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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.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
And as we keep an eye on the situation at the Capitol, there was an attempted attack on the Russian embassy in Libya today. Russia evacuated its embassy staff, but it was a reminder that Libya is still struggling for stability following the revolution that led to the death of Moammar Gadhafi, who was killed by rebels in 2011.
His obituaries featured a litany of the grim realities of his 42-year rule, his role in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland, hit squads set up to assassinate Libyan dissidents who lived abroad, political opponents who were imprisoned, some sentenced to death. But hardly a word was said about his harem.
We're going to talk about it now, and we should note that this conversation may not be appropriate for younger listeners. There is a new book all about it called "Gaddafi's Harem: The Story of a Young Woman and the Abuses of Power in Libya." Joining us from the BBC Studio in Paris is the author, Annick Cojean, who is also a special correspondent for Le Monde. Annick Cojean, thank you so much for joining us.
ANNICK COJEAN: Hello, thank you.
HOBSON: Well, you went to Libya to report on Gadhafi's demise, and you were particularly interested in the role of women in the revolution there, and then you met Soraya.
COJEAN: Yes, exactly. I was there for La Monde. I wanted to know what the women had done during the revolution. You know, they were hidden. You couldn't see any report, any photograph, any documentary about the role of women in the revolution, and I wanted to know if they were hiding themselves, if people didn't want to show them, if they were supporting Gadhafi or on the country against him.
But there was a big secret about women, and my colleagues, mostly men colleagues, didn't write a word about women. So I came there for that first reason. And very quickly I realized that they had played a major role during the revolution. They had provided combatants with food, hiding, transportation, health care, very - lots of information. They had bought arms, appropriated medical supplies, provided intelligence on the pro-Gadhafi forces.
And they had really run incredible risks, especially the risk of being locked up and raped, given the fact that the Libyan dictator had turned rape into a weapon of war. And that stunned me. It was just unbelievable. And of course these women didn't talk about that. That was a completely taboo subject.
HOBSON: Well, tell us about what you found that happened even before the revolution because that is really the subject of your book. And let's start with Soraya. She was just a teenager. She was told that Gadhafi would be visiting her school, and she was going to be able to present him with some flowers.
And when he came in, he tapped her on the head. Tell us what happened next.
COJEAN: Oh well, you know, she was surprised, she was so excited, like all the girls of the school because the dictator was coming, the guide of the revolution. They were all were calling him Papa Gadhafi. And when he came, he just had a look on her. She was trembling, shaking because she didn't know if she had to kiss his hand or do something, say a special word or something, but she just gave him the flowers.
And he placed his hand, yes, on this (unintelligible) head in what was supposed to be an affectionate gesture, I guess, and this would be a signal to his bodyguards that means I want this one. And the next day three women came to her home and took her, obliged her mother to give her, while saying, you know, a stupid pretext, that, you know, she's been so good with Gadhafi yesterday that it would be good if she could offer him another bouquet, which was just stupid.
And they took her, put her in the car, and they drove to the desert. And then she was prepared, washed, shaven...
HOBSON: Given a blood test.
COJEAN: Yes, always. All the women who were supposed to be close to Gadhafi were always having a blood test, even, you know, even very important people, even professors, even deputies, members of the parliament, or it could be even wives of head of states, all - everybody was supposed to have a blood test.
And of course she had that, and then she was pushed in his bedroom, and he tried to rape her. He took some time because she fought, and she wasn't prepared. She was just a kid. She knew nothing about love, nothing about sex. This is, you know, you have to know it's very, very conservative country, and it just wasn't possible to imagine this kind of thing.
And, well, in fact he detained her for five years. She was put in his basement, and she was forced very quickly, against her will of course, to drink, to smoke, to take cocaine. She was put into a kind of harem, which was constantly being added to and which was, yes, located in his basement and could call her at any time of the day and night, and with very many other women who were coming from all parts of the countries and from different countries.
HOBSON: And not just women. There were men, as well.
COJEAN: Yeah, yeah, but that's even more taboo. Even the Libyans don't want to admit this idea right now, but yes, there were a lot of young men also.
HOBSON: We are speaking with Annick Cojean, special correspondent for Le Monde and author of "Gaddafi's Harem: The Story of a Young Woman and the Abuses of Power in Libya." We'll have more with her after a break.
But first an update on the breaking news from Capitol Hill today. There is a report that a police officer has been injured after gunshots were fired outside the Capitol Building, which was briefly put no lockdown. That lockdown has been lifted. The shooting occurred after a car chase up Constitution Avenue.
We will continue to follow this story and bring you the latest. We'll leave you on this note: Senator Bob Casey was near the scene. He said he had to crouch behind a car for protection. This is HERE AND NOW.
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HOBSON: It's HERE AND NOW. Let's continue our conversation now about some of the untold crimes of Moammar Gadhafi. His 42-year rule ended with his death in 2011, and many of his crimes have been well told over the year, but not his crimes against women, which are laid out in a new book called by Annick Cojean, a special correspondent with Le Monde. Her book is called "Gaddafi's Harem: The Story of a Young Woman and the Abuses of Power in Libya."
