First you see her large brown eyes and rosebud lips, framed by a pink headscarf. Then you notice that her bruised feet are secured by manacles to the foot of her bed.
Nisreen Mansour al Forgani is a pretty 19-year-old. She was also a serial killer for Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
Yesterday, in a heavily guarded room at the Matiga military hospital in Tripoli, she admitted to the Mail that she had executed as many as 11 suspected rebel prisoners in the days leading up to the fall of the Libyan capital last week. Shot at point-blank range, in cold blood.
‘I killed the first one, then they would bring another one up to the room,’ Nisreen said. ‘He would see the body on the floor and look shocked. Then I would shoot him too. I did it from about a metre away.’
- War reporter? My kids wish I was a dinner lady, says Alex Crawford
- Libyan rebels free 11,000 prisoners … but 50,000 still missing amid chilling tales of atrocities
- Lockerbie bomber pictured lying close to death and abandoned as Megrahi is found in coma in Tripoli
- British nurses in Tripoli battle too busy saving lives to be afraid
One of thousands of girls and young women recruited by Gaddafi’s all-female militias, Nisreen is now a prisoner of the rebels and in fear of her life. Yet despite her killings, it is impossible not to feel pity for her.
Nisreen claims – and her doctors and even some of the rebel fighters believe her – that she had to shoot under great duress. She also says that she was sexually abused by senior military figures, one of whom was the commander of the elite Tripoli brigade tasked with protecting Gaddafi himself. ‘I told them [the rebels] what I did,’ she said. ‘They are angry. I do not know what will happen to me now.’
So how did this slight young woman, who used to live with her mother in Tripoli and enjoy dance music, come to have so much blood on her hands?
Nisreen says that her family were not supporters of the Gaddafi regime, although that is hard to verify at this stage in post-liberation Tripoli.
Her parents split up when she was a child, and Nisreen did not like her father’s new wife so she went to live with her mother.
One of her mother’s friends, a woman called Fatma al Dreby, was the leader of the female branch of Gaddafi’s Popular Guards militia – and this, it seems, was the fateful factor.
Last year, Nisreen left college intending to look after her mother, who was sick with cancer. Instead, Fatma recruited her for the Popular Guards.
The family protested, but Fatma would not be swayed. Nisreen was young and pretty – just the type they wanted. ‘There were about 1,000 girls from all over Libya,’ Nisreen recalled of their training camp in Tripoli. ‘I was there with a girl called Faten, whom I knew from college.’
The recruits were instructed in the use of firearms, and Nisreen was trained as a sniper.
By the start of the uprising in February, the two girls were being housed by the militia in a mobile home near Tripoli airport. Their duties mainly involved manning checkpoints around the city.
Their unit was based at the HQ of 77 Brigade, next door to Gaddafi’s Bab Al-Azizya residential complex, but Nisreen says she saw the dictator only once, when his convoy swept past her checkpoint.
Fatma was a zealous supporter of the regime, says Nisreen. ‘She told me that if my mother said something against Gaddafi that I should immediately kill her. If I said anything about the leader that she did not like I would be beaten and locked in my room. She also told us that if the rebels came, they would rape us.’
It was a shameless piece of manipulation from the militia leader who, according to Nisreen, pimped her female recruits for the sexual gratification of her senior male colleagues.
‘Fatma had an office at the 77 Brigade base and there was a room with a bed next door. One day, she summoned me and put me in that room by myself. Mansour Dau, who was the commander of 77 Brigade, then came in and shut the door.’
He raped her.
‘After it was over Fatma told me not to tell anyone, not even my parents,’ says Nisreen.
‘Every time Mansour came to the HQ he was given another girl by Fatma. She was given presents in return.’
Nisreen said she was later raped by Mansour’s son Ibrahim, also an officer in the brigade, as well as another military relative of the commander, called Noury Saad.
It happened to many girls she knew. And as the Gaddafi regime began to crumble, the abuses increased.
Tragically, her friend Faten was killed in bizarre and brutal circumstances as the rebels closed in on Tripoli in the past month.
The two girls were on a checkpoint near the Bab Al-Azizya complex when Colonel Gaddafi’s son and heir, Saif Al-Islam, arrived with an entourage. ‘Saif was wearing a bulletproof vest, helmet and aviator sunglasses,’ Nisreen recalls. ‘Faten went to have a closer look, and Saif’s bodyguard shot her in the head. She had simply got too close.’
The spiral of horror gathered pace. There is a saying in Libya: ‘Cut my throat but do not get a girl to shoot me in the back.’ One suspects that the deployment of Nisreen as an executioner of ‘traitors’ was meant as a final insult to the condemned.
Nisreen explains that she was taken to a building in the Bosleem district of Tripoli, put in a room and armed with an AK 47 rifle. There, a black woman soldier in a blue uniform kept guard and prevented her from escaping.
