Firebrand for Peace

Article excerpt

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. …