Annick Cojean, special correspondent at Le Monde and the author of the internationally acclaimed Gaddafi’s Harem, addresses the 6th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.
Annik Cojean: Thank you, I’m sorry, I think I would speak in French, if you don’t mind. I can speak English, but it’s a lot easier in French.
Everything began for me by a question that I had from the very first weeks of the Arab Spring. While I watched women in Tunisia who took the floor often, who looked very combative and active, I saw on Tahrir Square, women who looked very active as well and who looked like they wanted to participate. But I didn’t see anything coming from the Libyans. There were demonstrations, and there was war, very rapidly. And in the magazines and in my own newspapers, and in photos I never saw women appear. And so I wondered, where are these Libyan women? What do they think? Do they support Gaddafi?
We’ve always seen in the media when he moved around, went to foreign countries he was surrounded by women, by security agents that were women; and when he talked about the glory of the Arab women and he was for their liberation. And when he said that he wanted Libya to become a welcoming country to modern women, I wondered, why aren’t women in the streets? Do they secretly support him? Well, do they have something that they would like to say?
So I went to Tripoli in October of 2011 for Le Monde to inquire, and my colleagues thought this was reassuring. I wasn’t dealing with their issues about the war, I was dealing with women, and this was just a minor issue. But very quickly, I realized that women had played a very fundamental role in the revolution; that they played a number of different roles. But this was hidden. They said that they had to take care of their children or food. They carried the wounded, they carried weapons, they found information. They played an essential role, actually.
Now I heard testimony from these women, and I realized that, moreover, they had a lot to lose. They risked being raped. At any time, women could be raped during this revolution. And this was something that was secret; they didn’t dare to speak about it. It was something that was totally taboo in this conservative Libyan society. So when I worked on that, and I tried to gather testimony about this, I realized that women would never speak up.
It happened to women that they knew about and that they heard that they were beaten in prisons, they were denuded, they were tortured. They were tortured with electric shocks, and when I asked them if they had directly been raped, they said “No no no, it’s somebody I know.” Now I know now that this is not true — that those who spoke up had been raped; I have met with them since then.
So I was rather desperate about how I was going to get information for this inquiry and I thought this wouldn’t be possible, and I thought it was really a failure. And then I met Suraya by accident. She was a young girl who was 22 at the time. She had been in Tunisia, and Gaddafi had just been killed, and she saw his body on television. You all saw it. And she was horrified — relieved, at the same time — and angry. She was angry. She was angry with him; she had scores to settle. She wanted to see him and ask him why he did what he did to her, why he had transformed Libya into a prison for women. Why did you steal my youth, my virginity? I wanted to know.
Now, she knew she would never have an answer, but that’s why she spoke to me. She wanted the world to know what had happened. She knew she had been a victim, and she realized that she had this terrible urge to cry out loud, and she couldn’t because society held her to be [a] victim, to be guilty of being a victim.
Now, she was just young — I met a young girl, fifteen years old, living in Sirte, in Gaddafi’s hometown. She was brought up calmly in her family. She goes to school, and one day the principal says you have to come on time tomorrow, the supreme leader of the revolution is going to be visiting the school, so look good. She was very excited, and she was picked by him to be amongst the most beautiful girls, the ten most beautiful girls of the school, to give him a bouquet, and she was very tense. She wondered if she could shake his hand, or what. And the Guide arrives, surrounded by women with black sunglasses, and he looks at her. She’s trembling, she kisses his hand, and he holds her hand and squeezes it strangely, and he looks her up and down, and he puts his hand on her head, in what looks to be an affectionate gesture. Later she learned that this was a sign — this was a signal for the security agents to take her, that he wanted her. The next day, three women come in uniforms to her parents to pick her up on a silly pretext. They said “oh she’s so fantastic, we’d like her to offer another bouquet of flowers to the Guide.” But obviously, this was not an option because there was a car waiting. So she leaves. She can say goodbye to her childhood at this time.
The car drives to the desert in a kind of mobile home, and very quickly she was cleaned, and shaved, dressed in very sexy garb. She was ashamed. They took a blood sample of all the girls who were presented to him, and she was put in a room. Terrible things took place, I’m sure you can imagine this, and he told her that she was his, she would not go back to her own family. That she was his belonging; she would no longer see her father, her brother, her mother. So she was raped, beaten, she was imprisoned in this great fortress of a residence. She joined a kind of harem. Other young girls — he was constantly having new members join it — and she became his sexual slave, made available to him day and night, whatever time. She could never go out, unless she went out with a guide. And then she wore the uniform. And you’ve all seen these women; they’re wearing uniforms, and they’re well-trained, many of them had gone to the police academy for the military. They were trained; this was bogus training of course. They set up a troop available to him. They would follow him when he traveled.
This young girl was forced to drink, to smoke; and now she’s hooked on smoking, on cocaine. She had an overdose. She said that he was a drug addict, and she tells us about the complicity of the system. Now I’ve written an article for Le Monde about this, and it went around the world, and this was based on Suraya’s testimony.
