One night, in a country swept up in a long and harrowing armed conflict, Liberian social worker Leymah Gbowee dreamt that she gathered women together to pray for peace.
Her dream was realised in 2003 at St. Peters Lutheran Church in Monrovia, when women of all walks of life gathered there to demand peace, a peace that Liberia hadn’t seen in years. In the months that followed, Gbowee’s dream would gain momentum.
A new documentary, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”, is an in-depth portrait of the courageous women who shaped this movement. Directed by Gini Reticker, and produced by Abigail Disney, the film was chosen as this year’s Best Documentary Feature at the New York-based Tribeca Film Festival.
In the opening scenes, Leymah describes the web of issues that had enmeshed Liberian lives in war — the gap between the rich and the poor, the hatred among the country’s different ethnic groups, as well as a battle over natural resources.
She lists the issues as “Power, money, ethnicity and greed,” but even those words are not enough to fully explain the situation, its history, the different warring factions and their motivations.
The recollections of the women are placed against the backdrop of terrifying images –bodies being dragged through the streets, children bearing weapons, mass burials, all set to the soundtrack of the steady pop of gunfire. One of the members of the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET) points out in the film that the perpetration of atrocities was carried out on all sides, from the rebel forces to the government soldiers.
None of the facts or statistics that appeared in newspapers fully captured the horror of this situation. Vaiba Flomo, one of the women portrayed in the film, painfully recalls a story she heard in which a women is forced to sing, clap and dance, while watching her husband being killed and her daughter raped.
What is especially remarkable about the movement is how diverse the participants are. From journalists to market women, Muslims to Christians, WIPNET’s call for peace transcended differences of profession and religion. In addition to being a force for peace, their coalition was a beacon of unity in a country inhabited by about 16 ethnic groups and religions.
“Muslim and Christian, we were united,” said Asatu Bah Kenneth, now Liberia’s deputy chief of police, who appears in the film and spoke at a screening at U.N. headquarters this week. “Amongst the group, we selected prayer warriors from both religions. We could have been killed at any time, but at I cannot recall any of our members at any time being killed.”
“People thought we were crazy. But I am a believer, and once you believe in God, your faith can move mountains,” she said. “There was no discrimination among us, because all we wanted was peace.”
As shown in the film, the women were obstinate in the face of adversity — both literally and figuratively. The peace talks of 2003, which took place in Ghana, were meant to find a solution to which both Charles Taylor’s government and the insurgent LURD would agree, but as the peace process lagged, it became clear that it was more like a vacation for the parties involved and the women protested the circus it had become.
“Pray” features this protest, when members of WIPNET formed a human barricade at the doors of the conference halls, preventing any of the delegates from leaving until they promised to move the process forward. Despite initial efforts by the police to get the women to vacate the area, soon they too joined the efforts, warning WIPNET members that they needed to station someone near the windows because some of the delegates were jumping out.
This will for change and peace is also evident in the fact that WIPNET continued their efforts even when Taylor was exiled to Nigeria. They were present at each step of the peace process, even helping Liberia elect its first female head of state, Ellen John Sirleaf.
The documentary also shows their efforts during the U.N.-led disarmament. When U.N. efforts proved to be ineffective, some women went as far as taking arms directly from rebels.
“They didn’t meet any leadership on the ground so they didn’t know which direction to go,” Kenneth said. “They were just brainstorming or taking initiatives by themselves with nobody to guide the process, no rule of law, no police director that was there. So the women came to guide the process.”
Of course, many of Liberia’s problems persist. According to the International Rescue Committee, about 40 percent of Liberian women have experienced sexual assault. A 2007 study by ActionAid, a South African based international development agency, found that rape is still widespread.
“Our president also mentioned that she wants gender violence to be taught in the school at an early age and I think that will help,” Kenneth said, adding that the Ministry of Gender and Development is working on programmes to empower women and that the police force is currently about 13 percent women.
“Being a police officer doesn’t only entail investigation, arrests, detention of suspects,” she added. “As a police officer, you should be a peacemaker, and I think having that in the back of my mind God gave me the courage to carry on what I did.”
In the face of impossible obstacles, these women used non-violent means, such as withholding sex and protesting, to make a resounding point. They were sick of war, and deserving of peace — a peace that would not be “dictated” by those in powers, but a peace that would be outlined by the people that most needed it.
“The role of women in war has always been invisible,” observed producer Disney. “And, without a doubt, we have been left out of the peace process for far too long — especially today, as civilians make up the majority of casualties and women are being specifically targeted as a way of terrorising entire populations.”
“The film’s message is one of hope that good can overcome evil and that ordinary people can do extraordinary things,” she said.
*With additional reporting by Mirela Xanthaki at the United Nations.