In 2011, French reporter Annick Cojean was in Libya reporting on the fall of Muammar Gaddafi and the country's tenacious revolution when she happened across a young woman with a terrible story to tell. Soraya (as Cojean calls her) had been a happy-go-lucky 15-year-old when Gaddafi noticed her on a visit to her school. Soon thereafter, three women took Soraya from her family and confined her as a sexual slave to satisfy the depraved dictator's whims. In her new book, Gaddafi's Harem, Cojean traces the tragic arc of Soraya's life under Gaddafi's iron rule—and reveals the systematic abuses of the despot who palled around with world leaders in public and who submitted his subjects (both male and female, powerful and lowly) to his cruel private lusts. Cojean spoke with The Daily Beast about Soraya's tale and Libya's attempts to forget its painful past.
How did you find Soraya and how did you start building trust with her so that she would tell you her story?
It began with a deeply-moving and totally unexpected encounter in Tripoli, during the chaotic days that followed the capture and death of Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011. I had just finished a feature for my newspaper, Le Monde, about the role of women in the Libyan revolution. And in the course of the numerous interviews, I heard that—despite their almost complete absence from television, photographs, newspaper investigations and special reports during the previous months— they had collectively paid a hugely important role in the revolution. They had provided the combatants with encouragement, food, hiding, healthcare, useful information; they had bought arms, appropriate medical supplies, provided intelligence on pro-Gaddafi forces. They ran quite an incredible risk, especially the risk of being locked up and raped, given that the dictator had turned rape into a weapon of war. And I was embarrassed because I had lots of difficulties getting face-to-face testimonies and meeting victims of rape. It was nearly impossible—it was impossible—to meet someone who could tell me such stories.
Then, one day, I met Soraya. She was a young, beautiful woman of 22, who had been through hell by Gaddafi. But it was really by chance. I met someone in a hospital—I was talking about my despair, how desperate I was not to be able to meet victims. And I could so easily understand why they wouldn’t talk to a journalist. And not even to a journalist—they wouldn’t talk to their families. And someone said, ‘Well, you know, there is this one young woman I met in Tripoli, and she seemed lost and needs to talk, obviously—and, well, maybe you could see her.’ I changed my plans; I was supposed to have my flight back the next day, but I postponed it. And this was this meeting with Soraya. And she was eager to talk. She had such an incredible story. She wanted justice. She was in Tripoli in these chaotic days, she had seen the body of Gaddafi on TV with a mixture of feelings. She was angry, she was pleased. There was some joy—and at the same time, she was horrified and especially, she was thinking that he would never face justice. She had hoped so much to meet him one day face to face [again] to raise some questions and she had hoped he would be judged by an international criminal court. She didn’t know which court, but she was thinking of international justice. So he could answer her questions. And that was the end of her dream. And so when I met her the first time, yes, she wanted to talk. She wanted to be trusted. And so I was absolutely sure, I knew I could trust her. But as a journalist, I had to try to check most of the things she told me.
How did you verify her story?
There were lots of different possibilities. First when I met her and when she told me [her story] in October 2011, it rang a bell in a way. I had met, before going to Libya, a Libyan woman in Paris. And this woman was a chief of rebels. She had fought during the revolution. She doesn’t want to be named, but at the end of the book I thank her very much for what she did. She did a lot during the revolution and … she’s one of the very few women in Libya who knows everything about the rapes. There are very few people, because women can’t talk. They can’t talk to their families, sometimes they don’t even talk to the doctors. It is really heavy and complicated and taboo, as I say in the book. But this woman during the revolution had met lots of raped women. She had helped transport them to Tunisia, she brought them to doctors. She did lots of things. And she had told me that this sort of thing existed. She had told me about rapes during the revolution—but she had also mentioned that before the revolution, Gaddafi himself used to rape, take women, abduct women for days, nights, weeks, years. I didn’t know much, but I did have in mind what she had told me before.
