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"Peace is not an event, it's a process" - Interview with Liberian woman peace activist Etwede Cooper
Politics, 29 Apr 2009 - Africaserver Magazine
Protesting in front of the UN Envoy at Mamba Point, Monrovia (Pray the Devil Back to Hell, Pewee Flomoku)

Late 2003 saw the end of the brutal civil war that had plagued Liberia for some fifteen years. Although the attention of the world was focused on the warring factions and the role of the neighbouring countries and international organisations, Liberian women played an essential role in bringing peace. Africaserver Magazine spoke to Etweda Cooper, one of their leaders and spokeswomen.
 
Early April Etweda "Sugars" Cooper visited The Netherlands as a guest of the Movies that Matter film festival, where Pray the Devil Back to Hell was shown. This documentary highlights the campaign of the women of Liberia to bring peace to their country.

We talked to her a few days after the film was screened.

First one question. At the screening, you said you wanted to visit the international court (where Charles Taylor is prosecuted for war crimes he committed in Sierra Leone). I can imagine it must be fascinating for you to go there.

I don't know if it might be so fascinating or if it will bring back... Though you know those are feelings, emotions you cannot erase and normally you try to keep some of them in the inner recesses of the brain, that does not mean it's not there. It's there, in your memory and you can't really ever forget. And I feel, like many other Liberians, that Charles Taylor should be tried for crimes against humanity he committed against Liberians, not in another country. And not Charles Taylor alone, there are so many other members of the warring factions who should be on trial for the same things. For utilisation of child soldiers, for drugging those children, for abuse, sexual violence against women, rape, for atrocities committed. We think there are many other players who also should be brought to justice.

(The focus in the film is on the last years of the conflict. The civil war goes back longer than that, as does the involvement of women for peace.)
Before the campaign started to stop the war, was there already some kind of an organisation in place?

At the start, Liberian women did not want the war and they did not see it coming. Some thought it was just a coup de etat against Doe. But when it actually came, there were a lot of women, sometimes in organisations, who were involved in humanitarian relief. Even during the war, when you thought your house was safe, you would put up fifty, sixty persons who sought refuge. We would make do, sleep on the floor, share meals. So women were involved in that kind of humanitarian relief action before.

In 1994 a group of women, who belonged to the Women's Development Organsation of Liberia, were discussing the crisis and the fact there were so many peace conferences and negotiations and agreements. And we felt our country was made to sacrifice by hooligans, gangsters who were not fighting for an ideology, or to free anybody, but just because they wanted power, money and control of the natural resources. They were greedy people. When we realised that, we said, we are victims, but look at what's happening to our children, what's happening to our country? As women we are natural peacemakers, that is something we do every day in our homes, we are skilled negotiators, that is something we do every day, we know how to compromise if you have to make a compromise. We are also stakeholders, just as much as these warlords. We have to secure the future for our children and our grandchildren so therefore we have to do something about it. Then we decided to call a meeeting to see what we could do, because we were convinced we can do something. The first thing we did we began mobilising women, we had an announcement put out on the radio and everywhere else to say that if you were a Liberian woman and you wanted peace, you should come to our meeting in the City Hall. More than 500 women came.

Out of that was born the Liberian Women Initiative, that worked towards peace. We had a peace agreement, in 1996. 1996-1997 we had disarmament and in 1997 we had elections. The Liberian population, out of fear, out of whatever, voted for Charles Taylor. They felt he had the strongest warring faction, so there would be war again if they did not vote for him.

There were many of us who campaigned against him, who did not understand why people voted for him but they did. Not very long after that we had crisis again, and again. This time again we looked at the strategies we had used during the last campaign to bring peace and what else we could do now. One of the new strategies we developed was that we would sit in a particular place and we would sit there until we had peace. So we sat at this public place called the Airfield Fish Market, we sat in the sun, in the rain, when the bullets were flying or not, we held silent marches in the streets, we went to peace talks as well, like we had done before in the 1990s. But even when we went to Accra, to the peace negotiatians, we organised the Liberian women in the refugee camps there to participate in the sit-ins. Women were still holding sit-ins in Liberia, not just in the Fish Market but also in towns and villages outside of the capital Monrovia, including the rural areas. We sat in those places even after the cease fire agreement had been signed, after the transitional government came into power, we sat their until after the elections. It was to make sure that this time the men would see that we were really serious, that we were persisting and that we were not going to allow them to derail the peace process. We realised that in 1997, after the elections, we said we would keep working on peace building but then we almost disappeared. That was a mistake we made the first time, we were not going to make that mistake again.

And we did have women from all walks of life, it was all ethnic variance, whatever education you had. We wore these white t-shirts and no jewelry of anything of the sort, to show how serious we were as we were mourning for our country, but also to equalise all of us. So we all felt and we all knew we were there for something very serious, the fate of our country and the future of our children.

