The timing of the PBS series “Women, War and Peace” could not be more fortuitous. Last week, for the first time ever, three women — Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee and Yemeni activist Tawakul Karman — won the Nobel Peace Prize for their extraordinary efforts to promote peace and women’s rights in their countries. Not only are two of them, Gbowee and Johnson-Sirleaf, featured in the series’ second episode, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” but by honoring them, the Nobel committee illuminated the point of the series — that women around the world experience war differently from men, which increasingly leads them to fight against it in similarly unique ways.
With the American Revolution and Civil War relegated to history class, most Americans have experienced war from a distance. With the exception of the attacks on Pearl Harbor and of Sept. 11, we remain a nation uninvaded; civilian women suffer just as civilian men do — from loss of loved ones, fear and, in the case of the world wars, shortages. In other countries, war occurs in the streets and in the homes, fought by warlords and drug lords and men armed with nationalistic rage and machetes. In these countries, in these wars, women suffer in specific and horrifying ways.
They are raped, they are tortured, they are killed in an attempt to control the civilian population and because they are women. “Women, War and Peace,” a five-part series of hour-long documentaries, tells some of these stories.
The series premieres Tuesday and runs weekly into November (check local listings for show times). It begins with “I Came to Testify,” which chronicles the experience of 16 Muslim women who not only survived months of systematic rape and torture but eventually testified during the first international trial in which rape was defined as a crime against humanity. Their stories are so awful that it is difficult to hear them, and even with their faces shielded and, in the footage taken from the actual trial, their voices scrambled, the personal devastation is palpable.
In the mid-'90s, as Bosnia became increasingly divided along ethnic lines, in the town of Foca, neighbor turned against neighbor and soon Serbian forces were murdering families they had recently called friends. Women and girls as young as 12, captured and confined in hotels and public buildings, were raped daily by a seemingly endless number of men. “I lost count at 10,” says one woman of the nightly abuse, “it may have been 20. I don’t remember. I don’t remember.”
“Rape and pillage,” says one of the lawyers who prosecuted the three Serbian military leaders charged. “We say the words and forget their meaning.”
The international trial, in which all three men were found guilty, and this documentary, written by Pamela Hogan, who, along with Abigail Disney and Gini Reticker, who executive produced the series, insist that we remember.
Similar tactics were employed by warlords and their murderous bands during the civil war in Liberia. The award-winning “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” tells the story of the Liberian women, including Nobel winners Gbowee and Johnson-Sirleaf, who grew tried of living in fear and violence. Gbowee organized women through churches and mosques; with nonviolent protest, they forced a negotiated peace and drove dictator Charles Taylor into exile. (At one point, when peace talks between the various warlords stalled, Gbowee threatened to strip naked, an act considered a curse in Liberia, if the men did not return to their negotiations and deliver real peace. They did.)
Both of these films and the series (which also chronicles the difficulties of women in Afghanistan and Colombia) shiver with the tension of humanity at its worst and humanity at its best. As the stories unfold, we peer into the depths of depravity only to rise, on the shoulders of these women, to the promise of survival that transcends resiliency and becomes change.