Ben and his friend were in the bedroom playing war. Because they are the kinds of boys they are, the game involved Legos and negotiation of the rules but very little discernible war play. Still, because I am the kind of mom I am, I suggested some other more friendly narratives in which to involve their Legos. Then three year-old Eli, who had been listening attentively to all sides of the conversation, shouted out his peace plan:
“All war, go home! Have dinner! Go to sleep!”
We laughed (me a bit ruefully) at Eli’s naiveté, but when I saw the new documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell (Gini Reticker, 2008) I reconsidered Eli’s approach. The powerful film tells how a group of Muslim and Christian women worked together to end Liberia’s fourteen-year civil war by simply saying, “All war, go home!”
The film opens with some concise facts about the war in Liberia, a conflict which began in 1989 with a rebellion led by Charles Taylor, an orator so powerful, they say that he can pray the Devil out of hell. The fight for power, financed largely by diamonds, left over 200,000 Liberians dead and displaced a million others into refugee camps in the capital city of Monrovia and in neighboring countries. Entire villages were deserted as people tried to flee the fighting. Taylor’s armies were particularly notorious for enlisting boys, some as young as seven or eight, fueling them on drugs and alcohol to rape and murder people of all ages. The information is presented briefly, with titles over archival footage — I found the shots of truckloads of AK-47-toting boys particularly chilling — and then moves quickly, deliberately on: this film is not about war, but peace.
The first voice we hear comes over footage of people running through the countryside. The camera is shaking, and we hear gunfire in the background. Leymah Gbowee was seven months pregnant and carrying her two little children when she was forced from her home. She speaks directly to the camera now, years after the events she describes; she is poised and beautiful, but the memories flicker across her face, especially when she speaks of her children: “Mama,” her son asked, “I wish just for a piece of doughnut this morning, I am so hungry.” “My children had been hungry and afraid their entire lives,” she says slowly, and I thought of my boys, their bellies full, tucked safely in their beds so far from trucks and guns and war. I wanted to reach through the screen to offer some food, some warmth, some peace.
But Leymah didn’t wait for anyone to help her; she decided to act for herself. She joined the Woman in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET) and working from that position and within her church organized the Christian Women’s Initiative to advocate for peace. She worked with several women, including Etweda “Sugars” Cooper, a veteran of the Liberian women’s movement and a graceful and articulate voice in the film; Asatu Bah Kenneth, a police officer who helped the Christian women reach out to the Muslim women whose mosques were used as rallying sites by the Liberian rebel leaders; and also with Vaiba Flomo, who helped bridge the divide between religious groups by asking “Can the bullet pick and choose? Does the bullet know Christian from Muslim?”
All of this information comes conversationally, in interviews we see (the interviewer always off-camera, silent, to keep the focus on the women) and in stories voiced seamlessly over footage of gatherings in churches, mosques, and markets. The film’s editor, Kate Taverna, deserves special mention for her graceful work knitting together the disparate pieces of archival footage. Film of the war’s atrocities was sadly easy for the filmmakers to come by, but it took some digging for them to turn up film and photographs of the women’s rallies, which they gathered from individuals in Liberia, non-governmental organizations, and news agencies all over the world. Producing the original footage came with its own challenges, like contending with the lack of electricity and security in the unstable country. But the film is fluid, and the narrative, always staying with the women, easy to follow.
The women’s approach was devastatingly direct. They simply gathered in the center of Monrovia, in the fish market, wearing white t-shirts and carrying signs: “The Women of Liberia Want Peace Now” or “I Am Tired of Running.” Taylor’s motorcade would drive by daily, the soldiers hoisting their guns menacingly, and still the women sat, or danced and chanted, their numbers growing regardless of the weather or threats to their safety. They were driven to act, despite fear and exhaustion, compelled by their need to answer to their children; as one puts it, “We believe our children will ask us, ‘Mama, what was your role during the crisis?'”
Taylor eventually agreed to meet with the women, and they convinced him and the rebel leaders to attend peace talks in Ghana. The women raised money to attend the talks themselves, and then watched six weeks pass, the talks going nowhere, as the rural warlords enjoyed the unaccustomed luxuries of the hotel. When fighting resumed in Liberia, the women in Ghana were frantic for their families. Leymah, beside herself with worry and rage, started to strip off her clothes (one of the other women explains, in voice-over, that this is considered a curse on the viewer). The women blockaded the conference room to prevent the men from leaving (some jumped out the windows) and, with the calm and patience of those experienced in handling young children, laid down the terms under which they would ease their protest. Their main requirement was that the men actually attend meetings. Two weeks later, peace terms were announced.
In its final moments, the film brings us up to the present; Liberia is at peace now, although with 80% unemployment, 80% illiteracy, and AK-47s selling for $25, still far from stable. The country is led by a democratically elected president, and first elected female leader of an African nation, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The connection between the grassroots movement and her rise to prominence could be more clearly drawn, but the compelling storytelling of Leyman, Sugars and the others makes up for that. As the film closes, the camera focuses on individual women, proudly holding their worn, laminated identification cards which mark their affiliation with WIPNET, the Christian Women’s Initiative, the Liberian Mass Action for Peace and the other groups that coalesced to end Liberia’s war. One by one these women gathered together, and they prayed, danced, and sang Liberia’s devil back to hell. Leymah Gbowee has gone on to co-found an organization called Peace Is Loud. Or as Eli shouted, “All war, go home!”