So when, by chance, I met Soraya—even though I hadn’t been looking for someone who had been raped before the revolution, I was thinking of the revolution first—but when Soraya told me what happened to her, I could immediately refer to what this woman had told me and it made sense. That was the first reason why I wasn’t so [dubious] about what Soraya told me. It really rang a bell…And so when I came back in January 2012, and spent more than two months there, nearly three months, I tried little by little to meet, first, people who could have met Soraya. Then I went to her school and tried to understand the whole system and check, and check, and everything was telling me was that she was absolutely telling the truth. Lots of details—a lot of people had seen her, knew whom I was talking about. Of course, the people from the administration, from the protocol, they are very reluctant, still, to talk. People who supported Gaddafi are still alive and some have power. They have transformed themselves into supporters of the revolution, but they still exist and are still afraid of what these women can say.
Can you talk about the complicity of other women in the abuse? That was so shocking—women like Mabrouka, who selected and controlled the dictator’s young girls, and who were almost as cruel as Gaddafi was.
Oh, god, Mabrouka. I think most of them—if not all of them—had been mistresses of Gaddafi, at least at the beginning. Some were really fascinated by him, this is true. Some have just realized that there was no other future once they had been with Gaddafi. There was no hope of transforming their life, except just to profit off the system. And so if those women wanted to collaborate, they could gain some money and gain some advantages for their life. They couldn’t have a family or a normal family life, so at least they could get the money, get cars, get apartments. And some were attracted by that. I guess someone like Mabrouka—it’s difficult to understand, of course, a character like Mabrouka. She really gained lots of power. From the beginning she wanted to get some power, and she had some. And when I talked to someone who was working at that time at the Élysée, with Sarkozy, he used to get phone calls from her. And he was telling me, ‘Well, she was important. She was one of the main people around Gaddafi.’ And I said, ‘Come on. She was in charge of the girls.’ And he said, ‘Oh, well, much more than that—she was in charge of the Tuareg question, she knew lots about Mali,’ etc. Well, she tried to make herself more important than she was. She was totally important to Gaddafi because of black magic and of the girls, but that’s it. But I guess she had the impression of having lots of power.
And when Gaddafi visited France and the countries around it—when he went to Italy, when he went to Belgium and other countries, not to mention all the African countries—she was behind him, she was at the official dinners, she went to Quai D’Orsay. And what makes me mad, when we think of that, is that the intelligence services knew. They didn’t know exactly—they didn’t know all the details, nobody knew exactly what was happening in Gaddafi’s basement in Tripoli—but they knew a lot about what Mabrouka was doing. And when I talked to someone who is now a very important ambassador for France … this man said, ‘Well, you know, Annick, when Mabrouka was coming to France, our intelligence services were following her in Paris’… he said, ‘She was doing her shopping.’ That’s the word he said, ‘shopping.’ And I said, ‘Shopping? Do we have in mind the same thing?’ And he said, ‘Yes, she was looking for girls.’ She was followed by diplomats and policemen, knowing exactly what she was doing. And this is just shameful.
It’s so shocking to think of the famous people and the world leaders who perhaps turned a blind eye to what was going on. Why do you think people just ignored it?
It goes with the dictators. It’s something that is nearly normal. They are surrounded by girls. They can do everything with women. We would complain, we would criticize, we would not accept of course it we were talking about political prisoners. We would denounce this kind of [abuse of power]. But what dictators do with women, generally, the public opinion and even the leaders and the diplomats tend to accept, which is just unbelievable and unacceptable. When I came back to France, I talked to a very good friend of mine, and he’s a very excellent journalist. He had been often to Iraq and all these countries. I was so shocked, talking about Gaddafi, what I had discovered, all these young women. And this guy, this known journalist, said, ‘Well, you know, the sons of Saddam Hussein were doing nearly the same thing. They were picking girls in villages and raping them and throwing them away after a couple of days, on the road, and sometimes they were mutilated.’ And I said, ‘Did you write one piece about that?’ And he said, ‘Well, no, you know, people know that, but…’ But what? This guy had written hundreds of pieces about Iraq, about the political prisoners, about the tortures. But not one piece about what was done to young women. It’s unbelievable. But there is something that is [accepted] as if it was common sense that dictators have women, they have a kind of harem, they can pick girls and just throw them away. I’m really shocked. I think this has to be denounced And one of the goals of my books also is that, when you’ve read this book, people—and even diplomats themselves—can’t keep silent the way they used to do.
