On an April day in 2004, 15-year-old Soraya’s life turned into a living hell. The Libyan girl remembers thinking that morning that it was going to be a special day. "Our leader is doing us the great honor of paying us a visit tomorrow," the principal at her high school in Sirte had said the day before, telling everybody to take extra care with their appearance so that they made a good impression.

Pretty Soraya had been selected to present Muammar al-Gaddafi a bouquet of flowers. When she gave him the flowers, the “revolutionary leader” laid his hand on the girl’s head and stroked her hair.

Filled with excitement about the visit, after school Soraya ran to her mother’s hairdressing salon to tell her all about it. What she didn’t know was that life as she had known it had come to an end the minute Gaddafi put his hand on her head. To those in the know, the gesture was a sign that meant: I want her.

The next day at school, Soraya noticed that something seemed different. The teachers, who were usually quite strict, were suddenly very nice to her. They asked her strange questions, wondering if she was still going to continue coming to class.

That afternoon, when she had once again gone to her mother’s salon, the door opened suddenly and three of Gaddafi’s uniformed female body guards walked in. One of them was Mabruka, the most notorious of the female thugs that the press always liked to call with a wink as the “Amazons,” glossing over their brutality.

The guards said they needed Soraya to come and present another bouquet to Gaddafi, and over her mother’s protestations they took the girl away.

She was driven out of the city and into the desert, to the dictator’s tent. He ordered for her to be “prepared.” Soraya was measured, weighed, washed, and shaved. A Ukrainian nurse took a blood sample. The girl was then made up and clothed in a dress with a deep décolleté over a tanga.

Useless to resist

Then she was led back to Gaddafi’s tent. He was sitting naked on his bed. Shocked and confused the girl refused to get into bed, and the dictator, although angry, let her go. But he shouted at Mabruka: "This whore isn’t doing what I want, make her understand and bring her back."

Mabruka explained to Soraya that it would be a while before she could leave the dictator’s camp, that resisting was useless, and that Gaddafi would “open” her. But she still resisted when she was brought back to Gaddafi a second time, after which she was taken to the Katiba al-Saadi barracks in Sirte.

The next time she was brought to Gaddafi, he raped her brutally. Over the next few days he whipped the girl, raped her again and again, even urinated on her. After a week, Soraya was taken to Tripoli to Gaddafi’s headquarters at Bab al-Azizia. There she was given a dark, damp room in the cellar.

Soraya wasn’t the only girl the dictator was holding there. When he felt like it, he had one or the other of them and sometimes several at once brought to his chambers where he abused and raped them. Afterwards they were sent back down to the cellar.

Soraya was to spend seven years here as one of many of the dictator’s slaves -- at the whim of this mostly cocaine-fueled sex addict and his vicious band of female guards.

French journalist Annick Cojean recorded Soraya’s story as part of her thorough research into Gaddafi‘s bizarre “sex dictatorship.” After reading her book, one gets the impression that Gaddafi’s Libya was a grotesque and horrendous case of Viagra totalitarianism.

Gaddafi, who in the third chapter of his Green Book sounds off moralistically about the liberation of women and their equal rights, used sex systematically as a form of terrorism against his own people. He regularly had young girls across the country abducted. A usual means of further subjugating subordinates was to help himself to their wives and daughters -- and he not infrequently raped the men themselves. The extent of the humiliation was such that few even dared talk about it, much less rebel.

Personal stake 

When Cojean recounts these horrors, at first it’s impossible to imagine this delicate, cheerful woman, sitting comfortably before us in the Café de Flore in St. Germain, deep inside the chaos of post-revolutionary Libya. But this is a star reporter for Le Monde, winner of the Albert-Londres Prize (France’s top journalism award), and Cojean had decided to go to Libya in October 2011 to research a story on the role of women during the Libyan revolution.

Cojean had noticed that unlike Tunisia and Egypt, where pictures show many women in the front ranks of protesters, this was hardly ever the case in Libya. She soon found out why. In a country where rape was a routine means of oppression, women were forced into greater public reserve. But that also meant that they had a particularly strong stake in seeing the revolt through to a successful outcome, which they did as behind-the-scenes organizers and motivators. "Women were the Libyan revolution’s ‘secret weapon,’” Cojean says: “They had personal agendas against Gaddafi.”

That rape was routine in Libya, and that the Libyan leader was the biggest perpetrator of all, was an open secret. Yet even after the fall of Gaddafi, most Libyan women were reluctant to talk about it. The sense of shame, and the fear of contempt and retaliation, were too great.

As she compiled information, Cojean spoke with a large number of doctors and representatives of human rights organizations, but in Tripoli she couldn’t find a single woman willing to speak about her experience. She was just about to leave for Paris – mulling over writing a story about how it was impossible to write a story about rape in Libya – when a doctor told her that a woman living in the same hotel he was staying at had reported being raped by Gaddafi. The woman was Soraya.

Welling out

Cojean and her interpreter met the girl, now 22, in her hotel room. "She was traumatized, Gaddafi destroyed her, and her family had cast her out," Cojean recalls.

Soraya poured out all that happened to her, and spoke so freely Cojean wondered at one point if what she was saying was true. "I believed her, she seemed to be telling the truth, all she had experienced just welled out of her – but I still had to follow up and make sure,” she says.

She wrote the story up for Le Monde, and then went back to Libya for five months and listened to Soraya relate the events over and over again, following up all possible points she could double-check. Thus began her own descent into the abyss of Gaddafi’s sex dictatorship whose victims were as unwilling to talk about it as were its perpetrators.

This research and additional interviews fills the second half of Cojean’s book. It adds up to an impressive journalistic achievement, not least because it makes abundantly clear that Gaddafi’s regime of horror was playing out right under the noses of a Western public amused and fascinated by manifestations such as the "Amazons" without going beyond the farce of the telegenic façade to the underbelly of violence and misogyny.

Cojean’s book has also been translated into Arabic, and is now available in Libya, which Cojean says especially pleases her. "It would make be happy if the book contributes even just a little to help advance the cause of women in Libya," she says.

Annick Cojean and Marjolijn de Jager: Gaddafi's Harem: The Story of a Young Woman and the Abuses of Power in Libya, is due out in English in September.