It focuses on one girl in particular, Soraya, who was taken into Gadhafi's harem after he met her at her school when she was just a teenager. Again, a note to listeners that we're talking about some of the realities of life in Libya under Gadhafi, and it may not be appropriate for younger listeners. And Annick Cojean, in the book you write in Soraya's voice about the day she was in the school. You say, quote, my heart was beating 100 miles a minute while everyone worked hard to make us look magnificent. As I look back to that scene today, I see it as preparing lambs to be led to slaughter.
COJEAN: Exactly, and, you know, I was very lucky because I met just by chance this young woman. And you know, it is just unbelievable that she accepted to talk. And I'm lucky because she has a very good memory. She can describe with lots of details the scenes. And she was very brave because lots of women had exactly the same story, and you can't find other testimonies like Soraya's now in Libya.
They are so ashamed. They are risking - she is risking her life...
HOBSON: Even if you are the victim of rape, you are seen as having sex outside of marriage.
COJEAN: It is terrible, and you know, crimes of honor exist still, a lot, in Libya. I've met two different young women, young girls, I should say, she was 16, they had been raped, and they had been killed for having been raped. But she wanted to talk, and that's the reason I wrote this story, because it concerns probably thousands of young women who have been raped by Gadhafi.
Sometimes he could take them for one hour, for a night, for a week, for a month, or for years. In Soraya's case, it was for five years.
HOBSON: Well, one of the interesting things is that she actually does get out at one point. Her father sneaks her out of Libya. She gets to Paris, and because she has lived in this insane world in Libya, under Gadhafi, she has no idea what to do, and she ends up coming back.
COJEAN: Oh, it is terrible. It's dispiriting, and oh yes, well, she was so ashamed of herself because she finally, yes, came back to Libya, and she was free, and she should have been more capable to stay in France. But she didn't speak the language, and you know, she - this kind of women has a very low self-esteem, and she was a body, and she had the feeling everybody was interested into her body. So her relationships with men were just - was just terrible.
Everybody was taking profit of her, et cetera. So it was just a disaster when she was in Paris. And since then, I would have liked - I wish she could come to Paris again, but she has very awful memories. You know, she just, she doesn't know how to make a living. She didn't know - she has no discipline. She was just escaping from the harem and had no relation, no idea what could be relationship between men and women.
So yes, her escape in Paris has been a disaster, and then she came back, and the minute she put a foot in Libya again, coming from the airport, immediately Gadhafi's people phoned her, and a couple of hours later she was back in his basement.
HOBSON: One of the images that many Americans have of Gadhafi is him standing there with these female guards, these amazons, and it appears from your reporting that they were not guards at all.
COJEAN: No, most of them were not. Well, some had been - had a small training at the women's military academy or at the police academy, but they were chosen to be in this special elite unit, elite just for the looks and because he wanted - he was attracted by all these kind of women.
And even Soraya, who is, you know, she was 15 when she was taken by Gadhafi, and when - every time she was accompanying him in different - in his various homes, she was obliged to wear the uniform of this unit and would have to pretend to be a battle-hardened soldier. Only a handful of these women, yes, were - had undergone some training. Most of them knew just nothing.
They didn't know how to fight. They had no idea at all. It was just a total sham.
HOBSON: Why do you think, Annick Cojean, that nobody wants to talk about this even now, after Gadhafi is out and dead? You have gone back in and tried to get people to tell you all about this. Many of them, it is clear from your interviews, knew what was going on, but they don't want to talk about it.
COJEAN: Oh no, no, in this society governed by religion and traditions, sex is a totally taboo subject, as I was saying. Victims and eyewitnesses were just so afraid to talk about this topic, and several of the people that I spoke with received threats and intimidation over - very often I was told it would be best for you, both you and Libya, if you were to abandon this investigation.
And at the very highest levels of government, the investigation was viewed as an affront, an insult. You know, as a rape of a young girl brings dishonor upon her entire family, especially upon the male members of the family, the rape of thousands of women by the country's former ruler inevitably brings dishonor upon the entire country. This society can't bear this kind of secret.
HOBSON: Are you optimistic about the future of women in Libya?
COJEAN: Oh, I don't know what to say. My temperament normally is I'm optimistic, but this is so complicated, really. You know, I had a big surprise also to see that there was twice a demonstration with posters with the cover of my book in French and in Arabic because it has been translated in Arabic. And so women were in the street and saying never again, please never again.
So, you know, it's - there's a little bit of debate now about that. Also there was an election. There have been - well, I was going to be say quite, but they have been democratic in a way, and there was a rather good surprise. And 30 women have been elected at the parliament also. So some of them mention and are very aware of the situation and are trying to, well, to protect and to defend women.
So at least they don't have this fear of the dictator because he was ready to - he was taking all occasion, wedding, school visit, university lectures, fashion shows, et cetera, to catch women. So this is finished, and it can't be worse, but still - it's still very, very complicated and very dangerous for women.
HOBSON: Well, it is an incredible book. Annick Cojean, the author of "Gaddafi's Harem: The Story of a Young Woman and the Abuses of Power in Libya." Annick Cojean, thank you so much for talking with us.
COJEAN: Thank you.
HOBSON: And we have an excerpt from the book at hereandnow.org. The latest news is next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.