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When Moammar Gaddafi was killed by Libyan rebels in 2011, his obituaries featured a litany of the atrocities committed in his 42 year rule.
But hardly a word was said about his harem: women and men who were kept trapped for Gaddafi to rape when he pleased.
That world has now been brought to light through the story of one of the young woman who was in the harem.
Annick Cojean is a special correspondent for Le Monde and author of “Gaddafi’s Harem: The Story of a Young Woman and the Abuses of Power in Libya.”
The book focuses on the story of Soraya, whom Gaddafi met when he visited her school. She was chosen to present him with flowers.
The next day she was taken from her home and put in the harem. She stayed there for five years.
Cojean says in Libya, where the conservative culture does not allow for the discussion of sex, women who have been raped are not seen as victims, but as a guilty party.
“In western countries we hear about taboo and think it’s a delicate subject, but this is a matter of death and life,” Cojean told Here & Now.
By Annick Cojean
Soraya and her dark eyes, her sullen mouth, and her big resounding laugh. Soraya, who moves quick as lightning from laughter to tears, from exuberance to despondency, from cuddly affection to the hostility of the wounded. Soraya and her secret, her sorrow, her rebellion. Soraya and her astonishing story of a joyful little girl thrown into the claws of an ogre.
She is the reason for this book.
I met her in October 2011, on one of those jubilant and chaotic days following the capture and death of the dictator Muammar Gaddafi. I was in Tripoli for the newspaper Le Monde investigating the role of women in the revolution. It was a frenzied period and the subject fascinated me.
I was no expert on Libya. In fact, it was my first time visiting the country. I was enthralled by the incredible courage of those fighting to overthrow the tyrant who had ruled for forty-two years, but also genuinely intrigued by the complete absence of women in the films, photographs, and reports that had recently appeared. The other insurrections of the Arab Spring and the wind of hope that had blown across this region of the world had shown the strength of the Tunisian women, present everywhere in public debates, and the confidence and spirit of Egyptian women, whose courage was clear as they demonstrated on Tahrir Square in Cairo. But where were the Libyan women? What had they been doing during the revolution? Was it a revolution they had wanted, initiated, supported? Why were they hiding? Or, more likely, why were they kept from view in this country that was so little known, whose image was monopolized by their buffoon of a leader, who had made the guards of his female corps—the famous Amazons—into the standard-bearers of his own revolution?
Male colleagues who had followed the rebellion from Benghazi to Sirte had told me they’d never come across any women other than a few shadows draped in black veils, since the Libyan fighters had systematically refused them any access to their mothers, wives, or sisters. “Perhaps you’ll have better luck!” they said to me with a touch of irony, convinced that in this country history is never written by women, no matter what.
On the first point they were not incorrect. Being a female journalist in the most impenetrable of countries offers the wonderful advantage of having access to the entire society and not just to its men. Consequently, it took me just a few days and many encounters to understand that the role of women in the Libyan revolution had been not only important but, in fact, vital to its success. A man who was one of the rebel leaders told me that women had formed “the secret weapon of the rebellion.” They had encouraged, fed, hidden, transported, looked after, and equipped the fighters, as well as providing them with information. They had moved money to purchase arms, spied on Gaddafi’s troops on behalf of NATO, redirected tons of medications, including from the hospital run by the adopted daughter of Muammar Gaddafi (the same one he—untruthfully—said had died after the Americans bombed his residence in 1986). These women had risked unbelievable things: arrest, torture, and rape. Rape—considered to be the worst of all crimes in Libya—was common practice and an authorized weapon of war. They had committed themselves body and soul to this revolution. They were fanatic, spectacular, heroic. “Women had a personal account to settle with the Colonel,” one of them told me.
A “personal account” . . . I didn’t immediately understand the significance of this remark. Having just endured four decades of dictatorship, didn’t every Libyan have a communal account to settle with the despot? The confiscation of individual rights and liberties, the bloody repression of opponents, the deterioration of the health and education systems, the disastrous state of the country’s infrastructure, the impoverishment of the population, the collapse of culture, the misappropriation of oil profits, and the isolation on the international stage . . . why then this “personal account” of women? Had the author of the Green Book not endlessly proclaimed that men and women were equal? Had he not systematically presented himself as their fierce defender, raising the legal age for marriage to twenty, condemning polygamy and the abuses of the patriarchal society, granting more rights to divorced women than existed in most other Muslim countries, and founding a Military Academy for Women open to candidates from all over the world? “Nonsense, hypocrisy, travesty!” a famous woman judge would later tell me. “We were all his potential prey.”
