women behind liberia’s peace movement inspire students and faculty

The scenes were heartbreaking. Little boys carrying guns, bragging about how many people they’d killed. Children on crutches, missing limbs that had been chopped off by soldiers. Women recounting how their husbands were killed and their daughters raped by soldiers.

All were victims of a civil war that raged in Liberia for 14 years. The war engulfed the nation and destroyed families — until ordinary women banded together to demand peace.

More than 150 students, faculty and members of the public gathered at Valencia’s West Campus on Jan. 26 to watch and discuss ”Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” an award-winning documentary that tells the gripping account of a brave group of women whose sit-ins and demonstrations finally led to peace for their war-torn country.

The leader of that movement, Leymah Roberts Gbowee, was one of the three women who won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. Gbowee helped organize the women’s Mass Action Campaign, which started in one community and spread to over 50 communities across Liberia. They dressed in white T-shirts and white headbands and confronted warlords, demanding peace. They sat in the sun and rain in markets and on the sides of roads, demanding that leaders listen. 

When peace talks in nearby Ghana stalled, the women protesters surrounded the building, linking arms and refusing to let the different parties leave until they hammered out an agreement. Finally, after more than two years of protests, President Charles Taylor was exiled and the West African nation elected a new president,  Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female president in Africa.

The one-hour documentary, which has won a string of awards at film festivals around the world, is an uplifting look at how ordinary people can band together to change the world.

After watching the 60-minute documentary, students and members of the public participated in a discussion led by Agnes Kamara-Umunna, a Liberian radio host and author of the book, “And Still Peace Did Not Come: A Memoir of Reconciliation.”

Umunna, whose visit was part of a three-day residency called “Conversation on Compassion,” served as a statement taker for the Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission after that country’s brutal civil war. In Liberia, she works with the child soldiers who were co-opted to fight in the war — but who have been rejected by their families and much of Liberian society. They are victims too, said Umunna.

Many now live on the streets of Monrovia, homeless, doing drugs and drinking alcohol, though Umunna has built a center in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, to help them. “I talk to them, one-on-one,” she told the audience. “It’s hard…. Because these kids are ex-fighters, nobody wants to donate money to help them.”

Although Liberia has made progress, she warned the audience that the peace there is fragile. ”We are sitting on a time bomb right now. There is real tension between the presidential candidates,” Umunna said. (Because no candidate received a majority of the votes in the presidential election held in October, a run-off election was held in November — and president Sirleaf won the runoff, but the results have been contested by her opponent.)

For audience members, the film was touching and inspiring. ”These women were heroes,” said Valencia student Juanita Islam. “I don’t know if I could have done that.”

But the discussion, and the failure of the West to intervene in a war that ravaged the country, was eye-opening to many. ”We say that Hitler and Stalin and Mussolini could not happen today,” said Valencia student Kris Boodooram, “but why didn’t anyone stop these men (in Liberia)? This happened in this millennium.”

The event was sponsored by Valencia’s Peace and Justice Initiative, the Global Peace Film Festival and the West Campus Human Empathy & Rights Organization.

Source: Linda Shrieves Beaty

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2 Responses

  1. I was there and it was a very powerful documentary. The HERO group did a spectacular job hosting and special thanks to Ms. Rachel Allen and Valencia’s Peace and Justice Initiative group for making the entire week on Compassion a great success.

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