Book Review - Gadaffi's Harem

Muammar Gaddafi’s political excesses are well documented. His sexual crimes though are only now coming to light. By sharing his victims’ stories, Annick Cojean, a reporter for Le Monde, has opened 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 open up and talk to her about their experiences. Men feel dishonoured or ashamed for not having protected their female family members while for victims to admit to sexual relations with Gaddafi, even rape, would be suicidal. Despite the risks to herself, in 2011 twenty-two year old Soraya was willing to talk; she felt a desperate need to testify against her late tormentor who would never be put on trial or have to account for his crimes.
Soraya was barely fifteen when she was forced to join Gaddafi’s harem. She was living in Sirte, stronghold of Gaddafi loyalists, where she was looked down upon because her mother was Tunisian. 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, a sign, Soraya was later told that meant: “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 of hell, living in the basement of his vast residence near Tripoli, Bab al-Azizia. Gaddafi repeatedly raped Soraya until she bled, urinated on her, forced her to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol and snort cocaine, often brutalising her in other ways. She was forced to watch porn so as to better serve him in bed. Sometimes Soraya was accompanied by other girls or men who were raped in front of her.
Cojean attempted to interview other women who had experienced similar abuse but found only a handful prepared to testify. They told similar stories adding to the legitimacy of Soraya’s account. One of Gaddafi’s former bodyguards, who wished to remain anonymous, was raped and humiliated by him for almost thirty years. Khadija lived in the same basement as Soraya and was enlisted to seduce various 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 when reading about the cruelty one man inflicted on so many people. Shamefully, during the course of 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 this troubled nation.
A shorter version of this review was originally published in the Independent on Sunday