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Merlene Davis: Documentary of women waging peace in Liberia captivating

In Pray the Devil Back to Hell, Liberian women protest the war. Their T-shirts and white scarves were the movement's signature.
In Pray the Devil Back to Hell, Liberian women protest the war. Their T-shirts and white scarves were the movement's signature.

In 2003, I interviewed Bibi and Jemima Roberts, a Liberian couple who had moved to Lexington from their war-torn homeland. They were staying at the time with their son and were happy to be safe but saddened that they had left two grown daughters behind to carve out a life in war.

Their memories were fresh then.

"When you wake up in the morning, you clean up and get your clothes on," Jemima recalled back then. "If you have food, then you try to cook outside fast as you can, trying to get something in the system, because there was always a running spree.

"Once you heard a gun and people making noise, you just kept going. The enemy was behind," she said then. "...You didn't know where you were going. You were just following the group."

The troubles she and thousands of other Liberians lived through is documented in an inspiring film Pray the Devil Back to Hell. It will be shown at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at ArtsPlace, 161 North Mill Street. The screening is a part of Community Cinema, which hosts documentaries on the third Thursday of the month in Lexington and Louisville, sponsored by KET, LexArts, Louisville Film Society and ITVS which produces Independent Lens.

A schedule of future films can be found at Ket.org/communitycinema/screenings.htm.

In Lexington, the movie will be followed by a panel discussion about those troubling years in Liberia and how women there became the catalyst for peace.

Jemima Roberts will be on the panel, along with University of Kentucky political science Professor Karen Mingst and Lori Harmann-Mahmud, chair of the International Studies Program at Centre College.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell is the second of a five-part PBS series called Women, War & Peace. It will air at 10 p.m., Oct. 18 on KET2; at 3 a.m. Oct. 20 on KET; 4 a.m., Oct. 20 on KET2 and 2 p.m., Oct. 23 on KET. But you won't have to wait that long if you go Thursday night.

The documentary is one of the most inspiring movies I have ever seen. Maybe I feel that way because I am a woman, maybe because I could envision women reaching across religious boundaries to unite in an effort to stop the atrocities of war and to save their children, I don't know.

But when I was discussing the film with a visitor at the newspaper yesterday, he said the women sounded like Rosa Parks. Maybe that is why I loved it.

Whatever the reason, hearing the stories the women told of rape, of bearing the children of their rapists, of having their young sons seduced into taking up arms either as rebels directed by warlords or as defenders of then President Charles Taylor, took me on an emotional ride.

According to the film, by 2002, 200,000 Liberians had been killed and thousands of women had been raped by both factions.

Leymah Gbowee helped form the Christian Women's Peace Initiative. The group was soon joined by Muslim women despite fears that the union would dilute the Christian faith.

"Can a bullet pick and choose?" one woman asked in the film. Through quiet protests, through talks with their ministers and imams, and even through withholding sex from their husbands, they persisted.

They secured promises from both sides to begin peace talks in Ghana in 2003 and a few of them headed there, hoping their presence would keep things moving.

It didn't.

Frustrated, the women headed indoors and prevented the men from leaving. If the people of Liberia could survive without food and water, let the negotiators do the same.

The resolve of that movement was awesome and successful.

"We were in Liberia when it started," Jemima said from her home in Lexington. "I didn't take part in it, but I was not surprised that it succeeded. All through the war, the women stood up. When it started it was just a few women. Then it grew and grew and grew. I was not surprised."

Jemima, 67, and her husband, Bibi, 76, have fulfilled all the requirements to become U.S. citizens. They are waiting to be sworn in.

She is a former dietician, and Bibi, who earned an agricultural degree from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, serves as a foster grandparent for the pre-school at One Parent Scholar House, formerly Virginia Place.

Jemima returned to Liberia in 2007 when her brother died and was glad to see peace had returned although the ruins of war remained.

Still, she tries not to think about the past.

"No one should ever pray for war in any country," she said.

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