Liberian Women's Fight For Peace Brought To Film
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, activist, actor and singer Harry Belafonte talks about what's playing in his ear.
But first, it's time for our Wisdom Watch. It's the part of the program where we visit with distinguished elders hoping they'll share their knowledge and wisdom with us. Now a few minutes ago, we told you about a new play that lifts up the stories of women from the Congo. Now we want to bring you a voice from Liberia. It tells a story of hope, but there are some difficult and graphic aspects to this conversation, so if you have small children listening or if you have difficulty listening to this kind of information, we want you to be advised.
In 2003, in the midst of the decade-long civil war, if you tuned into a local radio station in Liberia you might have heard this announcement.
(Soundbite of Liberean radio announcement)
Unidentified Woman #1: Are you sick and tired of war? Come join in a peace festival at Raleigh(ph) organized by women of Liberia...
Unidentified Woman #2: It was like, listen out to what we we're going to do next.
Unidentified Woman #3: This Saturday at...
MARTIN: That's the sound of Liberian Mass Action for Peace. It's an organization of Christian and Muslim women who came together in a David-and-Goliath style battle to demand that then-Liberian president Charles Taylor and his enemy factions put an end to the violence.
Today we're joined by Leymah Gbowee, leader of the Liberian Mass Action for Peace and co-founder and executive director of Women's Peace and Security Network Africa. She joins us from Chicago where she's promoting the release of the documentary, "Pray the Devil Back to Hell." It's a new film that tells the story of the women who helped bring peace to Liberia. Leymah Gbowee, welcome. Thank you for speaking with us.
Ms. LEYMAH GBOWEE (Leader, Liberian Mass Action for Peace; Co-founder, Executive Director, Women's Peace and Security Network Africa): Thank you for having me on your show.
MARTIN: I wanted to ask you because I saw the film and I've read a lot about you, and I wondered, you know, sometimes when people stand up to confront power, it is a dramatic epiphany, but sometimes it's just something that just strikes you and you say, you know what, it's enough and I have to do something. But sometimes it's like this slow fuse that's just burning and burning inside you. Do you remember what it was like for you?
Ms. GBOWEE: Well, I think for me it was years of anger. The war started in 1989, two or three days after my high school graduation, and it was just a downhill trend. But in 2003, it was real anger. You know, that moment where you feel is either I'm going to join the enemies or I'm going to do something for good. And that point of explosion was the point where the decision to do something to change the situation around fell on my lap.
MARTIN: One of the things that your group became known for were these essentially sort of public demonstrations where you would - you barricaded yourselves for a time outside of where the negotiators were meeting, and you know, this is the kind of thing in this country people are familiar with this - you know, non-violent protests and such like this - but that's not an easy thing to do. It wasn't any easy thing to do during the civil rights movement. It was not an easy thing to do in Liberia.
So particularly given the nature of Charles Taylor, could you just, if you would, describe for people who are not aware, what it was that you were protesting, what it was that Charles Taylor and his factions were involved in that caused so much grief and pain?
Ms. GWOBEE: I mentioned the war started 1989. And I mean, from 17 years old up until I was 30 all I saw was my community going from bad to worse to ridiculous. And by the time Taylor had been elected in 1997, Liberians had had enough of the war. And they thought, well, if we put this warlord, make him president of this country, things will change. It got worse.
I remember there was this day we were going to this village in southeastern Liberia, all of a sudden the pickup we are driving is stopped. And this truck came in this village in broad daylight and just grab children, girls, boys randomly, threw them in the truck. And these children were taken overnight to undisclosed locations, taught how to shoot, and the next day there were only about a few.
Beyond that drug(ph) there were fare(ph) drugs. Little girls were raped. Even older women, older men were sodomized. It was just like hell on Earth. As these stories kept coming back to us where perpetrators rape and sexual violence against women, we decided we're going to do something. So for us, we didn't have the power to go to peace talks, so we just thought, what else do we have to lose? Our bodies are their battlefield(ph). Let's just put our bodies out there because it was just about at that point in time, all of us, the mindset was we need to do something to change the situation if our children must live in this country.
Nonviolence resistance is the most difficult thing. And no wonder, a lot of the psychopaths who start war really choose the path of war because that's the easiest trend. If you decide to do a nonviolence movement, the most difficult thing is for you to look the perpetrator in the eye and not stab him with a knife or take a gun to shoot him but really look at him and say the truth with all humility.
MARTIN: Speaking of looking the perpetrator in the eye, after much protest, after many, many months of protests and demonstrations, you finally did get to confront Taylor, and amazingly, there was video of this encounter, which is seen in the film, and I'd like to play just a short clip, and here it is.
