A junior journalist sat nervously waiting for his interviewee, in a dimly-lit office, located in an undesirable district of Beirut. As he pushed his spectacles back towards the bridge of his sweating nose, he surveyed the room, with its stained walls, rusting metal desk and overflowing ashtrays. The workplace had no filing cabinet, no computer and no telephone- because traceability was to be avoided at all costs, when you’re an organ harvester. A thickly-set, six-foot figure in silhouette, appeared in the doorway. As he stepped slowly into the light, the reporter took in the middle-aged man’s crumpled linen suit and his sallow, stubble-covered face. “I’m Karam,” growled the man, giving the reporter a false name.
“You want Turkish coffee?” he said, as he engaged the journalist in a bone-crushing handshake, “Me neither. Let’s get on with this. So, you want me to talk? Eh?” The journalist nodded profusely, and with a trembling hand, poised his pen above a pristine notepad. The room felt clammy, and despite there being a rotating fan on the ceiling, no cool air circulated between the pair. Karam let out a series of loud, rasping coughs that rattled in his chest. After beating his sternum with his fist, he reached for a packet of cigarettes. Having lit one, he let the smoke curl around his nicotine-stained fingers, as he inhaled a long, deep drag.
“Firstly, I’m not a monster,” said Karam, with a lengthy exhale as he adjusted the gun strapped to the inside of his trouser leg. “I’m just a businessman. I’m in the business of saving lives.” “I’m a hero to the people I help. I’m not forcing anyone to sell a kidney, a piece of their liver or even, an eye. They’re desperate, and begging me to get them off the streets, or out of prostitution.” he went on. “Take a look around, my friend- one in every four people in this country is a refugee that can’t get work. Most of the unregistered ones are my clients. Our refugee camps are overflowing with Palestinians, Syrians and Kurds. Living in those tents is a death sentence, and if they don’t get sick or starve, they’ll probably freeze to death in the winter. With my help, the money they raise can feed them all for a year, or even buy tickets for their entire family to relocate to safety, in Lebanon.”
Karam boasted to the reporter, that he was one of only seven traders of human body parts, in the whole of Lebanon. He estimated that he had conducted more than twenty transactions in just over two years. He was a feared, but respected operator in Beirut’s underworld. And as a former nightclub bouncer, his exposed chest and knuckles bore the scars of countless late-night altercations. Those clients determined enough to track him down, and avail of his services, could find his number spray-painted on obscure walls around the capital. With the authorities constantly on his tail, Karam was not in the habit of giving out business cards, and he never kept to a fixed abode.
“I’m always on the move, and I’m always moving people around too,” said Karam, as he stubbed out his cigarette and scrolled through the text messages on his mobile phone.
“There’s a huge demand for kidneys right now. And, I risk my life daily, by carting around ungrateful refugees who want to donate theirs, for hard cash. Are they thankful? What do you think? I drive them to a clean, makeshift clinic, get them a half-decent surgeon and all the pain killers or antibiotics they need afterwards, and there’s never so much as a thank you. I even pay them in US dollars. Are they kissing my feet? Not a chance. And, by the way, I’m the good guy here. I’m not ISIS. I’m not the one driving them out of their home country, or killing them because of their eye colour or religious views. They’d do well to remember that.”
Karam wiped his brow with a handkerchief, and barked an order for refreshments to a woman who was hovering outside the office door. He had hardly paused for breath, and didn’t seem particularly interested in a two-way conversation with the reporter, who sat opposite him in a stunned silence. The sudden and shrill ring of Karam’s mobile phone cut the tension and made the journalist jump. The organ trafficker paced the floor as he took the call. Having said very little, he snapped shut the device, and slumped down into his tatty executive chair.
“It was just an update,” said Karam, as he impatiently lit up another cigarette, “About the youngest customer of mine – he’s a 19-year old Syrian kid, called Haitham. He, his three sisters and his mother escaped to Lebanon a year ago, after his father was killed by the Syrian Army and his brothers died at the hands of ISIS. He didn’t have an easy time of it, there was no work available to him, and the family ended up in debt.” “Because he was the eldest, it fell to him to bring in the money and find food. In the end, all he found was me. So, last week, I blindfolded him- as I do with all donors- and brought him to a temporary clinic in the rented home of a doctor I’ve come to do business with. His kidney was cut out, and after a few days we discharged him, with $7,000 in his pocket.”
A white-haired woman shuffled into the office, and placed water and Turkish coffee on the table between Karam and the reporter. As she picked up her tray and left the room, she walked backwards, keeping her eyes on the journalist the whole time. “Now, $7,000 was more money than that kid had ever seen in his life.” said Karam smugly, “For once, I had a very happy customer on my hands. He couldn’t stop smiling and hugging me. His debts were paid off; he had enough cash to house, clothe and feed his family – this was the best result.”
Karam paused, tipped his head back, and blew a plume of white smoke towards the ceiling fan. “Well, anyway.” he said, finally. “He’s dead.” The journalist gulped, and slowly reached towards the dusty floor for his leather satchel. “God gave us all two kidneys, but I guess some people can’t live with just one.” Karam continued, half talking to himself. “I mean, Haitham had mentioned that he was in a bit of pain when we sent him back home, but we thought it would quickly pass. Apparently, he was rushed to hospital this morning, and a doctor said that between the internal bleeding – and the degree of infection he had – he never stood a chance.” Karam greedily gulped down his cup of coffee, before wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Ok, so some might say that what I do is illegal, and yes, the police are tracking me like a dog – but look at how happy I made Haitham’s family. His mother will grieve his passing, whatever, but at least she now has a roof over her head. Right? Besides, what are the family going to do about it? Hunt me down? They’d never find me.”
The organ trafficker was a man with blood on his hands, and no guilt on his conscience, the reporter thought to himself. Karam’s story was one he had been sent to investigate, and after a year of searching, the master butcher was finally in front of him. It was an article the reporter feared writing, but it was an industry he felt obliged to expose. As the journalist stood up, making his excuses to leave, Karam grabbed his arm and stopped him dead in his tracks. He pressed his face close to the journalist’s ear, and menacingly flicked his cigarette with his free hand. The meeting wasn’t over until Karam had said so.
“Just before you go, my friend,” he seethed at the reporter, “Tell me something… How much for one of those big, brown, eyes?”