Pray the Devil Back to Hell is stunning, strong and powerful, like the women it profiles and the peace movement they started. In 2003, sickened by fourteen years of brutal war that began when Charles Taylor overthrew the Liberian president Samuel Doe, a group of Liberian women, Christian and Muslim, joined together creating the group Mass Action for Peace, helping to bring about a peace accord and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf become the African continent’s first elected woman president.
At that time, in 2003, President Taylor’s army was fighting warlords who had organized as Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD). Taylor was Christian in his rhetoric, LURD’s troops were ostensibly Muslim. Murder, rape, and amputations were the norm for both sides as they moved through the villages of Liberia. LURD’s actions forced thousands of refugees into the capital city of Monrovia and into abject poverty as displaced persons
“Power, money, ethnicity, greed, are no excuse for what happened to the children of Liberia,” who joined sides and took up arms, engaging in grisly acts of violence, explains Leymah Gbowee in the documentary directed by Gini Reticker and produced by Abigail Disney. Then came an epiphany says Gbowee:
I had a dream. It was like a crazy dream, it was somebody telling me to get the women of the church together to pray for peace.
From her church, the desire for peace spread to other denominations and into the mosques when Muslim women were recruited for the movement. Asks Gbowee:
Can the bullet pick and choose, does the bullet know the difference between Christian and Muslim?
The women spoke to their pastors and imans, recruited women from the refugee camps to join them, and then, wrapping their hair in white kerchiefs and wearing white shirts, they took over a field by a fish market where Taylor regularly drove by…but he wouldn’t speak with them. The women withdrew sex from their men, who in turn prayed for peace. Public pressure grew, and Taylor finally agreed to meet with them, as did the leaders of LURD. There was no resolution to the war, but progress was being made. Peace talks were announced, to be held in Ghana.
And so some of the women went while others stayed in the field, a constant reminder that peace was necessary. And as Monrovia was invaded and held under siege, as the talks stalled while their families’ fates were uncertain, the women staged a sit-in at the peace talks, refusing to let representatives of the warring factions out of the building until they had reached an agreement, propelling peace to the region as President Taylor was indicted for war crimes.
Upon their return from Ghana, the women were greeted as heroines. For two and half years, every-day members of the group sat in the field outside the fish market singing, praying and talking for peace while others worked in journalism and the police department to spread news and gather information and others traveled to meet with LURD leaders and delegates to the peace conference. With the arrival of the UN peacekeeping force, the women helped with disarming the militias, something the “experts” could not do peacefully.
And in the end, their force and their energy was directly responsible for the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. “Vote for the Woman” reads one of the election signs.