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. He authored The Green Book, the manual of his regime, in which he advocated for women's equality.
He spoke of elevating women, allowing them to train in the military and attend higher education. He was known for his Amazonian Guard, an all-female security detail, created to show his respect for women.
But the guard was a sham, perhaps just another sign of Gadhafi's fascination with prestigious-looking uniforms, but no substance. Most of the women received little training in weaponry and other security skills.
At one point, Soraya was asked to dress with the guard for an international trip, yet she had received no security training at all. During Soraya's short stint in the guard, she saw British prime minister Tony Blair depart a tent after meetings with Gadhafi and call out a jaunty, "Hi, girls."
Cojean interviewed some members of the guard, women who were genuine military personnel, who spoke of their frustration at serving side by side with women who would have been unable to protect Gadhafi in case of attack.
Even for those not familiar with Gadhafi's supposed feminist philosophy, it's a tough story to take in. The brain can only absorb so many details of brutality before it goes numb.
And it's not helped by the writing style of Soraya's Story, written in the first person, in a girlish voice with lots of exclamation points and over-excited language.
Perhaps it's an effort to allow Soraya to tell her own story, perhaps it's a poor translation. But Les Proies was translated by U.S.-based Marjolijn de Jager, a former teacher of French language and literature, now a full-time translator who has been honoured with grants from the American National Endowment of the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities for her work with francophone African literature.
The juxtaposition of the language and the brutality of the story lends it a surreal quality. That quality is reminiscent of Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale, but as fiction that was easier for the reader to absorb.
The writing may miss a step, but Cojean's reporting is superb. Hopefully, she will continue working on the story of Gadhafi's victims and bring pressure to bear on the United Nations and other international groups to find justice for these women.
However painful a story it may be to read, Gaddafi's Harem is an important book for anyone interested in women's rights, social justice and international news. It is proof once again that female journalists as well as male ones must cover stories of the Middle East and other areas of the world where women are repressed. A man would never have been able to tell this story.
A journalist less skilled and less brave never would have either.
Julie Carl is the Free Press associate editor, engagement.