(Soundbite of video clip)
Ms. GBOWEE: The women of Liberia, including the IBP. We are tired of war. We are tired running. We are tired begging for food. We are tired of our children being raped. We are now taking this stand to secure the future of our children because we believe as custodians of society tomorrow, our children will ask us, mama, what was your role during the crisis? (Unintelligible) to the president of Liberia. Thank you.
MARTIN: And of course, during this you were speaking for all of the women who you represent. Can I ask you - and I hope it's not a ridiculous question - were you afraid?
Ms. GBOWEE: I was angry. I was really, really mad. Just seeing this guy who had caused so much distress and pain to the people of Liberia, I was raging mad, and that anger really made me bold to speak out. There was a written text. Well, I refused to read that text. And one of the things his protocol people said was that they have set up a platform and my back would be to him and I read to the women. I told him, no. Tell Taylor, I didn't come to read to those women. So it's either you turn this podium around so that I'm facing him, or I will be out there. And one of them said, why do you want to get yourself in trouble? And I said, but this is the reason we came. So I turned the thing around halfway and was facing him and talking to him.
MARTIN: How did you feel when it was over?
Ms. GBOWEE: I still felt anger, but I also felt that I think I had delivered a message because immediately afterwards, he came up and made a commitment that he was going to the peace talks.
MARTIN: And he did. And he did go to the peace talks, and of course, as many know, eventually Taylor was removed from power. In fact, he is facing prosecution in international court for war crimes now. And earlier this month, his son was sentenced to 97 years in prison for mutilations and executions carried out in Liberia in the course of the war. This was the first U.S. prosecution for tortures that were committed abroad. How do you feel about all these? Do you feel that justice has now been served - is being served?
Ms. GBOWEE: Well, it's a difficult thing, especially if you look at Taylor and his son - especially his son, you see at least people will have lived to see someone give account for what he did to the Liberian people.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee.
I understand that you served as the commissioner designate for the Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and you've already told us so much, but I want to play a short clip of a woman telling a story about her experiences, and here it is.
Unidentified Woman #2: And when they got there, they arrested her husband, told him to lie down flat on the ground. Then her daughter, by then was 12, have just started to menstruate. They grabbed her, to her say, spread it, lie down on the ground. And she says she saw this fighter took out a long knife and to her said, woman, stand up, sing, clap and dance.
MARTIN: This is an awful, awful story, and I don't believe we can tell all of this, but I think people can understand what it is that we're trying to say here. You've talked about how you still have to see some of these people, you know, in your everyday life. I mean, you live in Ghana now. You're in Liberia two weeks of every month, so you and other people have to run into people who committed these acts. How do you move on from this?
Ms. GBOWEE: To be honest with you, it's a real difficult process. What personally for me gets to me as I do my work - currently the work that I do in Liberia, we're working with the parliamentary Defense and Security Committee looking at women within the security sector and what policy and legislation. And just to cut this long story short, some of the committee members that we have to deal with unfortunately were former warlords. You know what they did to different communities, and they managed to get elected, and these are parliamentarians. These are the ones making the laws. These are the ones deciding which policy gets enacted. And sometimes I sit at the table with these people and I'm raging inside. You know, just thinking, boy, what do we do? And this is not just a one person feeling, it's a general feeling within Liberia.
MARTIN: How do you think your president is doing? I mean, many people around the world were so encouraged when Liberia elected Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Do you feel that the country is moving forward now?
Ms. GBOWEE: The country is - in terms of reconstruction, in terms of infrastructure development, the country is definitely moving forward. But as an activist, my biggest worry is how is this woman going to reconcile this country? What is the process? What would be the first step? How do we start talking in a country that is so deeply divided?
MARTIN: Finally, do you have any wisdom to share? Perhaps to a younger you who is just starting this sort of path of awakening that you've been on.
Ms. GBOWEE: Well, one of the things that I always say is never despise a humble beginning. That's my word of wisdom. No matter how small, if you have a conviction that this is something that is going to change your community, if you have a conviction that this is something that is going to change your family, if you have a conviction that this is something that is going to do some good, step out and do it. That's one.
The second word of wisdom that I would like to leave with the American people, in the face of evil, in the face of depravation, in the face of a lot of horrible things when you turn on your radio, people sometimes lose hope, that evil is winning. But I just want you to know that from a tiny part of West Africa, a group of women there taught me to know that in this life, good always overcome evil. Thank you.
MARTIN: Leymah Gbowee is the executive director of the Women Peace and Security Network Africa based in Accra, Ghana. She's a founding member and former coordinator of the Women in Peacebuilding Program, West African Network for Peacebuilding, and during her tenure, she was one of the key leaders who worked to bring peace to Liberia. We caught up with her when she was in the U.S. promoting the Chicago release of the documentary, "Pray the Devil Back to Hell." To find out more about the film and how you can see it where you live, please go to our Web site, npr.org. Leymah Gbowee, I thank you so much for speaking with us.
Ms. GBOWEE: You're welcome, Michel.