The women of Liberia were fed up. Fourteen years of civil war brought out warlords, brutality, mass rape, the despot Charles Taylor, and child soldiers weighed down with Kalashnikovs. Infrastructure deteriorated: no running water, no electricity. Bodies littered the roadsides. More than 200,000 Liberians died, and another 1.5 million were forced to flee their homes. Nothing improved; no one tried to stop it.
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Then the women stepped in, Christians and Muslims together. They prayed. They sang. They planted themselves in daily protests across from President Taylor’s palace. They pushed for peace talks and traveled to Ghana to monitor them when they finally began. After those talks stalled, one of the movement’s leaders threatened to shame the all-male participants by stripping naked if they did not return to the table.
Lysistrata would be so proud.
But Western journalists neglected to note the role of the women’s Mass Action for Peace when peace finally arrived in Liberia. A powerful documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, now fills that gap with archival footage and interviews with the women. Fortunately, the film lacks a voiceover, so the women tell their story themselves through the surefooted guidance of director Gini Reticker and producer Abigail E. Disney. (Yes, that Disney, though as founder of the Daphne Foundation, Abigail’s interests veer away from animated mice and toward progressive social change.)
Leymah Gbowee started things off one Sunday morning, getting up to address the congregation of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in the capital of Monrovia. In a scene included in the film, she tells the church she’s had enough of the violence and asks her Christian sisters to join her in standing for peace. The men in the pews look slightly nervous. But the women respond with whoops and ovations, pledging to join Gbowee.
So does another woman in attendance that morning, Asatu Bah Kenneth, a police officer. Asatu also takes to the pulpit and introduces herself as a Muslim, and promises to bring her Muslim sisters to the movement.
As in so many places, the Christian-Muslim divide in Liberia is wide. Some women from both faiths expressed caution about working together. But a message they eventually took to the streets first won them over: “Does a bullet know a Christian from a Muslim?” A refusal to accept any more violence ultimately unified them against that devil they were trying to pray back to hell.
THE FILM CULMINATES in the sit-in the women staged at the mired peace talks in Accra, Ghana, in 2003. The mostly male participants had begun to treat the talks like a vacation, enjoying the hospitality of Ghanaians and languishing over hotel pools rather than demilitarization details. So the women literally put their bodies on the line, surrounding the site where the talks took place and barricading the representatives of the warring factions inside until they reached an agreement. As they tried to shove past the women, Gbowee snapped and began to disrobe—an expression of great shame and suffering. She had reached a point beyond humiliation, with nothing left to lose. The men quickly returned inside.
This account lacks sentimentality or easy answers. One woman declares quietly in an interview that she will have a hard time forgiving the boy soldiers who raped and killed, even knowing they themselves were victimized. Reconciliation is a popular concept for post-conflict countries, and one never obtained without further struggle.
Such stories rarely come with happy endings, and Liberia has a long way to go to recover from so many years of devastation. But it’s on its way, led by another powerful woman, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf—the first elected female head of state on the African continent. In one of the last scenes in the film, Johnson-Sirleaf’s 2006 inaugural address, she thanked the women of Liberia for helping bring peace to their country. n
Kimberly Burge is senior writer and editor at Bread for the World in Washington, D.C.