Crying for peace: Liberian women demonstrate at the American Embassy in Monrovia in 2003, as seen in 'Pray the Devil Back to Hell.' (Photo by Pewee Flomoku courtesy filmmakers)

Genuflection: 'Pray the Devil Back to Hell'

Dennis Harvey December 9, 2008

The violence that’s plagued parts of Africa throughout the modern era testifies not just to greed, corruption, cruelty or victimization, but the arbitrariness of defining nation-states themselves. Liberia is a perfect, if particularly bizarre, example. It was founded in the early 19th century by freed African American slaves who, despite their own historical oppression, began exercising a sort of colonialist domination over the west coastal region’s disparate indigenous peoples.

Complex tensions between that "Americo-Liberian" elite and some 16 distinct ethnic groups—as well as amongst the latter—finally led to coups, dictatorships and civil wars. The latter commenced in 1989. How their barely-interrupted progress over the next many years finally came to an end is chronicled in Gini Reiticker’s fine documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which opens Friday at SF’s Red Vic Movie House and Berkeley’s Shattuck Cinemas.

It’s an extraordinary story, and an inspirational one despite the darkest of circumstances. By 2002 over 200,000 Liberians had been killed, another one out of three displaced, by the combined mayhem of "horrific genius" President Charles Taylors’ authoritarian reign of terror, and the mostly rural L.U.R.D. opposition of governmentally-excluded ethnic warlords agitating for his overthrow. Exacerbating widespread hunger and poverty, both sides had armies not exclusive of very young (to 9 years’ age) boys sometimes encouraged to kill their own parents. Both committed widespread theft, rape, panicked mutilation and murder of civilians, as survivors harrowingly testify here.

One such interviewee notes her proud astonishment that "Women who lost everything still had hope." Hope enough to spark a Christian Women’s Peace Initiative, which grew into a movement uniting fed-up Liberian Muslim and Christian women alike.

With each combative side claiming religious justification, the women urged church authorities to condemn the distortion of faith to justify carnage. Since "Men were the perpetrators of violence," some encouraged the national sisterhood to pull a Lysistrata by withholding sex from all men until peace was achieved.

That’s just the early stuff in Pray. Liberia can now claim the continent’s first-ever female President (Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf), and, despite some ongoing destabilization, remains en route to genuine democracy. But the road getting to this still-tentative bright future was marked by plenty of shameful doings.

A concise (at just 72 minutes) but never rushed documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell illustrates something rather astonishing: Ordinary people rising up en masse to demand a whole nation refrain from unnecessary slaughter. Any country’s majority might sympathize with such a plaint at any time. But how often do they unite, link arms, and publicly insist the madness be stopped?

Warmongering is insidiously infectious. Why should peace-mongering be less so? Devil offers a blueprint for pacifist advocacy anywhere. Even here, we could use the lesson.