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Standing Up for Peace: The Women of Liberia
"This is the story of courage, bravery, will, determination, and know how. The story of Liberian people who have the capacity to help themselves," said a U.S. Africa Command staff member introducing a movie that was part of the
STUTTGART, Germany - Staff members of U.S. Africa Command listen to Liza Briggs, west Africa branch chief for U.S. AFRICOM's Social Science Research Center, as she gives an introduction to the documentary "Pray the Devil Back to Hell," May 20, 2010. The documentary, part of the command's Educational Movie Series,  tells the gripping account of a group of brave and visionary women who demanded peace for Liberia when it was torn to shreds by decades of civil war. (U.S. AFRICOM photo by Danielle Skinner)
1 photo: U.S. AFRICOM Photo
Photo 1 of 1: STUTTGART, Germany - Staff members of U.S. Africa Command listen to Liza Briggs, west Africa branch chief for U.S. AFRICOM's Social Science Research Center, as she gives an introduction to the documentary "Pray the Devil Back to Hell," May 20, 2010. The documentary, part of the command's Educational Movie Series, tells the gripping account of a group of brave and visionary women who demanded peace for Liberia when it was torn to shreds by decades of civil war. (U.S. AFRICOM photo by Danielle Skinner) Download full-resolution version
"This is the story of courage, bravery, will, determination, and know how. The story of Liberian people who have the capacity to help themselves," said a U.S. Africa Command staff member introducing a movie that was part of the command's Educational Movie Series, May 20, 2010.

Liza Briggs, west Africa branch chief for U.S. AFRICOM's Social Science Research Center, provided an overview of Liberia to staff members gathered at Kelley Barrack's Theater prior to a showing of the documentary "Pray the Devil Back to Hell."

The documentary is both inspiring and tragic, portraying the brave pursuit of a group women coming from all walks of life who united to demand peace in Liberia and eventually contributed to the election of Liberia's first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

It begins with contemporary interviews with several women who witnessed horrific violence that began on Christmas Eve in 1989, the day that Charles Taylor, former president of Liberia, began his rise to power. This launched Liberia's first civil war with violence spanning decades, targeting men, women, and children alike.

The film opens with women describing the atrocities of the war. One watched her husband tortured and killed and her daughter raped, as she was forced by the perpetrators to sing and dance. Others talked about young boys who were recruited as child soldiers, continuing the cycle of violence in the war-torn country.

"Some say war was about the gap between the rich and poor. Some say the war was about the hatred between ethnic groups. Others say the war was to control natural resources. But nothing should make people do what they did to the children of Liberia," said Leymah Gbowee, who launched a movement of women called "The Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace" to help put an end to the civil war.

Gbowee was inspired to form the women's group after having a dream in which she was told to get women of the church together to pray for peace. Beginning as a Christian initiative, Muslim women began to join, putting aside their differences for the larger goal of peace. The message they used to recruit even more women was simple. "Can a bullet pick and choose--does a bullet know the difference between a Christian from a Muslim?"

Taylor was elected as president in 1997, which according to the U.S. State Department, he won by a large majority largely because Liberians feared a return to war if he lost. His brutal regime led to a second civil war in 1999, during which thousands of people were killed and thousands more died from starvation and terrible conditions in refugee camps in Monrovia.

Gbowee said "These women had seen the worst but they still had that vibrance for life.

By mid-2003, the rebel group against Taylor called Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) controlled the northern third of the country and was threatening the capital of Monrovia.

The Women of Liberia started pressuring pastors, bishops, and imams to encourage political leaders to start peace talks between Taylor and the LURD. As the war was closing in on the capital city, the women knew they had to do something more drastic. For the first time in Liberian history, thousands of women, Christian and Muslim, came together in the streets of Monrovia where they conducted nonviolent protests, demanding Taylor to engage in peace talks. Weeks went by, and Taylor continued to ignore them. The women staged a country-wide sex strike, withholding intimate relations with their husbands until the men agreed to negotiate peace. They advertised on local radio stations recruiting more women to join in their protests for peace.

Living on the streets, the women had little access to food and basic necessities, but did not give up. One woman interviewed said, "If I get killed, just remember I was fighting for peace."

After weeks of protests, Taylor finally agreed to meet with the women on April 23, 2003. By this time more than 200,000 Liberians had been killed in the civil wars. Standing on a stage before Taylor with thousands of women gathered before her in support, Gbowee told Taylor "We are tired of war, tired of running, tired of our children being raped. We are taking a stand to secure the future of our children." She then passed him a manuscript outlining their demands.

Taylor finally agreed to travel to Accra, Ghana in June 2003, where he was immediately indicted for war crimes. He fled back to Liberia as the country broke out in full-scale war.

A small group of women representing the Women of Liberia had traveled in a van to Accra where they joined with Liberian refugee women there pressuring the warlords to come to a peace resolution. They remained in Accra as the peace talks dragged on for the next six weeks. One woman told a reporter, "This is the last chance for Liberia."

On July 21, 2003, the day a missile landed inside the U.S. Embassy compound in Monrovia where many Liberians were seeking refuge, Liberian women in Ghana took action. Linking arms, they poured into the peace hall as it was in session, blocking the doors and windows, and refusing to let anyone leave until they reached a resolution. At the end of the day, the women gave them a two week ultimatum threatening to do it again.

Two weeks later, the terms were negotiated and Taylor was exiled to Nigeria. A UN peacekeeping force was brought into Monrovia and a transitional government was established. On August 11, 2003, Taylor left Liberia with these parting words: "God willing, I will be back."

The Women of Liberia did not stop there. Understanding that peace is a process, not an event, they were involved with the implementation of the peace agreement and worked with the former child soldiers, realizing that they too were victims of the war.
In January 2006, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected as Liberia's first female president.

Since the Liberian military forces were demobilized in 2003, the United States has been involved with Liberia's national defense rebuilding efforts as part of the security sector reform. This is part of an international effort to recruit, vet, train, and equip a new Armed Forces of Liberia. The Armed Forces of Liberia continues to grow--in 2008, it included more than 2,000 service members. U.S. Africa Command continues to work with the nation's military on building its capacity so that it can effectively protect its borders and its people.

"We have had a long relationship of partnership with Liberia," concluded Briggs in her presentation before U.S. AFRICOM staff. "This film suggests opportunities for a different kind of relationship with Liberia and with other African nations. One where we are the learners. I believe that our greatest tool for assisting in Africa lies not in our great technical knowledge nor in our wealth, but it lies in our ability to learn from Africans."

See related story: Re-entering the Water: Liberia's New Coast Guard"
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