The horror started with the lightest of touches. As the 15-year-old schoolgirl held out the bouquet to the 62-year-old man, he took her free hand and kissed it gently.
The man was Muammar Gaddafi, the dictator of Libya who had seized power 35 years before. His people were forced to call him the Guide, but the rest of the world knew him simply as Colonel Gaddafi.
That morning in April 2004, Gaddafi was visiting a school in his home town of Sirte, on the Mediterranean coast, east of Tripoli.
The girl had been selected to present the Guide with gifts and flowers, and it was considered a privilege.
Before Gaddafi arrived, she was trembling with nerves, and she continued to tremble as he looked her coldly up and down. He squeezed her palm and then her shoulder, before gently patting her head.
At the time she was euphoric. To have been touched by the Guide! It was a real honour.
She had no idea that the pat on the head, seemingly so paternal, actually signified something far more sinister. The car arrived the next afternoon. The girl was working at her mother’s hairdressing salon when in walked three women, one of whom was dressed in a military uniform.
The women told the girl’s mother that her daughter was needed to present another bouquet to “Papa Muammar” because she had conducted herself so “beautifully” the previous day.
Despite the mother’s protestations, the girl was driven away at high speed to an encampment in the desert.
There she was once more introduced to Gaddafi, who was sitting in a red chair holding a TV remote control. He looked her up and down and barked to one of the women: “Get her ready!”
Now terrified, the girl was taken away and undressed. Her measurements and a blood sample were taken, then her entire body was shaved except for her pubic hair.
She was made to wear a G-string and a low-cut dress, and make-up was plastered on her face. She was then shoved into Gaddafi’s room.
To her disgust and shock, he was lying naked on his bed. The girl immediately tried to run out, but one of the female helpers grabbed her and insisted that she did what was required.
The girl sat next to Gaddafi on his bed and he started to kiss her. She remained frozen with fear until eventually she could take no more and pushed him away.
A struggle ensued until a female helper appeared.
“Look at this whore!” Gaddafi snapped. “Educate her! And then bring her back to me!”
The following evening, Gaddafi beat the girl and then got what he wanted.
“I will never forget that moment,” the girl later recalled. “He violated my body, but he pierced my soul with a dagger. The blade never came out.”
Such a tale might seem like something from the imagination of a particularly lurid and sadistic pornographer but, horrifically, it is true.
Though we do not know the girl’s real name, in a powerful new book called Gaddafi’s Harem, written by the French journalist Annick Cojean, she is simply called Soraya.
Cojean met Soraya in Tripoli in October 2011 and was immediately struck by her great beauty: apparently, she resembles the actress Angelina Jolie.
When Soraya told her story, Cojean did not doubt it for a second, as she had heard many similar tales of Gaddafi’s crimes before - but only second-hand, never from the victims themselves.
Cojean spent months verifying Soraya’s story. As well as meeting people who had known her through those dark years, she met other women who had suffered a similarly brutal experiences at the hands of the Guide.
There can be no doubt that what Soraya says is the very painful truth. For almost seven years, Soraya was raped, beaten, abused and even urinated on by a man who claimed to be the great emancipator of women in the Arab world.
Many of the episodes in the book are too distressing to relate here, but it is sufficient to say they would turn even the strongest of stomachs.
Yet Soraya’s story is typical. She was just one of thousands of young Libyan girls and women who were kidnapped from their schools, homes or places of work and forced to be Gaddafi’s sex slaves.
Nor did the Libyan leader restrict his attentions to women. He also took delight in sexually abusing young male guards in front of his “harem”.
Fuelled by cocaine, alcohol, cigarettes and Viagra, Gaddafi used sex not only as a physical weapon, but as a political tool through which he could exert his power.
Rape subjugates women - and at the same time subjugates the men who are close to them, such as their husbands and fathers.
Gaddafi was all too aware of this. The wives and daughters of senior figures were blackmailed, bribed, cajoled and forced into having sex.
Gaddafi not only enjoyed the act of degrading these girls and women, but relished the power it gave him over other men.
Some women were even abducted during their wedding ceremonies, as the ultimate show of omnipotence.
As one of Gaddafi’s close collaborators admitted after the tyrant’s death, sex was “all he seriously thought about” and “he governed, humiliated, subjugated and sanctioned through sex”.
In public, Gaddafi claimed to have women’s rights at his heart. In 1981, he said that he had decided “to wholly liberate the women of Libya in order to rescue them from a world of oppression and subjugation”.
As “evidence” of this most hollow of promises, Gaddafi surrounded himself with female bodyguards.
The message was clear: if the great Guide trusted women with his safety, then Libyan men should follow his example and treat women as equals.