It was at that same time that I first met Soraya. Our paths crossed the morning of October 29. I was completing my investigation and was ready to leave Tripoli the next day to go back to Paris, via Tunisia. I was sorry to be going home. Although, admittedly, I had obtained an answer to my first question, concerning women’s participation in the revolution, and was returning with a whole supply of stories and detailed accounts that illustrated their struggle, so many questions remained unanswered. The rapes perpetrated en masse by Gaddafi’s mercenaries and troops were an insurmountable taboo, locking authorities, families, and women’s organizations inside a hostile silence. The International Criminal Court, which had launched an investigation into these rapes, was itself confronted with terrible difficulties when its lawyers tried to meet with the victims. As for the sufferings that women endured before the revolution, these were brought up only as rumors, accompanied by many deep sighs and furtive glances. “What’s the use of bringing up such vile and unforgivable practices and crimes?” I’d often hear. Never a first-person testimony. Not even the slightest story from a victim that might implicate the so-called Guide.
But then Soraya arrived. She was wearing a black shawl covering a mass of thick hair pulled into a bun, large sunglasses, and loosely flowing pants. Full lips gave her the appearance of an Angelina Jolie look-alike, and when she smiled a childlike spark lit up her face, which was beautiful even though already etched by life. “How old do you think I am?” she asked as she took off her glasses. She waited, anxiously, and then spoke before I could answer: “I feel like I’m forty-two!” To her that was old—she was just twenty-two.
It was a brilliant day in Tripoli, a city on edge. Muammar Gaddafi had been dead for more than a week; the National Transitional Council had officially declared the country’s liberation; and Green Square, rebaptized to its former name, the Square of the Martyrs, had seen another crowd of euphoric Tripoli inhabitants come together the previous night, chanting the names of Allah and Libya in a performance of revolutionary songs and bursts of Kalashnikov fire. Each city district had bought a camel and slaughtered it in front of a mosque, sharing it with refugees from towns that had been devastated in the war. They said they were “united” and “in solidarity,” “happier than they could ever remember being.” They were also worn out, completely spent. Incapable of going back to work and picking up the normal routine. Libya without Gaddafi . . . it was unimaginable.
Gaudy vehicles kept on crossing the city, discharging rebels from hoods, roofs, and car doors, flags blowing in the wind. The drivers were honking, each brandishing a weapon like a treasured girlfriend you might take to a party. They were shouting “Allahu Akbar,” embracing, making the V for Victory sign, a red-black-and-green scarf tied around his head pirate style or worn as an armband, and never mind the fact that not every last one of them had fought from the first moment on or with the same courage. Since the fall of Sirte, the Guide’s last bastion, and his immediate execution, everyone was declaring himself a rebel.
Soraya was looking at them from a distance and feeling depressed.
Was it the atmosphere of rowdy joy that made the malaise she’d felt since the Guide’s death more bitter? Was it the glorification of the revolution’s “martyrs” and “heroes” that took her back to her sad status of secret, unwanted, shameful victim? Did the revolution make her appraise the disaster of her life thus far? She had no words for it, was unable to explain it. All she felt was the burning sense of utter injustice. The anguish of being unable to express her grief and howl her rebellion. The terror of having her wretchedness, unheard of in Libya and much too difficult to explain, summarily dismissed. It wasn’t possible. It wasn’t right.
She was nibbling at her shawl, nervously covering the lower half of her face. Tears appeared on her cheeks, but she quickly wiped them away. “Muammar Gaddafi ruined my life,” she said. She had to talk—the memories were too much to bear silently. “I have scars,” she said, scars that were causing her nightmares. “No matter what I say, no one will ever know where I come from or what I’ve been through. No one could ever imagine. No one.” She shook her head in despair. “When I saw Gaddafi’s body displayed to the crowd I felt a brief moment of pleasure. Then I had a terrible taste in my mouth. I had wanted him to live. To be captured and put on trial, to be judged by an international court. I wanted him to account for his actions.”
For Soraya was a victim. One of those victims that Libyan society doesn’t want to hear about. One of those victims whose dishonor and humiliation reflect on the whole family and the entire nation. One of those victims who are so disturbing and unsettling that it’s easier to make them the culprits. Guilty of having been victimized . . . With all of the strength a twenty-two-year-old girl could muster, Soraya energetically refused this. She dreamed of justice. She wanted to testify. What had been done to her and to so many others seemed to her neither innocuous nor forgivable. What was her story? She was about to tell it: the story of a barely fifteen-year-old girl whom Muammar Gaddafi noticed during a visit to her school and abducted the following day to become his sexual slave, together with other young girls. Imprisoned for several years inside the fortified residence of Bab al-Azizia, she was beaten, raped, and exposed to every perversion of a sex-obsessed tyrant. He had robbed her of her virginity and her youth, thereby preventing her from having any kind of respectable future in Libya’s society. She was bitterly aware of it. After weeping and lamenting over her situation, her family ultimately decided that she was no more than a slut. Beyond redemption. She smoked, never went out anymore, didn’t know where to go. I was speechless.
