – should ever have to in the wartorn villages that were once his home.
The slaughtered mother of a friend. Locals blown apart by landmines.
The backdrop to his childhood was painted in blood by merciless rebels tearing northern Uganda apart during the grisly Kony conflict.
But there was a chink of light in David’s life. A way out that would bring him to Britain – leaving the horror, the terror, behind him.
Today, he is at the top of his profession, modelling alongside the likes of Naomi Campbell and appearing in hit music videos with Paloma Faith.
His remarkable 20-year journey shows, as Dennis says himself, that anything is possible.
He spoke to the Sunday Mirror after we launched our search for Britain’s Most Handsome Man.
Dennis is with the Storm model agency – our competition partner.
The rewards of modelling can be great and Dennis is proud to be giving something back to his old community, with a school rebuilding project on the cards.
In his time there, just going to school brought its perils as children were routinely snatched by rebel forces as they headed off to class.
“What has happened to me in the two parts of my life is a reminder to everyone out there that anyone on this planet can do anything”, Dennis says.
Now 29, he was born in the wartorn Kitgum district in 1991 at a time when child abduction and adult killing by the murderous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) militia cult was at its highest.
“Survival was number one,” he says. “We were sent to school as often as possible. We would sleep in bushes to hide because the rebels seemed to mainly attack at night.
“The atrocities I witnessed by the age of eight, no person should ever see. I don’t think I will ever unsee some of the images I have in my head.
“I have seen people ripped apart by landmines – farmers on their way to the fields, mothers on their way to the shops, children walking to school. They abducted kids on the way to school, even from the schools. Nowhere was safe. The children would very rarely come back.
“The rebels would rape mothers and young girls. If you informed on them, you would be killed or have your lips cut off as a warning to others not to snitch. It was terrifying.”
Dennis recalls calling at his best pal’s house and stumbling across a scene from hell.
Rebels had been in the night and executed his friend’s mother when she tried to resist being raped.
Dennis recalls: “She was slumped on her knees. There was blood. My best friend was just stood there crying. I will remember that image forever.”
Dennis, then 10, brother Christopher, nine, and father John moved between refugee camps – after their mother Florence became separated from them amid the chaos and confusion blighting the country.
It would be years before they made contact again.
John escaped, found his way to London and arranged for the boys to join him with the help of the Red Cross.
They lived in a flat in East London, close to where John worked as a security guard and shop assistant.
“This was our opportunity to live again. It was a lot easier sleeping without gunfire,” Dennis says.
The boys went to school in Greenwich. Dennis got A-levels in maths, chemistry, biology and physics and graduated from East London University with a 2.1 degree in biochemistry.
But it was not long before Dennis’s striking looks drew attention. His first job in modelling was posing for a photo lookbook for a student designer friend – and he got paid £250.
He joined Storm in 2018 and his life would never be the same again.
Dennis has modelled for Kenzo, Louis Vuitton and John Lewis and has travelled the world.
He starred with Naomi Campbell in Burberry’s 2018 Christmas ad. Sometimes, those behind the lens are bigger names than the models.
Dennis says: “My favourite shoot was for a guy called Lord Snowdon for a magazine called Luncheon.
“It was one of his last shoots. I remember sitting in this guy’s house and he was so full of energy still. We were in his garden eating strawberries and he showed me this portfolio of his work.
“He was so humble. I called my dad and said ‘I’m having lunch with Lord Snowdon’ and he said ‘Are you crazy, are you drunk?’
“Seeing this humble guy going about his business made me fall in love with the industry even more. It all made me think ‘Anything is possible, Dennis’.”
Lord Snowdon, who was married to Princess Margaret for 18 years, died a year Dennis saw him. He was 86.
Dennis also talks about the help he can now give to folks back home. He is paying for his cousin and aunt’s education, hopes to rebuild his old school and have a second well installed in his home town.
“One day, I hope to pay for a hospital, educate people about AIDS and to deal with the mental health issues which have gone untreated for decades of watching your countrymen blown apart by landmines.”
It’s a noble aim. From a model man.