However, the guards were little more than window dressing. Many of them had been kidnapped and raped by Gaddafi, and most had little military experience.
On occasion, when she wasn’t being raped or forced to snort cocaine, drink whisky or watch pornography - the list of abuses is endless - Soraya sometimes acted as one of Gaddafi’s supposedly elite guards.
In 2007, she accompanied the Guide on a tour of African states and put on the most stern expression, showing the world just how enfranchised Libyan women had become.
However, in private, on that very tour, Soraya had to pretend that she was indisposed in order to avoid being raped by the man she was supposedly protecting.
Gaddafi soon found out about her lie - Soraya had been seen having a swim - and he viciously beat her and spat on her before raping her.
“I came out with a swollen face and they locked me up in a room,” says Soraya.
From the other side of the door she was taunted by a woman called Mabrouka Sherif, Gaddafi’s leading procurer of girls and young women.
“You wanted to escape, did you?” Mabrouka asked her. “No matter where you may go one day, Muammar will find you again. And he will kill you.”
What makes the story of Gaddafi’s harem even more shocking is the complicity of women such as Mabrouka in procuring members of their own sex to satisfy their master’s twisted desires.
Thanks to her ability to get Gaddafi what he wanted - a seemingly endless supply of young virgins - Mabrouka rose to a position of immense power in Libya.
It also seems likely that she practised some form of black magic with Gaddafi, which further raised her status. For Soraya, Mabrouka was a jailer and a tormentor. Soraya was forced to live in a squalid, damp basement in the heart of Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli.
She was allowed to go into the city only for half an hour at a time, and even then she had to be accompanied by a guard. On very rare occasions she was allowed to make contact with her family, but it soon became apparent that they were ashamed of what had happened to her.
When she was briefly reunited with her parents and brothers, Soraya grew to fear them.
They regarded her as “a girl who doesn’t deserve to live, whose honour is at stake”.
“And that thought chills my bones,” she recalls. “Cutting my throat would make respected men of them. Crime would wash away shame.
“I am defiled, so I defile others. I’m a deadbeat, so who would cry over my death?”
As she grew into an adult, Soraya admitted that eventually she preferred life in Colonel Gaddafi’s compound, a thought that she found “unimaginable”.
There was a horrible stability there, free from social opprobrium. Soraya’s position gave her a view of the rich and powerful. Among them was Cecilia Sarkozy, the wife of the French president, and also Tony Blair, who visited Gaddafi in 2004.
“In Sirte, I saw Tony Blair come out of the Guide’s camper [van]. ‘Hello girls!’ he tossed out to us with an amicable gesture and a cheerful smile,” says Soraya.
In his memoirs, Blair makes no reference to his meeting with the Libyan dictator, but it seems unlikely that the British prime minister would not have been apprised of intelligence reports that mentioned Gaddafi’s depravity.
After all, the Guide had been abusing women on a massive scale ever since he came to power at the age of just 27.
But when Gaddafi’s regime collapsed and he was killed in October 2011, Libya and the world did not look at the crimes this monster had committed against women - the gender he professed to love and respect.
Instead, as Soraya discovered, people were more interested in the crimes committed against men, such as beatings and torture.
Because of the stigma of rape, very few of Gaddafi’s female victims are willing to talk about what happened to them.
As one of them said: “I would kill myself instantly if I knew that my husband or children could find out about my past one day.”
Nevertheless, the story of Gaddafi’s harem is starting to seep out, even though it seems likely that the full truth will never emerge.
What we do know is that there are many Sorayas, and they are in every town in Libya.
One of them is called Leila and, like Soraya, she was a schoolgirl when she was first raped by Gaddafi.
On the first occasion she was abused with such violence that she lost consciousness.
When she came round she saw that Gaddafi was back at his desk, working. “You’ll like it later on,” he laughed at her. He would continue to rape her for the next three years.
Another woman, called Houda, was blackmailed into sleeping with Gaddafi because her brother was under arrest.
The Guide hit, bit and raped her in an office, and she was left locked up without food or water for two days.
When she was given a medical examination in hospital, the doctor threatened to report her to the police for having “sexual relations outside marriage”.
It was only when Houda revealed the identity of her rapist that the doctor realised that silence was the best option.
Today, Soraya and all the other surviving female victims are struggling to rebuild their lives.
After so many years of abuse, even though she is only in her mid-20s, Soraya says she has the body of an old woman.
She smokes 60 cigarettes a day - a habit picked up from Gaddafi - and is unable to integrate fully into society.
Though her abuser is dead, the pain he inflicted on his country’s women will never go away.
In that way, Soraya and many others will always be imprisoned in the harem. - Daily Mail