Now this turned out to be a total system. I spent three months in Tripoli in 2012, and I met with people who had worked with Gaddafi. I encountered other young girls who had had the same treatment, who were terrified about speaking out. Now two or three years after the first meeting that I had, no other girls have come forward. They’re terrified, just as Suraya was. I did meet one other young girl who had been taken under the same conditions 40 years ago. So he started this system the first few years of his reign, which lasted, as you know, 42 years. I discovered that there was a whole system set up; he needed women every day, young girls, all times of the day. He met them even in prisons, in schools, at universities.
We discovered that at one of the main universities of Tripoli, under an amphitheater, that he had a secret apartment, where he had a room that I visited, which is in a perfect state with a jacuzzi, and a bathroom, [and] a gynecological examining room. He went to the hairdressers, he went to weddings, village festivals, and when he couldn’t go, he sent out emissaries. He asked for films; he looked at films to pick his women. He looked at the weddings of his own guards and his own soldiers, and he took their wives. He sent the soldiers on mission, and then he had their women come to him, and he raped them.
But even more than that, I discovered even more than just a simple sexual predator: a person for whom sex was a weapon. He used this to dishonor, to sanction, to take revenge, to dominate women. Women were just a tool. He used the women of diplomats of the military, his own children, rich and powerful women. And there was other prey and that was the wives of the heads of state. Since he couldn’t become the greatest king of Africa, as he had hoped for, he wanted their wives and their daughters. This was a way that he could dominate other countries and go beyond them and prevail over them. Of course there were greater constraints involved there. So with diplomacy and money, he used these tools, and wives understood that they could get anything they wanted out of him. The diplomats could be funded for hospitals, he distributed the suitcases of money. It was incredible corruption, and there were accomplices in the administration. The entire country was at his mercy and his clique’s mercy, and no one spoke out. Sex and rape are still totally taboo subjects, and silence was, for 42 years, the greatest ally of Gaddafi.
I’d like to also say that there was a passive complicity by a number of Western countries. Our diplomats knew a great deal about this, but didn’t speak up. It was as if the women surrounding him and the ill-treatment carried out by dictators was part of what was to be expected, so they closed their eyes.
He used sex as a weapon of war when the Revolution began; it was organized. His militia raped thousands of women of all ages — old women, young women. They went to villages, they went into different neighborhoods. He raped, they whipped women in front of their families, and they filmed the rapes, and they sent them to the families to demoralize them, to make them go crazy. He went to prisons where women were imprisoned under terrible conditions, and no one wanted to speak about this, including after the Revolution. And it was very hard for me after the Revolution, I encountered a great deal of hostility. There was terror that I could see in the glances of women. And they came to my hotel sometimes at night, but they were afraid, because their lives were sometimes hanging in the balance as well.
I met two young women who were killed after being raped, after having had babies. With feminist organizations, they were able to do it at night, and the women were adopted and they were married off. Revolutionaries married them. They were found, and they were killed by their families. There’s no investigation about these crimes.
I wrote a book. It was translated into a number of languages — in Arabic, above all. And this was very important for me. A benefactor made this possible, and it was distributed through networks, and it had quite an impact.
I thought that it would be a huge scandal, because a number of people of the former government were horrified about my investigating this. A number of women got hold of it. In February of 2013, I had the joy and surprise of seeing demonstrations in the streets of Tripoli on the square of martyrs, where women were holding, were brandishing the book before them. It was incredible. Women looked at them stunned, and there were discussions in Congress. These women picketed Congress, brandishing the book, saying that they demanded that an inquiry be held about these rapes. Why weren’t women considered victims of war? Because they were considered burdens for their family, and they were considered to be guilty.
One man listened, and that was the Minister of Justice, Salah Marghani, and he understood that national reconciliation could not take place unless Libya faced up to this. And he prepared a law for women who were raped by Gaddafi and his children in the 8 first months of the revolution, to be [considered] “wounded.”
Now you know there was a great deal of chaos, and it wasn’t very easy at the time, but the Italian parliament organized a session to support this endeavor and asked the international community to support them. The Italian parliament had a discussion and the French, last week did so, and the ministers were there. And when he went to France, he went to see Ali Zeidan the Prime Minister, and he said a decree must be enacted.
And last Wednesday, this was done, and the press was summoned to say a law has been enacted to recognize his victims of war. And I had reactions from Libyan women; they were crying for joy. They didn’t go immediately to the Commission to declare what had happened to them. No, they still felt that they were victims. But the decree does give them the right to a pension, just like men who were wounded, and assistance for employment, for healthcare, for studies. This law was long awaited by the victims of rape in the world, throughout the world.
Now, I’d like to say something about Syria. I just came back from Jordan where I met with victims, and this is still very difficult. Women are still quite silent; the silence is deafening. But thanks to a couple of my connections, I could do this. And I can say that this is a way that women are being used to impact on their brothers, their fathers. Women are being still being raped in front of their families — at checkpoints, in basements, in the secret services of the Syrian government. Some of the women don’t even dare to go home. But the president of the Human Rights League in Syria said that there are hundreds of honor crimes. and he says that he says that there are 50,000 women who have been raped in Syria, This is happening every day in Syria. it goes beyond what we could possibly imagine. A great deal of discussion is being held at high levels. But rape is now a weapon of war in Syria being used on a daily basis.