One weekday morning in April 2004, a Libyan girl named Soraya was accorded one of her nation’s highest honors: Col. Moammar Khadafy was visiting her school, and Soraya alone had been chosen to present him with a bouquet.
“You can’t imagine the excitement,” she recalled. “To see Khadafy in person. His face had been known to me since I was born.” Soraya was ushered into a makeshift dressing room, where she changed into traditional garb for the Libyan woman: red pants and tunic, small hat.
“My heart was beating a hundred miles a minute,” Soraya said. She was 15 years old, a good Muslim girl who had never had a sip of alcohol, a drag from a cigarette or kissed a boy. “It all happened very fast. I held out the bouquet, then took his free hand in mine and kissed it as I bowed down. I felt like I was on a cloud.” Then he patted her head.
Although Libyan President Moammar Khadafy was famed for surrounding himself with armed female soldiers — dubbed the “Amazonian Guard” — a new book reveals that most were his sex slaves, prisoners of his twisted appetites. In that one moment, Khadafy had indeed marked Soraya as special. And soon she would disappear completely.
What happened to Soraya is recounted in Annick Cojean’s staggering new book, “Gaddafi’s Harem: The Story of a Young Woman and the Abuses of Power in Libya” (Grove Press). In the aftermath of the 2011 revolution and killing of Khadafy by a rebel militia, Soraya spent days recounting her ordeal to French journalist Cojean.
“I will never forget what it felt like to watch her relive certain crucial moments of her life,” Cojean writes, “the horror of which hasn’t left her.”
The day after Soraya’s presentation to Khadafy, three members of his famed all-female militia came looking for her. That pat on the head, it turned out, was Khadafy’s secret sign: I want this one.
His soldiers found her at her mother’s beauty salon, a high-end establishment patronized by many of the Khadafy women; the dictator’s wife, Safia, had previously hired Soraya’s mother to do her hair and makeup at the palace. Soraya’s father was a member of Libya’s foreign information service.
So when Khadafy’s guards showed up and said the dictator wished to see Soraya for an hour or two, her mother reluctantly agreed. In reality, she had no choice. Soraya was ushered into an SUV and driven at high speeds — with two other vehicles tailing — to a remote outpost.
When she arrived, Soraya saw another girl — one of her classmates — but did not feel relief. She was told to enter a large tent, where she found Khadafy himself sitting on a lounge chair, watching TV and absentmindedly flicking through channels. He did not greet or acknowledge Soraya in any way, instead commanding his female guards to “get her ready” and then walking out.
Briskly, Soraya was measured for clothes, given a blood test, shaved down and given a G-string — something so alien to her, she had no idea what to do with it. The guards then gave her a white slip and told her that after she greeted Khadafy — or “Papa Moammar,” as they called him — she could go home.
Soraya was escorted to his room by a female guard named Mabrouka, who shoved Soraya inside and quickly closed the door behind her. And there was Papa Moammar, in bed, naked.
“Turn around, you whore!” he said. Soraya froze. He grabbed her, yanking her hair to force eye contact.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “I am your Papa — that’s what you’ll call me, isn’t it? But I am your brother as well, and soon I’ll be your lover. I’ll be all of that to you. Because you’re going to stay here and be with me forever.”
“I didn’t understand a thing, nothing at all,” Soraya said. “It was all too perplexing. What was I doing here? What did they want from me?”
Though Khadafy had, in fact, just told her — Soraya was his captive now, and she would be there to service him whenever he wanted — she couldn’t quite believe it.
To many Libyans, Khadafy was a feminist, his famed “Amazonian Guard” proof of the respect he held for women, trusting them with his own security. No other Mideast leader would think of such a thing. He was the author of “The Green Book,” in which he advocated for women’s equality. He took great pride in scolding the West on their shortcomings in this area.
“Moammar Khadafy is the one who opened opportunities for us to advance,” one female member of his vice squad told The Associated Press in 2011.
“That’s why we cling to him, that’s why we love him. He gave us complete freedom as a woman to enter the police force, work as engineers, pilots, judges, lawyers. Anything.”
In truth, the Amazonian Guard was a front: Most of those women, too, were Khadafy’s sex slaves. He shopped for victims at weddings, schools and summits. He kept a secret apartment at the University of Tripoli campus, where he abducted and raped students.
