Book review: Gaddafi's Harem, By Annick Cojean (trs by Marjolijn de Jager)


Muammar Gaddafi’s political excesses have been well documented. His sexual crimes are only now coming to light. By sharing his victims’ stories, Annick Cojean, a reporter for Le Monde, opens the floodgates. Her account of a sex-obsessed tyrant exposes the full extent of Gaddafi’s brutality.

In Libya, rape is taboo and Cojean found very few people who would talk to her. But despite the risks to herself, 22-year-old Soraya was willing to talk; she felt a desperate need to testify against the man who would never be put on trial or have to account for his crimes. Soraya was barely 15 when she was forced to join Gaddafi’s harem. She was surprised to be chosen to present “The Guide” with a bouquet when he visited her school. Gaddafi placed his hand on her head, meaning: “That’s the one I want!” They came for her the next day.

On Soraya’s first encounter, Gaddafi received her naked. Soraya was terrified but he grabbed her, saying: “Don’t be afraid. I am your Papa … I am your brother as well, and soon I’ll be your lover. I’ll be all of that to you. Because you are going to stay here and be with me forever.” Soraya endured five years living in the basement of his vast residence near Tripoli, Bab al-Azizia. Gaddafi repeatedly raped her until she bled, urinated on her, forced her to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol and snort cocaine. She was forced to watch porn so as to better serve him in bed. Sometimes other girls or men were raped in front of her.

Cojean found only a handful of other women prepared to testify to similar abuse, but their stories add to the legitimacy of Soraya’s account. One of Gaddafi’s former bodyguards was raped and humiliated by him for almost 30 years. Khadija lived in the same basement as Soraya and was enlisted to seduce dignitaries so that they could be blackmailed. Houda, also a schoolgirl, was raped by Gaddafi – she was told her compliance would free her imprisoned brother.

It’s hard not to weep at the cruelty one man inflicted on so many. During her investigation, Cojean discovered that Soraya is “one of those victims that Libyan society doesn’t want to hear about … whose dishonor and humiliation reflect on the whole family and the entire nation”.

Her persistence and Soraya’s courage have been rewarded. The fact that Cojean’s book has been translated into Arabic and is now freely available in Libya offers a small ray of hope for the future safeguarding of women’s rights in that troubled nation.