'Pray The Devil Back To Hell' Tells Of Triumph The new documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, tells the extraordinary story of a group of Liberian women who banded together to end their nation's second bloody civil war. NPR's Tony Cox talks with one of the women, Leymah Gbowee, about how she stood up to Liberia's violent warlords.
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'Pray The Devil Back To Hell' Tells Of Triumph

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'Pray The Devil Back To Hell' Tells Of Triumph

'Pray The Devil Back To Hell' Tells Of Triumph

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TONY COX, host:

Here's another listener favorite.

(Soundbite of singing)

Unidentified Women: (Singing) Sing it Liberia We will go back, go back Our land of liberty Liberia is my home

TONY COX, host:

Now let's turn to West Africa. For more than a decade, Liberia has been struggling to recover from a civil war. The new documentary "Pray the Devil Back to Hell" is the extraordinary story of a group of Liberian women who banded together to end their nation's second bloody civil war.

(Soundbite of film)

Ms. LEYMAH GBOWEE (Leader, Liberian Mass Action for Peace): Liberia had been at war for so long.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Ms. GBOWEE: That my children had been hungry and afraid their entire lives. Some say the war was about the gap between the rich and the poor. Some also say that the war was about the hatred between the different ethnic groups. Others say the war was control natural resources. Power, money, ethnicity, greed, but there's nothing in my mind that should make people do what they did to the children of Liberia.

COX: Leymah Gbowee mobilized a coalition of Christian and Muslim women to stand up to Liberia's violent warlords and to the corrupt Charles Taylor regime. Ultimately, this unusual group of women helped bring peace to their war torn nation. Gbowee told me what motivated her to organize the women of Liberia.

Ms. GBOWEE: War fatigue, not having anything to lose because you lost everything. Being pushed so far back physically, psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, every way that we had two options. To come to death or fight back. And we decided to fight back. Not in a conventional way of the cowards that we had as warlords, but as heroes and heroines, meaning we used our bodies, put ourselves out there and conquered the evil force.

COX: Talking about some unusual tactics to fight and to be successful with, one of them that you mention in the film was denying sex to men, kind of going on a sex strike. How did that work out?

Ms. GBOWEE: Well, I must admit, in the urban area where I operated from, it was a bit difficult because every day we got stories of women coming back and saying, I had no control. But in the rural areas it was really, really successful because the women they had smaller communities, they were able to stay together and be together so they were together for like months at night, keeping vigils, praying together. So they could keep it on for a much longer time. But for us in the urban area it was quite difficult.

COX: Talk about that meeting that you had with Charles Taylor and what happened after you read your speech.

Ms. GBOWEE: One day I'm sitting there on the airfield with the women under a blazing hot sun, and this security guard come and said, my boss want to see you. And then I said, tell your boss I'm in my office, he should come down see me. So he got out of his car, walked to me and said, why are you so disrespectful? Anyway, the president would like to see you all on so-and-so day.

The thing was, Taylor was such a fearful person, no one thought that the women would come out in their numbers on that day. So we went and told the women to form a line. And they formed a line, and when this security guard just saw sea of white marching, coming towards the place he was like, oh my God.

So on the way up to his office, they announced that the president is coming down to meet you all. He came down and they offer us seats, and we refused the seats and sat on the floor. And the people were asking, why did we sit on the floor? And the thing was, when we are running away from the bullets and the shooting and the fighting, we don't take chairs with us. We don't take us beds us, we don't take shoes with us. We don't even have food. So that was like symbolically saying, you stop the war, our way of protesting to him.

So after I actually read the statement that was given to me by instructions of the women, it was just an emotional time, not just for me, for a lot of the women. I went to that meeting with a lot of anger in me. Seeing Taylor really brought it up.

(Soundbite of meeting with President Charles Taylor)

Unidentified Man: Ms. Leymah Gbowee, coordinator of the Women in Peace Building Network.

Ms. GBOWEE: We are tired of running. We are tired begging for (unintelligible). We are tired of our children being raped. We are now taking this stand so as to secure the future of our children, because we believe as custodians of society to the world, our children will ask us, Mama, what was your role during the crisis? Kindly convey this to the president of Liberia. Thank you.

COX: Now one of the things you mentioned are peace talks. That was one of the dramatic scenes in the documentary when you went to Ghana and you barricaded the site of the peace talks and you even prevented some of the negotiators from escaping through a window on the side. Talk about the significance of that. Was that sort of the last straw, the last stand?

Ms. GBOWEE: It was either that action or getting AK-47 and killing everyone else in that room. Because we had gone to Accra with the hope that we're there for two weeks, and it was three months later. Three months of people getting fatter, looking good, warlords who looked like nothing when they came to that peace talk. And it was three months of constant bombardment of the city. Deaths, 200 deaths every day. Liberia is a country of three million people. if you have 200 persons dying every day, you know that you're depleting our population.

So it was just painful. It was the last thing we could do. So barricading the hall, and then the security coming up to me and saying I was obstructing justice and threatening to arrest me, it was like it can't get worse than this. So since I'm going to prison, let me just strip naked in protest of the pain that we are feeling and in protest of what these people have brought us to. Because they had actually brought the people of Liberia to disgrace, disrepute, whatever word you want to use.

We didn't have any form of respect in the sub-region any more. So one Liberian woman stripping naked was nothing as compared to what the entire nation was feeling at the hands of few persons.

COX: What about the reaction of the women who were both in the film who had speaking parts who were part of the movement, as well as those that we saw every day out in the field wearing white? We didn't hear from them. When they saw the film, what was their response to it?

Ms. GBOWEE: It was very emotional. I saw the making of that film, and every time I watched the parts, the pieces that were being put together, I cried. And that was the same reaction with every woman who worked - who was interviewed, who worked. Because for us it was like unbelievable. We didn't know the magnitude of the struggle that we went through, you know. Because it was almost like a struggle for life. You know, not that we didn't place any value on what we were doing, but it wasn't like something you plan to do. It was a survival mechanism.

So looking back at some of the things that we had to do because our future and the future of our children were at stake was something that really, really took us back again to tears. And I think people after seeing the film went back with the feeling that this can never happen to the people of Liberia any more.

COX: The film ends on a very hopeful note, with the election of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Is there still hope in Liberia now today?

Ms. GBOWEE: There is immense hope. And one of the things that I said initially when we started this work, my goal was to motivate women to step out and do something for their future. The election of Ellen has motivated women beyond, has given them hope beyond what we ever thought we'll accomplish in our work. So now my job is to create opportunities for those motivated women and girls. There's so much hope, so much possibility within that country right now. Especially as it relates to the women and the youth of the country.

COX: Leymah, thank you so much. A wonderful story.

Ms. GBOWEE: Thank you.

COX: That was Leymah Gbowee, who's featured in the documentary "Pray the Devil Back to Hell." She led a group of Liberian women to help end the nation's civil war.

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