Liberia's Devils

Nora Connor: We’ve been watching PBS’s “Women, War and Peace.” Less a series than a grouping of thematically linked films, it takes women’s experiences, roles and concerns as the starting point for an examination of contemporary war, from on-the-ground experiences of privation and violence to the legal remove of places like the Hague. The project aims to place women “at the center of an urgent dialogue about conflict and security.” This narrative priority infuses the films with a sober tone, insulating them from the creeping adventurism that infects even some of the most politically anti-war visual journalism (although, ironically, the film probably would not have been possible without footage produced in service of exactly that type of adrenaline-fueled glamour enterprise, known in British circles as “bang-bang” journalism).

“Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” the series’ fourth (penultimate) film, was made as a stand-alone documentary and first released at festivals in 2008. It recounts the relatively under-covered force that helped end Liberia’s long civil war—a group of women activists who managed to pressure, demand, harangue and shame the factions into an internationally-managed peace settlement. Its narrator and star is Leymah Roberta Gbowee, a Liberian social worker who recently shared a Nobel Peace Prize earned largely on the merits of the actions chronicled in the film. Through a patchwork of interviews and mostly sourced footage of events during the civil war and peace talks, with Gbowee’s clear, direct narration knitting the story together, “Pray the Devil” effectively conveys the hellish conditions of the war and counters another common media device—that of the suffering, silent victims.

These women, and what’s left of Liberian civilian society, are incredibly pissed off, and the film gives due credit to their persistence and audacity. There’s a scene during the dragging 2003 peace talks in Ghana in which a horde of women, knowing full well that none of the parties have a real incentive to close a deal (with Taylor facing exile and prosecution and the rebels enjoying clean beds and adequate caloric intake on the ECOWAS tab), barricade the men inside their conference room. Ignoring threats from the Ghanaian police and their obvious lack of an invitation to the bargaining table, the women make a political demand equivalent to a familiar domestic one: stay in your room and don’t come out until you’ve cleaned up your toys. They’ve played it exactly right, playing on their status and authority as women and against social mores that will make it difficult to physically remove them—and it works.

Yet surely these women amount to more than a group of mommies reminding the children that it’s not nice to hit people? “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” actually sells these women short as tacticians, for the same reason it left me feeling unsatisfied: I got the story of their victory, but not the story of the war, and without that, I’m not sure I fully understand what they’ve done. The causes and aims of the various actors in this long-simmering war remain mostly unexplicated beyond “Taylor was a tyrant,” “the rebels were warlords,” “it was about power,” “it was about natural resources.” From the point of view of a citizen stuck in a seemingly interminable conflict, vulnerable to shooting, starvation, disease, rape and the loss of one’s family and neighbors, it may indeed cease to matter how the war started or who wants what. But crossing the line to activism, taking a defined “public” role in the conflict, requires a deep and sensitive knowledge of the political terrain—surely the women featured in this film know what the Liberian civil war was about, and I would have liked to hear it from them.

The most memorable character in the film is Asatu Bah Kenneth, who by late into the civil war was a high-ranking police officer with decades of experience. According to her bio on the film’s website, “Asatu’s position in the police service gave her access to intelligence about the war.” She was spying for the peace movement! I’d like to have seen more about that. And we learn in the film that Asatu, a Muslim, was brought into the movement by invitation to Gbowee’s group, the Christian Women’s Peace Initiative. As she tells it, she was so moved at their event that she stood up and promised to mobilize the Muslim women of Liberia into the cause. The women interviewed for the film agree that this faith barrier was difficult to cross—but they don’t exactly say why, socially, politically, historically. How had religion been mobilized previously in Liberia, and how, if at all, did the women’s peace movement reject or reframe those earlier arrangements? It seems to me these women are even smarter, even bolder than the film relates.

Charles Taylor, Gobwee says, was known for his fanatical Christian piety. “He could pray the devil out of hell,” she says. Upon taking office as President in 1997, Taylor reportedly performed a cleansing ritual on the executive mansion, using Bibles and buckets of holy water. And Taylor, drawing on tactics that evolved throughout Liberia’s colonial history, selectively promoted and suppressed various Muslim organizations based on his political-ethnic alliances and rivalries. The film is titled “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” but the move was made too quickly. I wish we had gotten to spend a bit of time with the devils first.

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