I like to ask you about the ethnical divisions. In the movie one thing is very clear, it's about the religion, about Christian and Muslim women working together, and there is some remark in there that makes it clear that that is not something that just comes natural...

The thing is that in Liberia even though Christians and Muslims live in peace and have lived in peace for a very long time, we were not actually working together. It were a bit separate worlds. You may have a Muslim friend, you may have a Christian friend, Muslim children went to Christian schools, but after school it was a little bit separate. We did have ethnic divisions.

How many ethnic groups are there in Liberia?

About eightteen. They speak different languages. Some of the languages are related, but most Liberians communicate in Liberian English, a kind of pidgin or Creole English.

And if you look at it, the women were all people from different ethnic groups. You could have somebody from a settler family, like me, someone like Leymah Gbowee from the Kpelle ethnic group, somebody else would be Gio or Mano, again somebody else would be Krahn. Then there were old women, young women, middle-aged women, so the question was what we did have in common.

Although the instigators of the war said they were fighting for human rights, the war started with an ethnic undertone, that it was the Krahns and the Mandingos versus the Gios and the Manos.

Do you feel this was organised that way?

Yes. Because in the beginning, at the time Taylor started, the head of state was Krahn. And the majority of the people that came into Liberia with Taylor were Gios and Manos. And then, when the Mandingos joined the Krahns, it almost became a religious war because most people perceived Mandingos as being Muslims and so many times they were killing Muslims, even if they were not Mandingos. Muslims became automatically associated with the Mandingos, who had joined the government, and with that, the Krahns.

And the women's movement tried to break through these barriers

Yes. Everybody wanted peace. Everybody wants peace, even the warlords would like peace, but on their conditions. If I am the one in power, I want peace. If not, I'm going to break the peace to ensure I get the power and I get the money.

So we had to hold all of them accountable in a way that say, listen, no matter who you are and where you are, we as women are going to organise, and we are going to organise across warring faction lines as well, so that you all understand that the women of Liberia want peace. That's difficult. How do you convince somebody who sees you or anybody else as an enemy, because if I'm on this side of a divide and I'm trying to organise people on the other side, I'm an enemy and I may even see the others as an enemy. So, how do we meet? And that is why we chose the theme women and peace. That was what we had in common. And the fact that bullets don't carry names, they can hit anybody. If my sun kills your sun, both of us cry.

Liberia is now the first country in Africa to have a woman as chosen head of state. Does that reflect a general increase in the appreciation of women in Liberia, because of what happened?

Yes, I think it does. We heard men say that men had been in power for more than a hundred and fifty years and that we (women) had not really the necessary development. But we said it was about time to give women a chance. We also do have more women in important positions now. For instance, on the Superior Court of Liberia there are two women and three men, the cabinet is approximately 30 percent women. We have 30 percent women in government right at the time, at all levels. A lot of women were not educated in our country because it was thought that if you educated a woman she was going to take her education to another family or she was not going to develop her own family, so often boys were sent to school, but girls were not. Most of the unlettered people in Liberia are women. That concept is changing now. More and more girls are going to school now and we have programs to keep young girls in school. So yes, we have generally seen an increasing appreciation of women. Women are thought to be less corrupt than men, more committed to development for the country, more principled. The general perception is that a woman will try do do the best she can. With the programs that have been developed on the inclusion of women, men are now more and more seeing women are making a difference in Liberia and can make a difference in our world.

But there is also a very negative consequence of what happened before on the position of women in that there are still lots of cases of abuse.

There are and I don't want to call it normal, but when you come out of such a crisis, people are still very traumatised, there is a lot of unemployment, men tend to take out their frustration in violence, so we need to find a way to begin to heal people. Because we also realise and believe that if people are not healed mentally, they cannot really perform. How can you then develop a country? The other issue is that women became heads of households, and men were used to the reverse. Even if the woman took a decision, she was not given credit for it, the credit was given to the man. Now all of a sudden, in many instances, the women are saying I must be given credit for my decisions, I must be seen as a decision maker. I must be an active participant in discussions that are going on. I don't want to be a behind the scene particpant anymore. And of course, if you have been in power, you don't like that.

Are there any specific programs for healing?

There are some programs. We have now developed a national action plan for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (on women and war). Our national action plan was developed from the angle of a post-conflict perspective. In the West, for instance in The Netherlands, because you are a donor country, your national action plan is geared towards ways to put your money, how does it help to secure peace, what happens with training of your armed forces so that if they are going into a conflict zone they know how to relate to women. For us it's different. We looked for instance into protection of women, prevention of violence against women, participation of women and promotion of women. Under protection and prevention we have looked at policies and other things. One of the things in the national action plan is the development of a psychosocial counseling program and policy. The Ministry of Health is now for instance developing a mental health policy. And in the national action plan we are talking about training psychosocial counselors who will work within communities because we know that you can't counsel anybody in two or three days. Both men and women have been traumatised, so they do need a lot of counseling, a lot of bringing them out of this thing and making them whole citizens who are able to be productive, to participate in the rebuilding of our country.