I returned to France shattered by Soraya’s story and reported it in an article in Le Monde, without revealing either her face or her identity. That would be too dangerous; they had already made her suffer enough. But then the story was picked up and translated all over the world. It was the first time that an account from one of the young women of that mysterious place of Bab al-Azizia had been circulated. Pro-Gaddafi websites denied it vehemently, indignant that the image of their alleged hero, who had done so much for the “liberation” of women, should be thus vilified. Although they had no illusions about the mores of the Guide, others considered it so horrifying that they had trouble believing it. The international media tried to find Soraya, but in vain.
I didn’t doubt her story for a second, as very similar tales that proved the existence of many other Sorayas were reaching me. I learned that hundreds of young women had been abducted for an hour, a night, a week, or years, and been forced to submit to Gaddafi’s sexual fantasies and violence by force or through blackmail; that he had networks available to him involving diplomats, military men, bodyguards, employees of the administration and the so-called Department of Protocol whose central mission it was to provide their master with young women—or young men—for his daily consumption. I learned that fathers and husbands would keep their daughters and wives confined in order to keep them away from the eyes and lust of the Guide. I found out that, born into a family of extremely poor Bedouins, Gaddafi was a tyrant who ruled through sex, obsessed with the idea of one day possessing the wives or daughters of the rich and powerful, of his ministers and generals, of chiefs of state and monarchs. He was prepared to pay the price. Any price. For him there were no limits whatsoever.
But the new Libya isn’t ready to talk of this. Taboo! However, no one hesitates to pour scorn on Gaddafi and to demand that light be shed on his forty-two years of depravity and absolute power. They list the physical abuse of political prisoners, the atrocities committed against opponents, the tortures and murders of rebels. They tirelessly condemn his tyranny and corruption, his deception and madness, his manipulations and perversions. And they insist on reparation for victims. But no one wants to hear about the hundreds of young girls whom he enslaved and raped. Those girls should just disappear or emigrate, wrapped in a veil, their grief bundled up inside a bag. The simplest thing yet would be for them to die. And some of the men in their families are prepared to take care of that.
I returned to Libya to see Soraya again. I collected other stories and tried to probe the networks of those under the tyrant’s heel. It would prove to be a high-pressure investigation. Victims and witnesses are still living in terror of tackling the subject. Some are the target of threats and intimidation. “For the sake of Libya, and for your own sake, drop this investigation!” some people advised me before abruptly hanging up the phone. And from his prison in Misrata, where he now spends his days reading the Koran, a bearded young man— who participated in trafficking young girls—told me in exasperation: “Gaddafi is dead! Dead! Why do you want to dig up his shameful secrets?” The minister of defense, Oussama Jouili, had a very similar position: “It’s a matter of national shame and humiliation. When I think of the affronts perpetrated on so many young people, soldiers included, I feel nothing but disgust! I assure you, the best thing to do is to keep quiet. The Libyans feel collectively tainted and want to turn the page.”
So there are crimes to be condemned and others to be camouflaged like dirty little secrets? Some victims are good and noble and others are ignominious? There are those who must be honored, favored, recompensed, and those on whom it is critical to “turn the page”? No. That is unacceptable. Soraya’s story is not an anecdote. Crimes against women—treated so casually, not to say complacently, throughout the world—are not a trivial matter.
Soraya’s story is courageous and should be read as a testimony, a historical document. I wrote it as she dictated it to me. She is eloquent, has an excellent memory, and cannot bear the thought of a conspiracy of silence. There is undoubtedly no criminal court that will one day bring her justice. Perhaps Libya will never even recognize the suffering of Muammar Gaddafi’s “prey” under a system that was created in his image. But, at least, while he was strutting about at the UN as if he were the master of the universe, while other nations rolled out the red carpet for him and welcomed him with great fanfare, while his Amazons were a subject of curiosity, fascination, or amusement, her testimony will be there to prove that at home, in his vast residence of Bab al-Azizia—or rather in its humid basements—Muammar Gaddafi was holding captive young girls who were still only children when they arrived.
Execerpted from the book GADDAFI’S HAREM © Editions Grasset & Fasquelle, 2012; Translation copyright © 2013 by Marjolijn de Jager; used with the permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.