Sometimes I question the value of dialogue in bringing peace. Sure it’s a nice thing to get people together to discuss their differences, but can dialogue really help to bring an end to wars?
Well, it turns out, it can, and I was reassured on this score recently when I viewed “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” a documentary about how Liberian women combined to bring an end to civil war in their country. The DVD, originally distributed through organizations hosting film showings, is now available to individual viewers through Netflix and other regular outlets.
The narrative in the film goes like this. By 2003, Liberia had been embroiled in civil war for over a decade. Soldiers from the government of Charles Taylor and warlords in the countryside ravaged villages, pillaging food and supplies and engaging in brutal killings and rapes. Young boys were captured, introduced to drugs and alcohol, armed with heavy weapons, and brought into the fray.
Desperate mothers began to organize. One of their major achievements was to bring together Christian and Muslim women to demand an end to what one of them, Lehmah Gbowee, described as hell on earth. In the film, Lehmah, the founder and leader of the Christian Women’s Peace Initiative, says that one day she decided she was so fed up she wasn’t going to accept such a life any more. After she launched her organization through churches in Monrovia, Asatu Bah Kenneth, a career police officer and a Muslim, heard her call and worked with her to recruit Muslim women to the cause.
Although the Muslim women were unaccustomed to thinking of themselves as activists, Lehmah and Asatu visited mosques, talking to women one by one, gradually convincing them to join the Christian women. They also were able to convince one Imam to endorse what they were doing. This type of behind-the-scenes dialogue was key to enabling the women to stick together as they took their difficult and dangerous stand against the war.
Eventually 2,500 Christian and Muslim women demonstrated in daily sit-ins in a Monrovia fish market to bring their demand for peace to the attention of Charles Taylor. After weeks of this agitation, he agreed to meet with them and their presence, along with international pressure to enter peace talks, brought about the initiation of his negotiations with the warlords of the countryside.
Once the peace talks began, the women raised a little money to send representatives to the meetings in Ghana. When it seemed the talks were going nowhere, they organized Liberian women who were in refugee camps there, surrounded the conference meeting place and in a dramatic show-down refused to let the delegates leave the building until they agreed to get serious about the talks. After that the women leaders sought out the warlords one by one and engaged them in dialogue about the necessity of ending the war. This work was crucial in bringing the peace talks to a successful conclusion.
Dialogue is usually quiet, personal, and almost invisible to the public eye. However, the non-violent actions of the women, their marches, sit-ins and public petitions, would not have been successful without the glue of interpersonal dialogue.
On the DVD I received from Netflix, in addition to the film, there was an interesting interview with Abigail Disney, producer of the film, and Lehmah Gbowee that took place on Bill Moyers’ PBS program. It appears that the story of Lehmah and the Liberian women has inspired people all over the world. Me too.
– Peggy Ray