This year, Pray the Devil Back to Hell won the “Best Documentary” award at the Tribeca Film Festival in NYC. The film, recently released to the public, tells the amazing story of how one person’s dream helped to bring about the peace accords in Liberia after years of war under the tyrant Charles Taylor. It demonstrates the impact that one person can have during a time of strife, and reveals the tactics that otherwise powerless women used to achieve unprecedented peace and democratic elections.
The film starts in 1989 when Charles Taylor first arrived in Liberia. A protégé of Libya’s al-Gaddafi, trained in guerilla warfare, Taylor launched a political uprising, attempting to overthrow the government. Other groups also rose up, causing the country to factionalize. Civil war, ethnic conflict, power struggles, and fights over money ensued.
Primarily due to fear, Liberians voted Charles Taylor into the Presidency, and the warlords (LURDS) rebelled.
Charles Taylor became notorious for training child soldiers. He provided young boys with drugs and guns, and forced them to murder their parents. Under his leadership, Liberians endured hunger, child-rape and the pillaging of their country for fourteen years. No end was in sight.
Then one night in 2003, a young mother Leymah Gbowee, prayed before she went to bed, asking God to end the war. That night she had a “crazy dream,” telling her that she should gather the women of Liberia together to protest and pray for peace.
Leymah brought her idea to her church, and then to other churches, appealing to women to join her quest for peace. A female Muslim police officer attended one of the meetings, and was so moved she decided to spread the women’s peace message to the Muslim community.
Initially, some women wondered if working with those of a different religion meant that they were diluting their faith. Ultimately, they concluded that religion should not serve as a barrier to their mission of peace. For the first time in Liberian history, Christians and Muslims worked together for a common cause.
The women protested, insisting that the men, who had all power, end the war. A few women turned to hundreds and then thousands. They were ordinary women — mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and aunts. They sat daily in the public square, with T-shirts, signs and banners demanding peace.
Every day the women rallied together, sang together, and prayed together. They did the unimaginable — they spoke out. They even had the audacity to protest outside the Presidential Palace. But it wasn’t enough. Then, the women decided to use sex as a weapon. They went on a country-wide sex-strike, withholding sex from all their husbands until the men worked towards peace.
Eventually, President Taylor could no longer ignore the protesters’ impact. Pressure forced Taylor and the LURDS to sign a pledge to engage in peaceful negotiations. The parties scheduled talks to take place in Ghana, in June 2003. But on that same day, Taylor was indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The negotiations went forward in Taylor’s absence. Months passed with no visible progress. Then one day, the women marched over to the negotiations, locked arms and blockaded the building’s exits. They refused to let the men out until they reached an agreement. It worked. On August 18, 2003, a peace agreement was signed.
But the women still wanted democratic elections, so they banded together one last time to make their plea. They succeeded.
In November 2005, Liberia held its first elections since 1996. This time the election was free, fair, democratic, and nonviolent. Liberians elected Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to be President — the first female President in Africa. She was inaugurated on January 16, 2006.
The women of Liberia caused significant change in their country. Abby Disney produced this film so that the role of women in achieving Liberia’s peace and democracy would not be erased from the history books. She also wanted to send a message to women world-over that they too can effectuate change.
The peace activists of Liberia, unlike some who go by that same label today, did not advocate for surrender. Instead, they demanded peace in furtherance of freedom. These women witnessed death, but still had enthusiasm for life. They experienced destruction and turmoil, but still breathed hope. They risked their lives, but retained their faith. They knew that if they were to be killed, it was fighting for the cause of peace and freedom. They started with baby steps and wound up changing history.