After 14 years of devastating civil war, the women of Liberia had had enough. They had witnessed their husbands’ murders, fled their torched villages and grown to fear and despise the young boys recruited as rebel soldiers. Founded by freed American slaves, the West African republic had descended into a nation of displaced people, with no electricity, running water, hospitals, banks or schools.
Amid overwhelming destruction and despair, the women built something. Their Mass Action for Peace brought together Christians and Muslims, who took to the streets in daily protest and prayer and who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to end the violence.
The women’s greatest triumph -- and one of the most potent passages in the new documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” -- was their sit-in at stalled 2003 peace talks in Ghana. Barricading the conference site, the Liberian women refused to let representatives of the warring factions out of the building until they had reached an agreement.
For Leymah Gbowee, one of the movement’s leaders, her frustration over the stalemate was so shattering that she threatened to undress -- culturally, a gesture of extreme shame and anguish.
“When people snap, it’s either they do the worst or they do the best,” Gbowee said recently from Ghana. “And at that moment for me, the worst was stripping naked and letting them know that there was no more degradation, there was no more humiliation that we could feel as women of Liberia. There was no more pain that we could feel for our children.”
Despite their courage and perseverance, despite their role in ending the war and toppling dictator Charles Taylor -- making way for President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the African continent’s first elected female head of state -- the Liberian women’s work went largely unnoticed by major news organizations.
“It’s just this incredible disappearing story,” according to Abigail E. Disney, producer of “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.” The film gathers new interviews and archival footage from nearly three years of peace demonstrations to illuminate an untold chapter of recent history.
Locating that footage required particular resourcefulness on the part of Disney and director Gini Reticker. Almost everything they found came not from CNN or BBC but from “private individuals who just happened to be there with cameras,” Disney said.
A number of circumstances conspired to keep the women’s story in the shadows. For one thing, the United States was invading Iraq. But even those journalists who were in Liberia chose to point their lenses elsewhere.
“Stringers have a financial impetus to give the networks what they’re looking for, and what the networks are looking for is people shooting and politicians making deals over the tops of regular people’s heads,” Disney said. “In spite of all our language about democracy, we don’t tend to recognize people as representing politics.”
Reticker noted that images of Liberia’s child soldiers were considered far more compelling than “a bunch of women sitting under the rain and the sun in a bare field.” She added, “It’s something almost of a joke about how much the journalists would film boys with guns. There’s a cartoon in the lobby of the Mamba Point Hotel, which is where a lot of journalists stay, that’s got two little boys posing with guns for a journalist.”
But if Mass Action for Peace remained unheard of internationally, within Liberia -- a country with no television station and an infrastructure ravaged by war -- everyone followed the women’s activities via radio reports and word of mouth.
Reticker recalled that when filming on the streets of Monrovia, the capital city, “as soon as we said that we were making a story about what the women had done to bring peace to the country, it was, ‘Oh, great! We’re so glad you’re here.’ I don’t think I’ve ever felt so welcome anyplace.”
Driven to lead
Gbowee, just 17 when the war began in 1989, speaks of her evolution as an activist in terms of a “jigsaw puzzle of anger.” Her work with ex-child soldiers as a trauma counselor was an awakening. “As I got to know them,” Gbowee said, “I realized that, yes, these are perpetrators, but they are as much victims as I am.”
Leadership was not without its challenges for Gbowee, who had to navigate not only the corrupt politics of Taylor’s regime and the violence of the rampaging rebels but also conflicts within the women’s coalition and her own struggles as a mother. “In the typical African fashion, when you put your hand on your head and cry, it means you are really distressed. And that was the normal thing for me many nights.”
But she also received unexpected encouragement -- from young boys and elderly women, from one of Taylor’s generals (“Don’t stop,” he told her. “We’re depending on you.”) and from the archbishop of the Catholic Church. “Those little things kind of overshadow all of the tensions that we had on a day-to-day basis.”
As Liberia embarks on its long road to recovery, Disney and Reticker are bringing the film to stateside social workers and to such conflict zones around the world as Zimbabwe, Kenya and Iraq. The producer and philanthropist -- who says that as the grandniece of Walt Disney she hopes to avoid any association with sugarcoated sentimentality -- has been humbled by reactions to the film.
At a recent screening in Khartoum, Sudan, the documentary sparked a plan by women in a peace studies program to get 1 million Sudanese women to sign a position paper on Darfur.
“This is my experience everywhere we’ve showed it,” Disney said. “The talk starts really emotional, and there are a lot of tears, and then it quickly turns into something very practical.”
Gbowee, who has taken her work beyond Liberia to co-found Women Peace and Security Network Africa, considers the film a “call to action” whose inspirational message translates to any culture. “I think women have the ability to mobilize around every and any issue, especially if that issue touches their heart.”