by Jessica Mosby
- USA -
The recent history of Liberia is bloody. Valuable natural resources, corrupt leaders, ethnic conflicts, and thousands of displaced people led to 8 years of conflict during Liberia’s two civil wars (1989-1993 and 1999-2003). Many Liberians didn’t know life outside of a country ravished by fighting until a group of Christian and Muslim women decided that they had had enough, and started protesting for an end to the violence. Today Liberia is at peace under the government of Africa’s first female president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
This incredible story of average Liberian women coming together to fight for peace is the subject of the new documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which is currently playing in theaters. Filmmakers Gini Reticker and Abigail E. Disney capture the inspiring story of the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET) with compassion and reverence. Their story of unbelievable heroism in the face of unspeakable violence makes for a dramatic and heart-wrenching 72 minutes.
The film begins with a brief history of Liberia. White text silently scrolls on a black screen, the magnitude of the words reverberate. As Leymah Gbowee – one of WIPNET’s key organizers and the film’s primary subject – says, life in war-torn Liberia “was hell.” After Charles Taylor’s 1989 coup, Liberian children didn’t know life without war, and people couldn’t even afford a cup of rice.President Taylor’s “bloody rise” to power completely destroyed the West African nation. Warring factions that wanted to control the country and its valuable natural resources employed and armed children to pillage rural villages. Liberians from all over the country traveled on foot to the capital city of Monrovia seeking a safe haven from the violence, but most only found themselves living in overcrowded refugee camps.
The film illustrates the international community’s outrage at the situation with a montage of news headlines describing Taylor’s “reign of terror.” Instead of working toward ending the civil war, the president concluded that all of the refugees living in squalor was bad publicity and ordered everyone to return to their own communities. The Liberian refugees, who had lost everything during the war and kept their few belongings in bags carried on their heads, refused to leave the capital because the countryside was so unsafe.
As the civil war continued to escalate, Gbowee had a dream one night of women coming together to pray for peace. After speaking to the congregation at her Lutheran church, she started the Christian Women’s Initiative, which worked in conjunction with WIPNET. Asatu Bah Kenneth, a Muslim and a police officer, was so impressed by Gbowee that she pledged to mobilize Muslim women.
This marked the first time that Christian and Muslim women had come together in Liberia; it was a sharp contrast to the ethnic conflicts that terrorized the country. Some women were initially skeptical of organizing with other religious faiths. Vaiba Flomo, a Muslim, overcame her reluctance to work with Christians when she realized that they were all fighting for the same thing. She said, “Can the bullet pick and choose? Does the bullet know Christian from Muslim?”
Taylor claimed to be a devout Christian, and many of the opposing warlords were of the Islamic faith. The women put pressure on their respective religious leaders to end the war, but what Gbowee really wanted was a chance to confront Taylor face to face.
The women organized a daily protest at Monrovia’s fish market, which was on Taylor’s morning commute. Women living in the refugee camps were recruited to participate, because, according to Gbowee, “These women had seen the worst of the wars.”
2,500 women arrived to protest, all wearing white t-shirts and holding hand-made signs calling for peace. They posted a large banner that read, “The Women of Liberia want peace now.” But Taylor’s motorcade didn’t even slow down; his position was obvious. The lavish SUVs driven by his entourage, which were a stark contrast to the squalid conditions at the refugee camps, spoke volumes.The human rights atrocities documented in Pray the Devil Back to Hell are unbelievable, terrible acts of violence. And yet, all of the women interviewed maintained a sense of hope, and even humor in the face of extreme adversity. When the protests yield few results, the women decide to take further action – at home. Taking a page from the Greek play, Lysistrata, Gbowee says, “We were so desperate for peace we were going to have a sex strike.” Soon all of the women’s husbands were praying for the end of the war too!
By the spring of 2003, the civil war was quickly moving toward the capital; the women feared that it would soon destabilize the entire country to the point of no return. After submitting a position statement to Taylor and meeting with warlords in Sierra Leone, formal peace negotiations started in Ghana. And the women, led by Gbowee, were at the negotiations armed only with their white t-shirts and tenacious commitment to peace.
The dramatic events that happened next are not a secret; international news organizations closely followed the story. But even for those viewers who are familiar with the proceedings and the women’s key role in negotiating a peace accord, the film creates a captivating narrative that builds to a powerful climax. Pray the Devil Back to Hell seamlessly weaves together international news coverage, photo stills, and interviews with the members of WIPNET and the Christian Women’s Initiative to ingeniously retell this incredible story.
“I’m like ‘wow, just two little country African girls’ dream has become so big’,” says Flomo reflecting on their peace movement. Once ordinary women, their dream of peace and subsequent achievements changed the destructive course of their country, and proved how extraordinary the power of a few can be.
About the Author
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in San Francisco, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.