A Child's Story: Sarah Akello of Uganda

06/22/11

Sarah Akello is affectionately known around Children of the Nations’ (COTN) Uganda Children’s Village as Short Sarah (not to be confused with Tall Sarah). Reserved, considerate, and a natural caretaker, she can be found serving others by sweeping the compound or cooking—two of her favorite activities. Visitors meeting this well-adjusted 11-year-old have no outward hint to her tremulous past.

“My mother divorced my father,” Sarah says, “and my father was not happy. He pronounced something bad to happen to my family.” Soon after, lightning struck their family home, killing Sarah’s mother, brother, and three sisters, plus an unborn baby her mother was carrying. The house caught fire and everyone inside died. “I was visiting my uncle at that time,” Sarah says, “to play with my cousins.” Thus, Sarah was spared from the tragedy, though facing life as a sudden orphan was a tragedy in itself.

Sarah was only two or three years old when this happened. (COTN staff members aren’t sure of the exact date, and Sarah has no memory of this time.) Sarah was taken in by her grandmother in Barlonyo, an IDP (Internally Displaced People) camp being guarded by the Ugandan army against attacks by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) during an ongoing civil war.

On February 21, 2004, Barlonyo IDP camp fell victim to a sudden ambush and massacre that left more than 300 people dead. Sarah’s grandmother, in a life-saving display of clear-headedness, hid 4-year-old Sarah in an empty water pot behind her house, closing the lid. In order to reach the pot without being seen by the LRA, her grandmother pushed bricks out of the back wall of their temporary home and climbed through. Her grandmother then fled into the bush and survived the attack—she is alive to this day, and Sarah still visits her.

Luckily, though Sarah could hear the noise of the attack happening around her, she was too young to understand what was going on, so she was not scared. “I’ve started to recall [memories] as I’m growing up,” Sarah says. Shortly after the attack, volunteer counselors—many of whom would eventually help form COTN–Uganda—began visiting Barlonyo, helping the victims and survivors work through the trauma. Sarah was one of the children they spoke with, meaning that even at a young age she was given the support necessary to deal with the attack and the death of her family.

It’s evident that that support has worked. Sarah shows no outward signs of her troubled past. She enjoys her chores and dreams of becoming a teacher. “I will teach children not to fight their friends, not to steal, and not to abuse their friends,” she says, demonstrating her maturity. Thanks to COTN, “Short Sarah” is experiencing a normal, healthy childhood, and can focus on her future.

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