The entire world was fascinated by the Amazons [the nickname given to Gaddafi’s female bodyguards]… I remember someone telling me there was a press conference in his tent and Gaddafi, in the middle of the conference, took from his arm a beautiful watch and just threw it on the carpet to an Amazon, a young woman who was there. In front of everybody, just like a present. Well, she was probably his mistress for a night. Everybody was watching that, kind of fascinated. People were saying, ‘Well, he’s so modern. He’s kind of feminist.’ It’s such a scandal. Yes, I question the politicians. But I questions also the press, for not raising these kind of questions. In France, and in the U.S., and in Austria, and in Italy and in Qatar, I know some journalists, women journalists, escaped at the last moment rape by Gaddafi himself. And some [decided] to tell the story to their colleagues…well, they went on covering the news and Gaddafi as if he were a normal leader. This is unacceptable.
And it wasn’t just women—you mention that men in his guard, men in the military were sexually abused by Gaddafi. Do those stories ever surface, or is that something that’s just not talked about?
It’s not talked about. We know it happened. I also heard from a former Minister of Justice in Libya that I interviewed, he told me that they also know that during the last days of Gaddafi, he was having sex and forcing young men to have sex with him. During the last days, when he was escaping. And they have some testimonies about that. And inside his home, in the harem, there were a couple of young men he had noticed at the university or in other places. And when Mabrouka herself was visiting a country, preparing in advance the trips that Gaddafi was going to do in different countries—in Mali, Niger, Nigeria, countries he used to visit a lot—Mabrouka always went before and she was trying to pick some women, to prepare a welcome party. Women that she would put around Gaddafi, a little group of people who were supposed to wait on him and chant and sing and dance in front of him. And there were some men. And some people described to me the way she would choose them, putting her hand [on their bodies] to see if they were well-made. And once they had been taken, raped, that was so impossible to talk about that, of course. Some were taken as kind of guards, in the group working for the protocol around him. There was always a little group of young men following the harem.
But I also mention, this is really hard to talk about in Libya now, even if they really progressed a lot. And the book helped a lot to provoke debate in Tripoli; there were some conferences, there were some demonstrations of women in the streets with the cover of my book in French and the cover of the book in Arabic. And I have some photos showing women yelling and showing the cover and saying, ‘never again.’ They wanted discussion in the parliament, because of the book. So I at least had the satisfaction that it helped them to talk about that. But the question of the rape of men is even more delicate to talk about. And also the fact that Gaddafi raped—should I say rape? It’s really sad, but ‘obliged’ some of his ministers to have sexual relations with him. And of course of they would never talk about it to a wife or to a colleague about that. Such shame, such a taboo. Just impossible to talk about. But I had some witnesses, because he did it in his room, and there were some people there. It’s just unbelievable.
Let’s talk about the issue of honor, and how difficult it is for these women (or men) to have any sort of normal life in a society where, once you lose your honor, you’re considered worthless.
Soraya, at the beginning of course, when she disappeared, her family was totally supportive of her. And when they knew where she was, they were shocked. But she was a little darling of the family, and they wanted so much for her to come back. But then, after some years … they couldn’t accept her. They were ashamed. She was smoking, she was looking different. They had in mind the fact that she couldn’t have a normal life again. And that’s always the case in the families…during the revolution, there were lots of rapes ordered by Gaddafi himself...And I have seen, myself, a young woman who had escaped from her family because she’d been raped. I think she was 16, 17, very young. She looked really like a teenager. And she was pregnant, and of course, she was absolutely desperate, and it was just terrible. She had hidden the fact that she was pregnant. People have big veils and dresses so she could hide that. But she escaped from her family because they knew she had been raped. She finally was helped by some women in Tripoli. So she gives birth. And the little baby is adopted …[Later, the girl] marries a rebel, in fact—some young men, rebels in the revolution, have agreed to marry some women who have been raped so they can have a normal life. They do it because they have faith in what they do and they think it’s the only possibility for her to have a normal life. And, it’s strange to say according to our norms, but she made a happy marriage. I saw her at that time. I saw her when she was pregnant, I saw her when she gave up the baby, and afterward when she married. And she was so happy, so relieved. She could come back to a normal life.
