At the “Primo Maggio” in Loppiano, Joseph Konah Koroma, from Sierra Leone, told his story. Joseph was a “child soldier.” Now, he is a student at Sophia University Institute. His dream is to bring love among his people.
It was a normal afternoon in the city of Makeni in 1988, a beautiful place in central Sierra Leone. A group of armed men broke into the home of Joseph when he was only six years old. They grabbed some money and some food, but before leaving one of them noticed Joseph, looked him straight in the eye and . . . and carried him off. This is how Joseph became a member of the army of child soldiers which, according to the latest statistics, numbers some 300,000 worldwide.
A civil war had been raging in Sierra Leon for eight years, a war made of weapons and of diamonds. Remember the movie Blood Diamonds? It gives a good picture of the country during that time. But let’s get back to Joseph.
Far from his family, he learned to live in the forest with the rebels: “How many atrocities I saw in those years! Burned out homes, cold-blooded murders, hands chopped off . . . images that would shake the mind of any child.
But one day,” Joseph says in perfect Italian, “the civilians were obliged to bring us food. After each of our moves, the neighboring villages would be notified and, one day, among those civilians, there was my mother!” How can a woman hide her feelings upon finding her child after five years, a child whom she had already given up for dead? Yet Joseph’s mother managed. Nobody noticed their happiness. They spoke quickly in dialect and agreed on what to do.
“My camp boss had lost a son in the war and had chosen me as his replacement. I was under direct service to him, but I also enjoyed some privileges. So, that night I told him that I wanted to go for a walk and he immediately gave me permission. I joined my mother and we went back to the city where the legitimate army had taken control.”
In 2002, the civil war ended, but a hatred and desire for revenge was widespread among the population, which prevented real peace from being established. “One day the President took a small girl whose hands had been cut off, and asked her: ‘If you saw the people who cut off your hands, what would you do?’ The girl replied: “I have to forgive the rebels because if we don’t forgive, the war will never end. One can only imagine what it was like to see that scene re-broadcasted over and over again on all the television channels, but Joseph only smiled and said, “There was no TV. It was all broadcasted over the radio and spread widely through all the streets, over loudspeakers that were mounted on cars. Thanks to those words, the war is over in our country.”
Joseph could finally go to school where he met an Italian priest. “I discovered a new life. I got to know the Gospel, and I loved taking part the gatherings with other children. And then we learned the songs of Gen Rosso and Gen Verde, which taught us so many things!”
In 2011, Joseph went to Montet, Switzerland, to the Focolare citadel where he spent a year at the school of formation for Focolare youth. “It was there that I heard about Sophia. And I immediately started dreaming, but there were too many obstacles!”
After his time in Switzerland, Joseph returned to his country and began to study Community Development and Religion. “I also taught religion for two years. But inside me, in my heart, there was always Sophia University Institute. I prayed so much for my dream to come true.”
In 2019, Joseph was invited to represent Sierra Leone at the Focolare Movement’s Youth Assembly. “That’s where I also got to know another aspect of the Work of Mary: the Diocesan Movement. That was very important for me, because I learned so many things. With another young man named Alfred, I travelled to Ascoli Piceno, Italy, where we were able to take part in several meetings with young people, families and priests. We returned to our country enriched by the experience and tried to bring to our parishes what we had learned in Ascoli. A group of young people who are open to the Gospel has formed around us. With them we taught catechism to children and helped the parish priest in preparing people for baptism.”
Then came the pandemic. Churches were closed and the whole country was on lock-down. “Together with those young people, we said: ‘Even if the churches are closed, we’re never closed from loving.’ And we started doing things, cleaning the church every week and meeting in different parishes.”
And now, finally, Joseph has landed in Sophia University Institute. “My experience here is very nice. Sophia gave me the opportunity to experience the culture of unity with people from different parts of the world. In the midst of so much diversity, I’ve always tried to love with all my heart, as if it were the last day of my life. Sophia helps me to prepare for my future; indeed, as the Pope says, to prepare for the future. After my studies at Sophia, I would like to continue to give to others the gift that God has given me here, and to always live and communicate God’s love to many others.”