“I am five months pregnant,” recalls Leymah Gbowee. “My son is three and my daughter is two.” A handheld camera follows crowds of refugees, leaving their Liberian village — visibly distressed and in a hurry. “So, under rains of bullets, we leave the house and we walk for, like, seven hours to my parents’ house. And there was hell on earth.” As she tells a story about her son’s response to the chaos, the frame is hectic and unfocused, an occasional face turning to look at the camera, weary and sad. Leymah’s son, she says, wished for a piece of donut, a request so simple and sweet, and yet, so utterly impossible to fulfill. “The anger built up again,”” she says, “The pain was there.”
Leymah’s recollection serves as point of departure for Pray the Devil Back to Hell, Gini Reticker’s low-key, affecting documentary on Liberia’s Women’s Peace Initiative. Initiated and sustained by Leymah and other women of diverse backgrounds and faiths, the movement is captured here in thoughtful interviews and sometimes harrowing footage. The women had survived years of civil war. In 1989, Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) assassinated Liberian dictator Samuel Doe and took over the government; warring factions varied in name and number. By 2002, the sides were using similar tactics — a group of warlords who called themselves LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) and Taylor’s private army (ironically titled “The Anti-Terrorist Unit”) were using similar tactics to compel citizens into compliance: kidnapping children to drug and deploy as soldiers, looting villages, raping women, and marauding over the countryside, as lawless and brutal as their victims were quietly resilient.
Leymah says her inspiration came in a dream: “Someone was actually telling me to get the women of the church together,” she remembers, “to pray for peace.” When she did, more and more women began coming to meetings, including Asatu Bah Kenneth, Assistant Director of the Liberian National Police. Thrilled by the women’s energy and dedication, she spoke passionately, and identified herself upfront as “the only Muslim in the church,” and was immediately accepted (“They said ‘Oh hallelujah,’ they were so happy that I was there”). This would be a collation of women — all with one goal, peace.
Leymah and her fellow interviewees describe their experiences in spiritual language. “I got baptized into the women’s movement,” she says. Journalist Janet Bryant-Johnson recalls seeing women living in displaced persons camps, struggling literally to find food for one meal for their children, joining in a march in their area. They gathered to demonstrate — sitting at a fish market for days on end, dozens of women dressed in white to signify their uniform purpose — and they devised strategies.
If Taylor could appear in a church to sway his followers and pronounce his superiority (“He could,” says Leymah, “pray the devil back to hell”) and the LURD members would got to mosque to recruit new members and reassure themselves of their rightness, the women too would use institutions to get their work done. As Leymah puts it, women in church would “pressurize the pastors and the bishops, who would pressurize the leader,” and women could also “pressurize the imams [who would] pressurize the warlords also.” Along with their public protests, the women undertake another campaign in their homes, “pressurizing” their husbands to take action, or at least to refuse to take up arms. Secretary Vaiba Flomo explains, “One way or another, you have power as a woman and that power is to deny your sex. And tell him the reason you are going to deny it.”
The women’s movement famously helped to push Taylor and his opponents into peace talks in 2004, in Accra, Ghana. The women raised money to send an unofficial delegation of their own “to raise awareness and start a demonstration there,” one leading to one of the film’s most memorable moments. Seeing the men (world leaders, warlords, and hangers-on alike) treat the talks as a “vacation” (enjoying their hotel rooms and access to fine food and beverages), the women stage a sit-down in the hallway outside a meeting room, blocking the men’s way, to insist they come up with real solutions before they head off to restaurants and poolsides. “The Peace Hall,” reports a journalist, “has been seized by General Leymah and her troops.”
She recounts an attempt by security guards to remove them, even to arrest them for “obstructing justice.” Leymah says, “Those words: it was like you took gas and just pour it on an open flame. I just went wild.” By this she means she stood up and announced she would make it easy to arrest her, by stripping off her clothes, most definitely illegal for a woman to do. The results appear in the film, as Nigerian General Abubakar schools the warlord who tries to step over and abuse the women blocking his way: “Go and sit down,” Leymah remembers him saying, “If you were a real man, you wouldn’t be killing your people… Because you aren’t a real man, we will treat you like a boy.”
As recounted in the documentary Iron Ladies of Liberia, the women’s movement led not only to peace talks, but eventually, to Taylor’s exile (he is now on trial for war crimes at the Hague) and the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as president. Such an outcome is unspeakably heartening: the women’s peace movement, propelled by ordinary citizens, changed what was possible in Liberia.