After more than 40 years of brutal oppression, Libyans are finally rid of dictator Col. Muammar Gaddafi. Now they're struggling to pick up the pieces.

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With a gun barrel jammed hard into her back and an officer screaming at her to shoot, terrified teenager Nisrine Mohammed Saleh clenched her eyes shut and squeezed the trigger. The sound of gunfire cracked through the small room, like hammer blows raining on a tin roof, only stopping after the bullets in her AK-47 ran out. When Nisrine finally dared to open her eyes, every man in front of her was dead or dying. The 19-year-old cowered in horror as the officer picked his way through the corpses and executed those who lay groaning on the floor. He then gripped Nisrine by the wrist and pulled her outside onto the pitch black, menacing streets of Tripoli. It was August 21 and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's Libya was crumbling.

A junior in the Libyan Army, Nisrine says she doesn't remember much else from that terrible night: "Just shooting and explosions," she tells marie claire, weeping gently at Tripoli's Jadida prison where she's being held. "I just want to pretend it never happened." Yet the blood-spattered collapse of Gaddafi's totalitarian reign is something few Libyans will ever forget.

How one woman became the face of the Libyan conflict

Inspired by the "Arab Spring" uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, rebels fought an eight-month civil war to overthrow the dictator who'd ruled the North African nation with an iron fist for 42 years. Emancipation has cost an estimated 30,000 Libyans their lives and left some 50,000 more wounded. "The spirit of Tunisia and Egypt is stronger in Libya, and for good reason," explains Tripoli mother of two Randa Gheriyani, as she strolls near the capital's newly liberated port. "Those presidents were nothing compared to Gaddafi. There was some good in what they did. But Gaddafi had a cruel heart and the society has suffered."

For many, the suffering continues. Since the despot and members of his family fled Tripoli in mid-August, the people Gaddafi used as pawns are being called to account for his evils. Nisrine - whose youthful good looks had seen earmarked as a future member of Gaddafi's bizarre, all-female "Amazonian Guard" faces certain execution for killing rebels, an act she says she was forced to commit under pain of death. "And now," she says, crying into her hands, "I'm going to die anyway."

Like millions who suffered under Gaddafi's hard-line, Islamic ideology, women like Nisrine, who served the dictator, say they, too, were victims of deprivation and ruthless abuse. In a country where opportunities for women were scarce, members of the Amazonian Guard were thought to be privileged beings, lavishly rewarded by their leader. "But it was lies," says Nisrine, who, like at least five guard members, claims she was raped Gaddafi's lieutenants. "All of it was a mirage. We were toys to be used for the vanity of his officers."

As Nisrine contemplates her fate, Libyans are pouring into the mansions where the 71 year old dictator and his privileged brood lived, tearing away the façades of power to reveal obscene wealth amassed by one of modern history's greediest, most hypocritical regimes. "Look around you," a rebel named Fouad marvels as he tinkers with an outboard motor he found at Gaddafi beach house outside Tripoli. "I have never seen one of these before. Their lives were not ours. They had everything and we had nothing."

Gaddafi insisted ordinary Libyans obey strict “purification” laws that forbade sex before marriage, punished adultery by flogging, outlawed alcohol and imprisoned homosexuals for five years. All the while, the dictator fancied himself as Libya’s “Brother Leader” and “King of Kings.” “He used to say he is everywhere, but nowhere, that he lives in our hearts,” says Randa Gheriyani. “He was in our nightmares, true. But our hearts? Never."

By contrast, Gaddafi and his seven adult sons lived something of a playboy dream: they crisscrossed the globe on a lavishly appointed private Airbus, imported fine wines, drove luxury cars and wooed women in nightclubs the world over – all bankrolled the country’s oil reserves. “He talked about purity and living an Islamic life and they were living like devils,” observes rebel fighter Ahmad Fatfat as he stands guard at Tripoli's airport. "What they did was haraam [against God's will]."

While most of Gaddafi's sons also held senior roles in his government, his only daughter, Aisha (known as the Claudia Schiffer of North Africa) – was treated like a princess. When rebels entered the 34 year old's Tripoli mansion after she fled to Algeria with her mother, Safia, they were stunned to find a solid gold, mermaid-shaped sofa with a sculpture of Aisha's head atop the armrest. An adjacent bar was stocked with a range of whiskies and champagnes that would have shamed Europe's finest nightclubs.