He reveled in seducing the wives and girlfriends of heads of state, ambassadors, various dignitaries. He gobbled Viagra and had to have sex at least four times a day, with four different people. It is fair to say the entire Libyan populace existed to sate his depraved sexual appetites.
Then there were the willing — those elite foreigners who succumbed. Whether by force or free will is a mystery.
“It always surprised me to see the visiting women head towards his room,” Soraya said, “immaculately dressed, designer purse in hand, and then come out with their lipstick smudged and their hair undone.”
Soraya was most shocked, however, to see a jaunty Tony Blair exit Khadafy’s tent, clueless as to the atrocities under his nose.
“Hi, girls!” he exclaimed. Those “girls,” like most everyone in the dictator’s orbit — man or woman, young or old, adviser, general, son-in-law — were his personal slaves.
For whatever reason, Khadafy left a petrified Soraya alone that first night. His female aides attended to her, alternately soothing and threatening Soraya.
On her third night, she was brought to Khadafy again, and he raped Soraya so viciously that she bled for 36 hours. (After the revolution, Khadafy’s chef told The Times of India that many of the dictator’s sex slaves suffered such brutal internal injuries that “they went immediately from his bedroom to the hospital.”)
From the moment she arrived, Khadafy asked for Soraya constantly, and she could barely contain her revulsion at his grotesquerie. He ate garlic cloves for breakfast, chain-smoked and guzzled Johnnie Walker Black, did cocaine — and made Soraya do the same. He was drunk or high all the time. He raped her right after he had raped a slave infected with hepatitis.
He urinated on her. She was once summoned to Khadafy’s room only to find him raping one young man while another was forced to dress like a woman and dance. Khadafy finished, then flung them out and raped Soraya.
“He was repulsive,” she said. “And he was the president of my country.”
She was shocked at the hypocrisy. This great Muslim dictator who never prayed, who drank and smoked and raped every human in sight, who traveled with plane-loads of sex slaves and ignored every sacrifice demanded during the holy month of Ramadan: fasting, prayer, celibacy — he’d have none of it.
During this time, he’d continue to have sex — as long as he didn’t ejaculate, he said, it didn’t count. “It’s Ramadan, Khadafy-style,” one of his girls explained.
His only true belief was in black magic, and the only woman who could tell Khadafy what to do was Mabrouka, the woman who had brought Soraya to him that first night. The dictator believed Mabrouka had special powers, a black-magic queen with access to a netherworld that protected him.
“He didn’t wear any talisman,” Soraya said, “but he put mysterious, always oily ointments on his body, recited incomprehensible formulas and kept his little red towel close at hand.”
Khadafy held Soraya, along with countless others, in a windowless basement, humid and dank with mold and sweat. He forced them all to watch porn so they could learn how to perform to his satisfaction.
He only ever called Soraya “whore,” and beat her so savagely that she was deformed. “Because they had been pushed, crushed and bitten,” she said, “my breasts were drooping and very painful had the chest of an old lady.”
Soraya lost all track of time and had almost no knowledge of the outside world. The mantra among the harem: “We eat, we sleep, we f--k.”
This was part of the process. Once Khadafy’s sex slaves had been physically and psychologically broken — too fearful to risk making a break for it — they’d then be allowed small doses of freedom: access to a cellphone, brief calls or visits home.
Many of those who did escape — mainly to Turkey — were eventually recaptured and killed. Khadafy’s prisoners knew it.
“The few hours outside the compound gave me such a boost that I never asked any questions,” Soraya said. “I wasn’t even thinking of escaping anymore. I was a long-forgotten girl without any sort of future.”
On Aug. 23, 2011, Tripoli fell and on Oct. 20, Khadafy was killed. Among the oddities found in his palace: caches of porn, a private zoo, a life-size poster of Jake Gyllenhaal, a photo album devoted to Condoleezza Rice — “my darling black African woman,” he called her — and an underground network of tunnels and bunkers, where Soraya and countless others were held hostage.
In the wake of the revolution, numerous Libyan men and women also shared their stories with author Cojean: abductions, rapes, torture, murder. Four months before his death, the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for Khadafy yet could find no victims willing to testify to rape. Much of Libya’s populace remains in denial.
Today, Soraya lives in Tripoli, alone and in anonymity. She has no friends and sits in her apartment, smoking three packs of cigarettes a day, looking out the window and wondering whether the world will ever acknowledge what happened to her and to so many others.
“I didn’t dream it!” she tells the author. “You believe me, don’t you?”