Arabian NIGHTMARES

Winnipeg Free Press, September 7, 2013 | Go to article overview

Arabian NIGHTMARES


Journalist tells shattering story of Libya's Gadhafi as serial rapist

In this compelling work of non-fiction, renowned French journalist Annick Cojean tells a story that is the stuff of nightmares.

Moammar Gadhafi kidnapped, imprisoned and raped thousands of women over his 42-year reign, from schoolchildren to women he saw in the street, at meetings or at family weddings to the wives and daughters of his military officers and other staff.

Cojean tells the story of one of Gadhafi's staff members who kept a family wedding secret, lest Gadhafi expect an invitation, then take a shine to a friend or family member. No cameras or cellphones were allowed at the celebration in case pictures of the guests ended up catching Gadhafi's eye.

There was no escape for the women Gadhafi did kidnap, Cojean says, even after his death and the fall of his regime in 2011.

Rape remains the highest taboo in Libya, leaving its victims not just shattered by the violence committed by the rapist, but disowned or murdered by fathers and brothers protecting family honour, unable to marry in a society where that is, once again, increasingly the only economic option for women.

Cojean, a senior reporter for Paris-based Le Monde newspaper and head of the committee for the Prix Albert Londres, France's Pulitzer, a prize she won in 1996, reported the story of Soraya in November 2011, just a month after Gadhafi's death at the hands of rebels.

Soraya had just turned 15 in 2004 when she was granted the honour of presenting a bouquet of flowers to Gadhafi at a reception at her school. She did not know the significance of Gadhafi's pat on her head, but within days, three women arrived at her mother's beauty salon to take the child to Bab al-Azizia, his luxurious compound.

She was examined by Gadhafi's squad of nurses, her blood tested for HIV. She was drugged and raped and kept prisoner in the basement for years, just one of thousands of women who were violently abused and degraded by "the Guide," as Gadhafi was often called.

After the story's publication, Cojean returned to Libya to further research the story of Soraya (a pseudonym to protect her). At great personal risk, Cojean convinced terrified Libyans to talk about Gadhafi's perversions. The unfortunately titled Gaddafi's Harem -- it sold more than 100,000 copies in French as Les Proies (The Prey), a better description of these women -- is split into two parts, Soraya's Story and In Soraya's Foot Steps.

The second half tells the stories of other women raped and abused by Gadhafi and how they struggle to survive now. It's hinted that some have been forced into prostitution. Some have tried to flee, but none has found justice for Gadhafi destroying their lives. There's little doubt any of them ever will.

Cojean touches on the Libyan army's use of rape as a weapon of war. She even manages to interview two soldiers who talk about how they were ordered to rape all women, from children to the elderly, as Gadhafi's regime fell.

For those knowledgeable about Gadhafi's reign, the story will be hard to align with how the Guide was portrayed to the world.

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