“Liberia, a West African country of 3 million people, was founded in 1847 by freed American slaves. Their descendants formed an elite class, which dominated indigenous ethnic groups for more than a century. Rising tensions finally erupted into civil war in 1989. From then on, Liberians suffered a prolonged period of violence. At times, fighting was congregated to the countryside. Other times, conflict raged through the capital, Monrovia. By 2002, over 200,000 people had died. One out of three people had been displaced. There was no end in sight. Then, ordinary women did the unimaginable.”
The Liberian Civil War began on Christmas Eve 1989. Charles Taylor began in full earnestness, his bloody ascent to absolute political and financial power over Liberia. Taylor utilized whatever means necessary to formulate his path to a most vile form of power imaginable. Taylor had The Small Boys Unit, consisting of youths from the ages of nine to fifteen, commissioned as child soldiers. They were fed drugs and given weapons. The war to, “Reconstruct the minds of the people,” went on for years. Leymah Gbowee, a Social Worker, states, “Liberia had been at war so long that my children had been hungry and afraid their entire lives.”
The war was blamed on many factors including ethnic tensions, resources and wealth. But Gbowee states, “There is nothing in my mind that should make people do what they did to the children of Liberia.” Gbowee, had at one moment, to tell her three year old son that she had no food, no donut, to give him. Her son replied, that he hoped for a piece of donut all the same. This was after Gbowee, while five months pregnant, traveled with her three-year-old son and two-year-old daughter under a rain of bullets to her parents’ house.
The next series of scenes are of a boy, holding a skeleton in his hands and dancing with a group of other boys. The skeleton is of a human skull. A boy with his arm cut off looks ahead, his eyes accepting and full of fear. Another boy holds a gun to his head, the gun sounds, while a group of adolescents stand around. One of them smiles.
Charles Taylor, in a filmed interview says, “We had an opportunity, starting from 0 to reconstruct the minds of our people.” None of the soldiers seem to be over 17. Incredibly disturbing that their faces are those of frightened lost children, and at the same time, they brandish huge weapons. According to headlines, Taylor terrorized Liberia into electing him, in 1997. “We lived in fear,” Gbowee states. She prays for the killings, the shootings, and the hunger to stop. Gbowee says, “I had a dream and it was like a crazy dream, that someone was actually telling me,” to gather the women of the village in order to pray for peace.
The following scene occurs at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, Monrovia, June 2002. Gbowee is a speaker for a congregation. She states, “We are tired…” and from the fear and exhaustion is born the Christian Women Peace Initiative; out of mothers, daughters, sisters and aunts. From the ordinary women of the village was born a great organization.
Asatu Bah Kenneth, Assistant Director of Liberian National Police attended the service as the only Muslim in the Church. “We’re all serving the same God,” Kenneth states. She promises to move the movement forward with the Muslim women. “I wanted it to be an initiative that was going to continue,” Kenneth adds. The message the co-joined womens’ forces took on was, truly a question with an obvious answer: “Can the bullet pick and choose? Does the bullet know Christian from Muslim?”
In opposition to Taylor is the mens’ movement, LURD, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy. “Taylor does not listen to any peace, any negotiations. That is why we are in the bush,” says National Chairman Conneh. The Warlords of the opposing council commission male child soldiers. “The Warlords would just give these boys guns and send them off. They just told them to take whatever they wanted along the way,” Gbowee states. The countryside is terrorized.
Janet Bryant Johnson, Journalist, says, “These boys would go to your home and they would rape you in front of your children, in front of your husband, and they just do anything because, they had guns.” The Warlords are said to come for absolute power in opposition to Taylor and by March 2003, LURD controls most of the countryside. Taylor is Christian and LURD is Muslim. Refugees pour into Monrovia, in overwhelming flocks with their possessions piled on their heads. People in the camps live in absolute poverty. Complete, entire and abysmal poverty.
The womens’ group came to the camp to overview the conditions. There were tears, as there seemed no hope in terms of positive outlet for the Liberians. Tales of rape and horror by soldiers abound among the camp’s occupants. (United Nations Resolution 1325, adopted in 2000, notes that, ‘civilians, particularly women and children, account for the vast majority of those adversely affected by armed conflict, including as refugees and internally displaced persons, and increasingly are targeted by combatants and armed elements’…In 2008, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1820, characterizing sexual violence as a tool of war and demanding its immediate cessation.) Discussion Guide, Teachers College, Columbia University.
One woman was told by soldiers; to sing, to dance, and to clap, while her husband’s head was slowly sawed off and her 12-year-old daughter was raped. The woman survived but she kept singing and clapping the same tune she sang and clapped for the soldiers that day. Her daughter became pregnant from the rape.
Many women showed unusual resiliency despite the atrocities. “These woman had seen the worst of the wars, but they still had that vibrance for life.” Hope baptized the women into their movement for peace. Taylor gives a sermon regarding his mission in life and God’s protection. But his statements do not click together, and ultimately his speech makes no sense. Gbowee: “Taylor could pray the devil out of hell, and we said if this man is so religious, we need to get to that thing, that he holds firmly to.”
The women pressurized the pastors to place influence on the bishops, so it would travel to the leaders. The women of the mosques were to place insistence for peace on their imams, who would pressurize the Warlords, in turn. Both womens’ groups spoke for an end to the violence with their religious leaders.
Still, the war was closing in and only ever increasing in violent velocity. “We needed to do something more forceful, more dramatic. We decided to have a protest,” Gbowee states. The women utilized Christian radio to get their message for peace across. The Christian women seek inspiration from The Bible, particularly Ester, who wore ashes and a sackcloth. Ester says, “I mean it.” The Liberian women then put on plain white clothes and tied their hair, to symbolize the goal for peace. Thousands of women congregated to the fish market to pray for peace. For the first time in Liberian history, Muslim and Christian women joined forces. They held a banner with the slogan, “The Women of Liberia Want Peace Now.”
Over 2,500 women lined up with the placards for peace. President Taylor’s convert slows, as it goes by on the road, but does not stop and the women are left unharmed. The woman sang for peace. And danced for peace. Still, neither Taylor nor the rebels would come to the peace table. The women then presented a position statement to the government of Liberia. The women demanded peace. They were not appealing. They continue to protest wearing white.
Finally Taylor agreed to the peace talks. The talks are strained, as with Taylor it is known he could be smiling at you and the next moment order the recipient of his gaze to be killed. Peace talks occur in Ghana while Monrovia is engulfed in war. Everyone is trapped inside, away from the gunfire, without proper food supplies. Still, the women continue to sing, “Liberia is my home.” Though, the peace talks turned into discussions of how to divvy out the power, rather than how to employ peace. The missiles rain down as the women still sing and pray.
Some of the women went to Ghana and held the men inside with their protests. One of the warlords came to the door to exit and was pushed back by the women. The women wanted peace. Finally, it is agreed at the discussions for Taylor to be exiled to Liberia and for a UN peacekeeping force to enter Monrovia. A transitional government is established. On August 4, 2003, International Peacekeeping forces enter Liberia. Taylor leaves for exile, saying; “God willing, I will be back.”
The women come back from Ghana celebrating. One woman was asked how she managed and dressed in white, she replied: “With this T-shirt, I am powerful.” The violence is hard to forgive. Liberia becomes the first country in Africa with an elected female president. After 2 ½ years the womens’ peace campaign comes to a successful end.
By Sarah Bahl
All quotes are taken from Pray the Devil Back to Hell.