Film aims to rebuild post-war Liberia
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Film, discussion examine peace movements
Former Liberian president Amos Sawyer came to UNLV to bring attention to alternative dispute resolutions and challenges faced by the Liberian nation after the nation’s 1997-2003 second civil war.
After a screening of “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” a movie shedding light on the role women played in ending the civil war, Sawyer led a panel discussion in Greenspun Hall Friday night. He spoke to a packed room for nearly 20 minutes and sparked discussion on the rebuilding process in Liberia after the war.
Aleo Faday, a Liberian who now lives in Las Vegas, said he rushed over to UNLV to hear Sawyer speak. He excitedly shook Sawyer’s hand after the discussion.
“He’s the former commander-in-chief of my country,” Faday said. “He had a strong ambition to protect the people of Liberia.”
The Saltman Center for Conflict Resolution sponsored the lecture.
Patrick Duffy, a friend of Michael and Sonja Saltman, said Amos Sawyer’s speech was, “short, concise and spot on.”
Sawyer spoke of women in Southeastern Liberia whom he said were tired of seeing their children die.
“They released the white rooster, defied men and defied traditions,” Sawyer said.
He went on to say that Liberian men often start wars while women play the role of peacemaker.
“The tradition of women working for peace runs deep in Liberia,” Sawyer said.
The women’s peace movement in Liberia led to the 2005 election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first woman president in Africa.
Sawyer explained what he views as a paradox in Liberian culture.
“While women are doing these great things, they are still under-privileged,” he said.
He added that 18 percent of Liberian women are illiterate, but they produce 75 percent of the food for the country.
“They’re the managers of our lives,” Sawyer said.
Sawyer said he is working to educate Liberian women and allow them access to health care. He said strong institutions will be required to help Liberia move forward.
Liberia, he said, previously had an overly centralized government.
“The president had power when it came to the budget, courts and appointments of all the local government officials down to the town jailer,” he said.
Sawyer said the centralization of government could concentrate near total power in the hands of the president.
“This is too much power, even for an angel,” he said, as the audience laughed.
Lois Helmbold, chair of the women’s studies department, and Tiffiany Howard and Michele Kuenzi, two assistant professors from the political science department, also spoke on the panel.
Helmbold said she has studied societies where proof of masculinity is required, which can eventually lead to violence.
“That proof comes in the form of fighting,” she said, adding that proof of femininity is not often required of women in similar societies.
In 1847, conflict arose when former slaves set up a government where 95 percent of the country, the indigenous Liberians, was excluded from the economic and political systems.
Helmbold began by saying she hoped to make sense of the obscurity of information in the United States about the second Liberian civil war.
The lack of information on the topic can be partially attributed to the lack of focus of importance media and different parts of the country place on the subject, Helmbold said.
“When you’re in a place like Las Vegas, Michael Jackson is what’s on the front page,” she said.
She said she thinks Americans are trained to be ignorant about other parts of the world unless the United States is directly involved in the area.
Kuenzi said she wanted to convey “the importance of group action,” adding that she hopes people see the need to support African countries as they attempt to strengthen state institutions and democratize.
Jean Sternlight, a professor and director of the Saltman Center, said she hoped to educate people about non-violence and how it worked in Liberia.
“I think we can use that approach more broadly in our country,” she said.
The Saltman Center for Conflict Resolution, created in 2003 at the William S. Boyd School of Law, attempts to provide a venue for discussion about different disputes and conflicts around the world and methods which may help tackle them.