Byline: Eliza Griswold
Liberia's brutal civil war made a fearless leader out of Leymah Gbowee.
"I couldn't even scream. I had never seen someone killed before. The dead boy's bloody body lay where it fell, and I was frozen." This searing moment, in the summer of 1990, would come to symbolize for young Leymah Gbowee the end of all she knew and the beginning of Liberia's brutal, 14-year-long civil war. Soon, the plucky and ambitious teenager with dreams of becoming a doctor would learn that one of her professors had been killed, along with his entire family; that a girl she knew had been raped; that another boy in her circle had been shot to death while passing through an Army checkpoint because a soldier coveted his brand-new sneakers.
"At 17, you're not used to thinking about death, especially your own," she writes in her memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War, written with journalist Carol Mithers and newly published by Beast Books (an imprint of this company). "But now it was all around, and I was forced to realize that it could come at any time."
That first terrifying summer of the war, Charles Taylor's rebel band was closing in on Gbowee's hometown, the capital city of Monrovia. (The sitting president, Samuel K. Doe, was ultimately captured and tortured to death by a rival rebel leader, who filmed Doe's execution and sold videos of it on the streets of the city.) Gbowee and her family fled their home for shelter in a compound that belonged to their church, getting by in a world where rice, a staple, was so scarce, people began referring to it as "gold dust."
"Fear was the first feeling when I opened my eyes every morning," she writes. "Then gratitude: I'm still living. Then fear again. While you're thankful for being alive, you worry about being alive. People said the rebels were merciless. But all around me, the government forces were killing, too."
Gbowee and her family were among the lucky ones, making an escape by boat to a refugee camp in Ghana. Life there was grueling, and within a year she returned to a devastated Monrovia, struggling to survive, then seeking solace in a relationship with a man who abused her and with whom she eventually had four children. Battling fear and privation, she felt tremendous anger at the suffering of women in civil conflicts but also helplessness.
And then an extraordinary thing happened. Leymah Gbowee found her voice. In 1999 she was introduced to a fledgling network of women working to bring peace and social justice to West Africa. She quickly discovered a focus for her talents--and a way to fight against the war that threatened to destroy her. In a dream, almost a religious vision, she heard a voice telling her quite clearly to "gather the women to pray for peace." The result was the creation of the country's first Christian-Muslim alliance, which eventually grew into the Liberian Mass Action for Peace, a nonviolent women's protest movement that helped end the dictatorship of Charles Taylor and the war.
Gbowee has become famous for her role in persuading thousands of ordinary women to dress all in white and demonstrate day after day, month after month, for an end to the fighting. One incident in particular stands out: in the middle of internationally sanctioned peace talks in Ghana in 2003, Gbowee grew enraged at the sight of warlords living in comfort at a luxury hotel while in Monrovia ordinary men and women--and children--starved to death. "General Leymah" decided to hold the powerful thugs and bureaucrats hostage.
"The world shrank for me into this one moment--I knew what I had to do," she writes. "I was so angry, I was out of my mind." She stood outside the conference chamber, flanked by her battalion of women protesters, and started to take off her clothes. In Africa, it's a curse to see your mother naked, a spiritual emasculation. To stop the war, Gbowee was threatening, in essence, to castrate them all.
"Madam, please, lead your women out of here," she was urgently instructed. "No!" she shouted defiantly.
It changed the momentum. The warlords stayed at the table and began the slow work of hammering out a lasting peace.
Taylor was later put on trial in The Hague for war crimes committed in neighboring Sierra Leone, and a verdict is expected soon. Gbowee believes the trial should have been held in Africa. She writes, "Taylor has yet to be tried for the vicious crimes he committed against those of his own country or be called to account for the vast wealth he stole, the futures he wrecked, the land he destroyed. He has yet to answer to Liberia. To us."
But Gbowee is moving on, focusing on Liberia's upcoming presidential election, scheduled for fall. If chaos breaks out, it could lead to a return to civil war. To guard against this threat, she has mobilized a team of women from nine West African countries--Liberia, Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Mali, and Burkina Faso--to serve as election monitors for the first time in her country's history. She employed a similar effort among Liberian women to help elect Africa's first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in 2005.
Gbowee hopes that her memoir will offer inspiration and courage to the millions of others--especially women--working to create peace around the world. People just like her.
"And me? As I write this, I am thirty-nine years old. The story I have just told you is only the first part of my journey."