Cecelia Danuweli is a commanding presence. Wearing an elegant African dress and gold scarf, long black braids exploding from the top of her head, she walks with an air of royalty. It’s a fitting entrance for a woman who helped liberate Liberia from warlords and end a civil war.
Danuweli was in Seattle for two days last week with American Jewish World Service for a screening of “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” a documentary about the thousands of Liberian women who helped bring an end to Liberia’s gruesome civil war. A committee of 28 local AJWS supporters hosted the event at the Frye Art Museum on Dec. 12.
AJWS, a human rights organization based out of New York, supports 13 organizations in Liberia, focusing efforts on food, land and water, and women, girls and sexual minorities. One of its grantees is the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP), the organization Danuweli joined in 2002 when she arrived in Liberia’s capital with her children and no job as the second Liberian civil war raged.
Danuweli’s mother was a young teenager when she conceived her daughter through rape. Raised by her grandmother, Danuweli managed to get a high school education and a scholarship to a professional school. This was 1988.
In 1989, Liberia’s first civil war swept the country. It lasted until 1997, when Charles Taylor took over. But in 1999, the second civil war began. Danuweli describes traveling 50 miles for just a cup of rice.
“Every checkpoint you find someone being killed,” she said. She was still young when she witnessed soldiers kill and dismember her stepfather.
“I was like, oh my God, I don’t need to stay here and continue seeing this atrocity and don’t talk about it,” Danuweli said. “I need to go out to make the world know that there are too many atrocities happening.”
Danuweli and her children walked through 27 checkpoints to Monrovia, the capital, a several weeks’ journey. Once there, in 2002, she was able to get a job with WANEP and activist Leymah Gbowee, who led the women’s nonviolent resistance movement that helped bring about the war’s end.
The movement of thousands of women, dressed in white t-shirts and white hair wraps, staged a nearly four-year sit-in at a field near Taylor’s mansion. “That t-shirt, when we wore that t-shirt, and went anywhere, people listened.”
When peace talks started stalling in 2003, the movement grew more aggressive. The women went to Accra, Ghana, where the peace talks were taking place. After protesting outside, the women decided to take more decisive action. They barricaded the hotel, cut off power and food, called the men’s mothers, and then, as a last resort, threatened to strip (it’s considered a curse for a man to see a married or elderly woman naked).
A peace deal was reached a few weeks later.
“We handled it the way we thought was best, and it worked,” Danuweli said. “The men, they knew that we were really serious.”
Despite the horror, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” is optimistic.
“It’s inspiring, it’s moving, it’s extraordinarily informative,” said Matthew Balaban, AJWS’ development associate in San Francisco, who accompanied Danuweli. “At the end you feel more uplifted. You have more of a sense of hope, hope for peace. Not only in Liberia, but hope for peace in the world, and for these types of movements to sprout up in other places.”
Today, under female president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia is a safer place, but the women are still hard at work attempting to stop corruption, bring justice, and pass bills that will protect women and make sexual violence a crime.
“We have some gender-sensitive men who are on the side of the women,” Danuweli said.
When they need something done, they put their white t-shirts back on and besiege the city, stopping to talk to no one but the president. “We don’t inform her [that we’re coming],” she said. People see them coming and wonder: “What is happening? There is something that they know about and they’ve come up to talk about it.”
The strategy is working: The women have been instrumental in bringing justice to victims of brutality. In one case, they brought enough proof to the president to have the perpetrators brought to justice in a matter of minutes.
They collect information vigilantly and rapidly, before police can call upon “lack of proof.”
“Even the government came to us to give them information,” she said. In a case of rape and murder that was staged as a suicide, Denuwali said the women had photos and information before the body was taken out of the house.
“We won that case. We won it. Because we made sure that every proof was given,” she said. “I’m speaking up for the truth. I’m speaking justice.”