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Pray the Devil Back to Hell

How do you unseat a violent and implacable dictator who is wantonly killing his own people? By prayer. Really! Once again a lesson of peacemaking in the face of seemingly impossible odds comes out of Africa, this time from the small West African country of Liberia, founded in 1847 by freed African slaves, and whose capital is named after an American president.

The film, which the New York Times has characterized as at once “uplifting and disheartening, inspiring and enraging,” documents the history of the Liberian civil war that ran from 1989 to 2003 and the pivotal role of Liberian women in putting an end to the dictatorship of then strongman, Charles Taylor. It sets the stage by alluding to factors that contributed to this particular civil war–abuse of power, ethnic conflicts, money, greed. The endless round of tit for tat between Taylor’s so-called Anti-Terrorist Unit and the rebel faction, ironically named Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) had turned the country into a veritable hell of daily tortures, murders and rapes.

The protagonist of this story of improbable bravery in the face of this home-grown terrorism is a mother and wife called Leymah Gbomee, who one night, by her own account, had a “crazy dream” in which she heard a voice telling her to gather the women to pray for peace. Gbomee viewed the disintegration of her native land not only as a political problem, but as a moral and spiritual challenge to her nation’s very survival. Peace was needed in order to have access once again to the most fundamental elements of life—food, water, and safety—to raise the present and future generations of Liberian children.

We next see her standing in front of a church full of cheering women, calling on all Christian Liberian women to join in prayer for peace. So was born the Christian Women’s Peace Initiative. Later, Asatu Bah Kenneth, a Muslim woman, took up the cry for solidarity in prayer for peace with the Christian women and the movement took on the name of Liberian Mass Action for Peace. In an attempt to give more visibility to this prayer movement, Gbomee and Kenneth and their women joined forces to publicly sing, dance, and pray at the Monrovia open-air fish market, hundreds of women dressed in white–the color of peace–daily carrying placards calling for peace until Taylor could no longer ignore them.

The documentary, narrated by several other women who worked with Gbomee, takes us through the key events leading up to Taylor’s reluctant meeting with the women’s peace movement leaders and the subsequent peace talks in Accra, Ghana. At the peace talks, as the petty warlords jockeyed for key positions in the new Liberian government, the praying women who had made deep, personal sacrifices to attend the talks began to grow increasingly impatient. The presidents of Nigeria and South Africa are shown speaking for Liberian peace, as does a mediator who conveys the women’s demands to the participants. But the talks drag on as the self-interests of the Liberian president and the warlords continue to place obstacles in the path to peace.

The film spotlights the constant need the protestors had to find new strategies to keep the peace talks on task. As it became increasingly evident that the Liberian warlords were taking more time to enjoy the comforts of their luxury hotel than dedicate their energies to achieving a peace agreement, Gbomee took a new tack: she moved her more than 200 women from outside the building where the peace talks were being held into the hallway just outside the main door of the auditorium. There they staged a sit-in, women with arms locked, impeding the passage of anyone in or out of the meeting hall.

At this point in the film, Gbomee recalls her outrage at the mind-boggling absurdity of the accusation leveled at her by the policeman sent to arrest her: “You are obstructing justice.” That was too much, as she puts it. In a spontaneous act of utter desperation and profound cultural meaning, Gbomee stripped herself naked right then and there, conscious that onlookers would immediately access a social taboo: it is a curse to see a mother naked. It finally became abundantly clear that if those involved in coming to an honorable agreement did not get serious, these mothers not only would not go away, but would continue to recur to methods that would shame these men and women leaders into doing what was right.

Eventually it became clear that Taylor would have to make important concessions. He returned to his country a marked man. Ever more determined to hold onto his power, Taylor upped the ante and more violence broke out. But he did not count on the equal determination of these mothers to get a life of peace for their families—at any cost. The prayer and singing at the on-going peace talks and at the Monrovia fish market continued and eventually Taylor was forced into exile, U.N. peacekeepers were sent into Monrovia, and a new government headed by Africa’s first elected woman president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was put into place.

Watching this documentary is not for the faint of heart. One is struck by the courage of camera people who take to the streets of Monrovia and outskirts, documenting men, women, and children living in fear of both government forces and the young henchmen of the rebels, mere children and teenagers drugged or brainwashed into perpetrating atrocities against their own neighbors and even their own families. The cameras often have rifles aimed at them as they capture mass exoduses from the city, whole families heading for the countryside while rifle-totting youths shoot into the very vegetation where some have sought refuge. The violence is hardly gratuitous. It has to be there because that’s what was happening and because it helps to underscore the daily indignities that fed the women’s determination to change that reality.

The producers treat the Liberian people, both violators and violated, evenhandedly as victims of a repressive and irresponsible government. On the other hand, the dominance of female voices make it clear that the blame is meant to fall on “the men.” At one point Gbomee reminds her interviewer that her nation has been independent for over 160 years and that their entire history has been one of civil strife led by men.

When Taylor is exiled and the Liberian people are left to find a way forward, the inevitable question of working together to rebuild their nation is treated poignantly when one of the speakers, Vaiba Flomo, asks, “How can we move on if we don’t forgive?” Inconceivable as it may seem, it was this decision to leave the past in the past along with a subsequent Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up by President Johnson Sirleaf to deal with issues of justice that has allowed Liberia to begin the hard work of collective rebuilding—both the restoring of infrastructure and the healing between neighbors who must continue to live and work together for their own common good.

Filmmakers Abigail E. Disney and Gini Reticker have put together a compelling and moving visual story of a unique moment in human history where women played a critical role in the political future of their country. The producers convincingly make the case that it is indeed possible to heal a broken nation through peaceful protest, but it requires an understanding of peace as non-violent action for justice and as a process demanding persistence, as one of the speakers affirms. Other than the fact that subtitles meant to help us understand the speakers are occasionally hard to see, this documentary will give the viewer much food for thought about the nature of spiritual and moral “warfare” in the struggle against evil. It will also irreversibly put the lie to the myth of powerlessness and go far in persuading us to believe in the possibility of praying the devil back to hell, no matter the nature of the evil.

Lourdes E. Morales-Gudmundsson is the chair of La Sierra University’s Department of Modern Languages.

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