Directed by: Cynthia Travis

Written by: Cynthia Travis

Emerging from a long and brutal civil war, Liberia has endured one of Africa’s bloodiest conflicts, which has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people and displaced countless refugees into neighboring countries. Once viewed as a beacon of hope, Liberia was established by the American Colonization Society as a new home for freed slaves from the United States. But, since its founding, Liberia has been plagued by long-standing ethnic friction, corruption and civil war.

THE FIGHT TO FORGIVE is the story of six teenagers from Liberia who were forced to either fight as child soldiers or flee their country’s brutal civil war. After surviving the war, the young ex-combatants have traded their weapons for cameras and soccer balls and train as grassroots peacebuilders. As they re-enter villages after years of trauma and isolation, these young Liberians discover that their future and a lasting peace for their developing nation depends on one final personal battle--the fight to forgive both themselves and the adults who forced them to kill.

Today, after participating in peacebuilding initiatives run by the non-profit organization Everyday Gandhis and years of intense personal healing, the ex-combatants call themselves the Future Guardians of Peace. Through photography and community outreach activities, these young adults are rediscovering themselves and reconnecting with their communities. As grassroots peace-builders, they are organizing soccer games for peace, environmental clean-up campaigns, and peer mentoring workshops dedicated to building healthy, peaceful relationships.

With unprecedented access to young ex-combatants and their former commander, the film follows the group for five years of life after war:
Mohammed, who saw his father shot, and was told by the soldiers who murdered his father, if he cried, then he too would be shot; Lassana, a self-described former “killing machine,” who dreams of going to school and becoming a journalist; Morris, who wants to inspire people to embrace nonviolent conflict resolution; Ezekiel, who is rejected and shunned by his community for being an ex-combatant; Varlee, who wants nothing more than to complete his education so he can teach others; and Akoi, a walking miracle, who survived a direct hit to the head from a rocket-propelled grenade.

Former rebel commander General Leopard, who now calls himself Christian Bethelson, has committed his life to peacebuilding. Working with Bethelson, the former commander of some of the boys and now peace-building mentor, the ex-combatants work to overcome their past horrors and present day struggles. Bethelson and the boys work everyday to make amends for their past. For both the boys and Bethelson, the hardest fight is to forgive themselves for their atrocities during the war.

Storytelling and photography are at the heart of the ex-combatant training program. Once the ex-combatants are introduced to the art of photography, the former child soldiers have a tool for self-expression, self-discovery, and re-connection with their villages. Previously ostracized by their communities, the former child soldiers use their photography to approach and connect with fellow villagers. Photography is not only a tool for artful self expression and storytelling, but also a powerful tool for grassroots peacebuilding.

International aid workers estimate that 20,000 children, some as young as 8, were recruited as child soldiers by both government and rebel factions. By United Nations estimates, 250,000-500,000 are active worldwide, with uncounted numbers of former fighters who remain traumatized and vulnerable to being re-recruited. One can’t help but wonder what hidden gifts of peacemaking lie in the hearts of the tens of thousands of ex-combatants like the boys featured in the film.

Woven from their stories and artful photographic reflections of post-conflict life, the film teaches us that peace is possible, even in the most traumatized and divided regions of the world. THE FIGHT TO FORGIVE is a lesson on the hard, personal work that peace requires and offers an inspirational model for grassroots peacebuilding across the world.