And the latest news I had, just before the summer, I think it happened in July, is that her family finally found her again. She’d been discovered in Tripoli. She had been stabbed with a knife. She had been stabbed all over. It’s horrifying. We’ll never know exactly the truth, but it was probably the brothers. And there won’t be any investigation about that. I was revolted. I was asking the Libyan woman who told me the news, ‘What did the police do? What investigation, etc.?’ And she said, ‘There will never be any investigation about that. This was a crime of honor. Nobody wants to know the truth. Nobody we know will ever say who did it.’ And that happens a lot. Rape and sex are still an enormous taboo. And so all those women who have been taken by Gaddafi knew they could never come back to a normal life, no matter what they would do. Even if they could have a job. Even if they were married. At least some who were married could keep silent. Because he would oblige some girls to marry his guards. So he had the control. He kept the control. He could take them again for a week or for some nights. He was in control. But these women, at least, if they keep silent now, I guess, they can survive. But all the others have escaped. Some were killed when Gaddafi was escaping. Some are hiding themselves in the country, in villages, and don’t say a word about their past. Some have gone in different countries and sadly, they are prostitutes in Tunisia, in Cairo, in Beirut in different places in Arab cities.
Do you think Soraya regrets leaving Paris? There was that brief moment where she was able to go to Europe and then she returned to Libya and soon was forced back into Gaddafi’s harem.
This is such a sad episode of her life. Yes. She does. But she was not prepared to have freedom, she was too young. You know, she’s a very complex, complicated young woman. Sometimes she could appear like [frustrating], even when you want to help, because her reactions sometimes are bizarre. But, all of these girls—she’d been taken at a very young age, she didn’t know how to act or how to dress, what to make with money, how to make a living. She has no discipline. She didn’t how to act with men, having the impression that a body was the only thing that interests men. So all the testimonies about her life in Paris were very disappointing. She was completely lost and her natural reaction was to come back to Libya.
What do you think she hopes for herself and her future?
She has lots of trouble imagining the future. She lives day to day. She spends lots of time in front of the TV. Of course she’s dreaming of falling in love. She doesn’t go out a lot. She’s afraid of being recognized. I have to tell the minimum about her. She’s still in Libya and fighting for her future, fighting with her nightmares, with a very low self-esteem. And it’s very complicated—you know, these women have a very low self-esteem and at the same time, they have the feeling that they belonged to the dominant class for awhile. They belonged to the power.
Do you think that people in Libya want to talk about these stories, or do you think that they just want to forget? And maybe some people want to talk about them and other just want to forget?
Yes, it’s true, what you said in the last part. It’s very ambiguous. When I was doing my book, nobody wanted to talk about that, clearly. There was lots of pressure…I was always told, ‘It would be best for both you and Libya if you were to abandon this investigation.’ There were some insults. Some people were threatened if they talked to me. I wasn’t threatened myself, but when I was in prisons and different places, it was kind of risky. The look of the people I was asking questions to, they were crazy. Most of the people didn’t return my calls. It was so taboo, people were victims and eyewitnesses were absolutely afraid of talking about that. Some people went to my hotel room—it was a very tiny and secret hotel—they were coming only at night, they were begging me to forget their name after we met. Nobody wanted to talk about that. Nearly nobody. I had some accomplices, fortunately. A former Minister of Justice. There were some women who took risks for me. And, of course, Soraya. But very few people.
After the revolution, nobody wanted to talk about the rapes. They wanted to purify everything, all the crimes that were kept and committed during the Gaddafi years, the 42 years of regime. But nobody wanted to talk about the sexual crimes and the abuses of Gaddafi. And then the book was published in Libya and translated in Arabic… And some people were shocked, I could see on the Internet, there were insults about me. But on the contrary, some other people were saying, ‘At least we have the truth— at least, at last, we know what happened to our women. At last the truth is being told.’ But there was a mixture of reactions, but some very, very good reactions…
I know that have been lots of discussions, even some in the parliament also—some members of the parliament are now women, which is very new. And what I was the most happy about, proud of, was the fact that a law has been prepared by the government…which will be shown and should be voted on by the parliament and congress in the coming weeks. [It] is a law to protect the raped women. It’s unbelievable, it’s a law which is so modern, so liberal, and I don’t think, I haven’t heard of any law of that kind in any other country. Because it does everything to protect the women who have been raped, and there’s an article that mentions the women who were abducted by Gaddafi himself… This new law, which is unbelievable in such an Arabic country where sex and rape is so taboo. So this is huge progress and I’m glad this book helped.