That also goes for the former child soldiers?

Yes, it goes for everybody. Even young people who did not pick up guns are affected. Maybe their education was halted, they may have lost parents, young girls became heads of households. Men sometimes became so traumatised they became alcoholics, that's a disease. Those are things that need to be worked upon. There is high unemployment. If a man can't find work, he often resorts to violence or becomes abusive. When you're drunk, you become abusive a lot of times. And we need to look at the why and to counsel them so we can stop this circle. There is a lot of work to be done there. Peace is not an event, it's a process, a long, extended process. It will take years, it may even take generations. It means the peace building will have to continue for a very long time. We will constantly have to be on the alert, we have to be vigilant, we have to continue to be committed to the peace process. The organisation still exists, we are now working on conflict prevention, peace building, early warning signals, we are still in the process of building peace.

At the screening someone mentioned there are similar women groups elsewhere in Africa, for instance in Darfur and in Somalia. Are you in touch with other women in Africa?

Just before the Kenyan elections, Somali women from the diaspora were meeting in Nairobi to develop the Somali women agenda. This was the first time a large group of Somali women came together, from different organisations within and without of Somalia. I went there to try to share what the Libarian women had done. This is why I think this film can be used as a tool to inspire other women, to say "We can do this", it is not all hopeless. We do have contact with other women's organisations. Often we try to see how one or the other person from the organisation or another Liberian woman can go and share the story and see how we can work together as women. When Sierra Leone was having elections (1997) we went there. We went to different areas within Sierra Leone and joined with the Sierra Leone women in protesting in front of the headquarters of the various political parties, to tell them to stop the violence. So, as far as possible, we try to see how we can network with other women's organisations.

There is something like an economic crisis in the West now, do you see that having an influence in Liberia as well?

The economic crisis in the West will impact Africa, maybe not as much, because like in Liberia our economy is already down. We are trying to encourage investors though. Mittal Steel for instance had entered into negotiations with our government, but now even Mittal Steel maybe will not be able to pay some of their debts, their stocks have fallen, so they will have to retreat a bit, they will have to cut back. Even if they do that at the global level, Liberians will not get so much jobs out of it as we had hoped for.

Do you see a positive future for Liberia? Maybe not in a year, but in let's say ten years?

Definitely. I already see signs of reconstruction, I see the hope that Liberians have, I see Liberians trying to make an effort. If I travel and I come back, every time I see some new developments. Even despite the economic downturn, I see us moving forward, I see a bright future, probably in five or ten years things will be quite different from what they are now.
 
Willem Kerkhoven
 
One of the lasting results of the Liberian women's campaign for peace has been the formation of Women Peace and Security Network Africa (WIPSEN-Africa), a women-focused, women-led Pan-African Non-Governmental Organization with the core mandate to promote women's strategic participation and leadership in peace and security governance in Africa.

The Movies that Matter Festival is an initiative of the Dutch section of Amnesty International. It’s the successor of the Amnesty International Film Festival. The renewed festival is the festival of engaged cinema: an annual film and debate festival about human rights, human dignity and situations where these are at stake.

At this year's festival the Liberian women, represented by Etweda Cooper, have been awarded the Golden Butterfly, Amnesty International’s A Matter of ACT Award for the most imposing and inspiring protagonist in the program.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell
Credits: Gini Reticker, United States, 2008, 72 minutes

Interview with director Gini Reticker

Pray the Devil Back to Hell is available on dvd for community screenings. See the site for details.


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Sites for this article:
Women Peace and Security Network Africa (WIPSEN-Africa)
http://www.wipsen-africa.org/wipsen/

Pray the Devil back to Hell - site of the film
http://www.praythedevilbacktohell.com/v3/

Pray the Devil back to Hell - Movies That Matter site
http://www.amnestyfilmfestival.nl/film/2193#filmtitel

Peace is Loud
http://www.peaceisloud.org/

Human Rights Watch - Liberia
http://www.hrw.org/en/africa/liberia

WomenWarPeace.org - UNIFEM & Resolution 1325
http://www.womenwarpeace.org/about

PeaceWomen - Women's International League for Peace and Freedom
http://www.peacewomen.org/

Voice of America - Our Strength Comes From Our Bitter Past Say Liberian Women - interview with Leymah Gbowee
http://www.voanews.com/english/archive/2007-07/Our-Strength-Comes-From-Our-Bitter-Past-Say-Liberian-Women.cfm

Huffington Post - interview with film director Gini Reticker
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brad-listi/ipray-the-devil-back-to-h_b_144527.html

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