Those who knew them say the Gaddafis thought nothing of such grandiosity. Talitha Von Zon, a former Dutch Playboy centerfold who dated Gaddafi's son Mutassim, described how he wined and dined her, and showered her with expensive gifts. "I asked him once how much he spent," Von Zon said. "He said, 'About $2 million.' I said, 'You mean a year?' He said, 'No, a month.'" Regarded as one of Gaddafi's more sadistic sons, Mutassim was Libya's National Security Adviser - a powerful post in a police state, but clearly not his driving ambition. "That was women, and all the finer things of Europe," said Von Zon. "He had very expensive tastes and he flaunted his wealth."

For generations, the Gaddafis trampled on the freedoms of ordinary Libyans. When a 27 year old Muammar Gaddafi overthrew King Idris to seize control of Libya in 1969, the military careerist set about spying on and punishing anyone who dared to dissent. Those audacious enough to form a political party were thrown in a dungeon or executed, and even talking about politics with foreigners was punishable by three years in prison.

As brutal as he was omnipotent, Gaddafi oversaw public executions. Mohhamed al-Otyjman, a resident of the eastern city of Beghazi, recalls a typically ugly example of Gaddafi-style 'justice'. "The regime had hung a man who was accused of subversion," al-Otyjman tells marie claire. "He was dying but he wasn't dead. The executioners were about to take him down and let him live when [an officer] raced forward and grabbed him, pulling him down and making sure the noose tightened."

It was that type of domestic wickedness that reinforced Gaddafi's reputation as a volatile figure on the world stage, even though he cultivated a kind of rock-star mystique. Routinely seen with long hair, sunglasses, extravagant uniforms and his ever-present, high-heeled Amazonian Guard by his side, he amassed chemical weapons, coveted a nuclear bomb, openly backed terrorism, hosted the IRA and sent bombers to bring down an American jet-liner over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988.

For decades Gaddafi was a maverick outsider but by late 1990s, the regime's tumultuous relationship with the West began to thaw. After 10 years of refusals, Gaddafi finally agreed to hand over the Lockerbie bombing suspects to Scottish authorities and agreed to compensate families of the victims. He also surrendered his weapons of mass destruction and in 2008, he was welcomed back into the international fold by US President George W. Bush and openly courted by Britain, France and Italy.

As the Arab Spring bloomed throughout the region, however, it became clear Gaddafi's biggest threat would finally come from within his own borders. In February, dissidents began to protest against his totalitarian rule and although he responded with typical brutal force, the era of the Brother Leader seemed destined to end. Over ensuing months, fierce battles raged between Gaddafi loyalists and advancing rebels until, on August 23, the dictator's stronghold of Tripoli fell.

On that day, Nisrine Saleh cowered in an abandoned home in the Tripoli suburbs, still in shock over the previous night's horrors. Through a crack in the wall, she watched as Gaddafi's soldiers tore off their uniforms and ran away. The following day, Nisrine was captured by rebel forces.

When marie claire first met Nisrine in Jahida prison, she was struggling to hold herself together. Asking for a telephone, she called her mother, who was in Tunisia receiving cancer treatment. "Mother I love you," she said, before breaking down. "I'm in trouble. Please, please help me." Later, she appeared sanguine about her likely fate. "There is no getting away from this," she said. "They will make an example of me." A nearby rebel prison guard nodded: "She has no future. None at all."

For now, the future of many Gaddafis seems more assured. The dictator's sons have scattered, while daughter Aisha and Gaddafi's wife Safia, made good their escape to Algeria where they've resumed a life of luxury and privilege under the patronage of Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika. On August 31, Aisha gave birth to a daughter she named in honour of her mother. As for the whereabouts of newborn's grandfather, at press time, it was unknown, although Interpol and the International Criminal Court have issued warrants for his arrest for crimes against humanity.

To many Libyans, it matters little where Gaddafi is. What's important is that he has gone for good. The collective sigh of relief has been profound, but now comes the debate about what to do next. "The most important thing is that we don't mimic what he did," Khaeld Othhman, a rebel official tells marie claire. "Most of the country knows no other way to live. But we are slowly getting the society together."

Regeneration will take a long time in Libya. For more than two generations, Gaddafi tried to mould a society that evolved through the prism of his cult of personality. "But we have seen what can be done," says Randa Gheriyani, referring to the new order in Egypt and Tunisia, "and we want it for ourselves now." Standing at the edge of the azure sea in Tripoli's north, Kaeld Othhman gazes at a burning rubbish pile on the beach. "Smell that burning?" he asks. "We can't smell it at all! All I smell is the scent of freedom. It's the most pure of all things."