‘The rebel prisoners were tied up and kept under a tree outside,’ she says. ‘Then one by one they were brought up to the room. There were three Gaddafi volunteers with guns also in the room.
‘They told me that if I didn’t kill the prisoners then they would kill me.’
She begins to cry. ‘Some of the prisoners looked like they had already been beaten. Others were beaten up in front of me in the room. They did not speak. I do not remember their faces … most of them were about the same age as me.’
She wipes her eyes and stares at a weeping wound on her elbow.
‘I tried not to kill them … I turned and shot without looking. But if I hesitated, one of the soldiers would flick off the safety catch of his own rifle and point it at me.
‘I killed ten, perhaps 11, over three days,’ she says, slowly and almost disbelievingly, counting the murders on her fingers. ‘I don’t know what they had done.’
She wails: ‘I never harmed anyone before the uprising began. I used to have a normal life.’
Nisreen eventually escaped by jumping from the window of the second-floor room where she carried out the killings. Despite being injured in the fall and then hit by a reversing pick-up truck, she managed to limp out of the compound.
‘I was found by some anti-Gaddafi people who took me to a mosque where I was given water,’ she said. ‘Then I was brought here.’
Two fighters are on guard outside her door at the hospital. ‘We are here to protect her as much as to prevent her escaping,’ one says.
A woman in a white coat, presumably a doctor, enters the room. She begins to talk seriously to Nisreen, who bursts into tears. In fact, the woman is a volunteer medical orderly who has come to give ‘the girl sniper’ a piece of her mind.
‘How could your conscience let you kill all these people, just for Gaddafi?’ she exclaims.
All the girls in the Popular Guards were raped. The men sexually assault the female recruits and then train them in weapons.
Dr Rabia Gajum, a Libyan child psychologist
She leaves the room and a rebel fighter, no older than Nisreen and with a rifle slung over his shoulder, replaces her. He leans on the end of the bed and addresses the girl.
‘Do you pray?’ the fighter asks her. ‘I used to,’ she whispers.
‘What time of day did you kill them?’
‘In the mornings.’
Her tears begin to roll again. He turns to us and asks: ‘If a girl killed 11 people in your country, what would you do?’
The scene has become an unpleasant freak show.
We ask her if any of her family know she is here or what’s happened to her. No, she replies. She gives us the phone numbers of relatives still in Tripoli. We call them and, finally, her stepmother answers.
‘I am at the Matiga hospital,’ Nisreen pleads with her. ‘Please, please come and get me.’ She winces and struggles against her ankle restraints.
‘Keep quiet about it all. Don’t tell them anything,’ we hear the woman at the end of the line telling her stepdaughter.
The rebel fighter shrugs with disgust. ‘There were many girls who did things like this,’ he says.
Eventually the stepmother and Nisreen’s brother turn up. But they stay only briefly – and do not seem surprised to see the armed guard on the teenager’s door.
Nisreen is being looked after by Dr Rabia Gajum, a Libyan child psychologist who has volunteered to work at the Matiga hospital. She voices immense sympathy for the teenager.
‘Nisreen is a victim too,’ she says. ‘Her brother told me that the family tried to get her out of the 77 Brigade base, but were threatened by the soldiers.
‘All the girls in the Popular Guards were raped. The men sexually assault the female recruits and then train them in weapons. We have had four women in here as patients, all trained as snipers like Nisreen.
‘We give them medical treatment. After that it is a matter for the new government about what to do with them.’ She added: ‘Nisreen has pelvic injuries and severe bruising. She needs long bed-rest and psychological counselling.
‘What we shall tell her parents I don’t know. Her mother is receiving treatment for throat cancer in Tunisia. Her father is sick and in a wheelchair and has no idea what has happened. It would be too much of a shock for him.’
However much Nisreen has blurred her account through shame, fear or a desire to explain her actions, she appears to personify the corruption and brutalisation Libya has experienced under Gaddafi.
Personal documents that we found at the 77 Brigade barracks prove she was there and underpin much of the detail she gave us.
But the only evidence of the atrocities in which she took part come from her own lips, for the district of Bosleem is still not yet secured by the rebels.
Her eyes were beautiful but completely blank, whether from shock, painkillers or both. But at least she is alive.
Across the city, the hospital in the Abu Salim district was a place of horror this weekend. Scores of corpses abandoned after the fighting around the Bab Al-Azizya complex were decaying in the sun.
A pick-up truck appeared, loaded with dozens of gas masks and rubber boots, looted from a police station.
Wearing a respirator was the only way one could bear to walk among the dead.
Next to slippery, bloated and fly-infested bodies lying on trolleys by the entrance lay a litter of the dead’s ID cards.
Two of them revealed that 21-year-old Mahaamat Cherif, from Chad, and Saidou Massatchi, 31, from Niger, would not be going home.
Unlike Nisreen, they cannot even try to explain why they fought for Gaddafi.