We all know the urban legend: some unfortunate man or woman wakes up in a bathtub, submerged in ice, only to realize that one of their kidneys has been removed á la the 2002 film Dirty Pretty Things. It's a horrifying situation, to be sure, and the truth is, this kind of organ trafficking is not exactly fiction.
Organ theft is a very lucrative black market trade. The victims of this barbaric practice, however, are not the hapless teenagers from the cautionary tales we've all heard; rather, they are the marginalized and impoverished, people who easily fall prey to ruthless criminal organizations (or in some cases, governments).
The stories below are very much true. Real life cases of organ theft are more common that you would think and – as this list illustrates – often much more brutal than you could ever imagine.
ISIS, in its endless streak of inventive malevolence, has naturally ventured into the business of forced organ harvesting. In 2015, a prisoner who had escaped the terrorist group's stronghold in Raqqa, Syria, described in vivid, horrifying detail how his fellow captives were treated like living blood and organ banks.
Prisoners were often told, point blank, that their certain fate was death, and it would be noble for them to donate their organs to more faithful jihadists. Of course, there was really no choice in the matter – these men would be forced to surrender their kidneys and corneas so they could be transplanted into maimed members of ISIS, regardless.
Many of these prisoners were kept alive after the forced surgeries, so that they could be further harvested at a later date. It's a slow, agonizing death that eventually found these victims; meanwhile, those not strong enough to donate were simply tortured to death.
The story told by Mohammad Salim Khan is really something befitting a horror film. Waking up in a weary haze in an unfamiliar house on the outskirts of Delhi, India, Khan was greeted by a stranger in a surgical mask and gloves. As he begin to ask where he was and what had happened, he was told very curtly, "[your] kidney has been removed."
Mr. Khan's traumatic tale is unfortunately not a rarity, as poor laborers like him – lured by the false promise of work – are often preyed upon by illegal organ harvesters. In some instances, these donors are offered a paltry sum for their organs, but, in other cases, they are simply mutilated against their will.
Khan's surgeon gave him a warning that didn't mince words: "If you tell anyone that your kidney has been removed at this very place or if you tell anyone that your kidney has been removed at all, there is a man who is following you who will shoot you."
Though it was too little, too late in some respects, authorities raided the house where Khan was being held just a few hours after his surgery. As it would turn out, he had fallen victim to a scam in which his kidney was to be sold to an American couple that was seeking to circumvent the long wait of transplant lists in the US.
A 2011 CNN Documentary called Death in the Desert revealed a grim human trafficking practice taking place in north Africa. As displaced refugees from Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea were attempting to cross the Sinai Desert into Israel, the perils of the arid, unforgiving terrain proved secondary to the awful fate that met of some of these weary travelers, as they found themselves sold into the black market organ trade.
Kidnapped by some Bedouin tribes of the region, these refugees – frequently tortured and raped while in captivity – were often used for extortion of overseas relatives. In the event of a failure to secure funds from desperate family members, the kidnapped men and women were frequently sold off to organ harvesters.
Surgeons from Cairo willing to do this off-the-books work would travel to the desert, paying anywhere from $1,000 to $20,000 for kidneys, livers, and eyeballs from living donors. With the help of mobile refrigeration units, these organs would then be brought back to Egypt's capital city to be resold.
Human rights workers uncovered a high number of discarded bodies in the area bearing surgical scars. Medical experts, when shown pictures of the corpses, verified that these surgeries took place while the victims were still alive.
The slave-like treatment of migrant workers in the oil-rich nation of Qatar has been well-documented. As the grueling hours and grim living conditions have claimed over 1,000 lives by some estimates, the promise of work – much of which is due to a controversial 2022 World Cup bid – still attracts desperate laborers from India, Nepal, Indonesia, and elsewhere. And while the prospect of working one's self to death is horrifying enough, some workers who don't perish on the job are finding themselves unwittingly surrendering their organs.
Sri Rabitah, a 25-year-old migrant worker from North Lombok, Indonesia, began to have suspicions that something in her body was not right when she left Doha, Qatar, in 2014. Besieged by pain on the right side of her waist, Rabitah had an X-ray taken that revealed a stunning reality – she was missing a kidney.
Working in Qatar as a personal assistant for a Palestinian woman named "Madam Gada," Rabitah recalled that, in July of 2014, she was suddenly rushed to a hospital – though she was suffering no ailment – and forced into sedation. When she awoke, she was full of tubes and urinating blood. Shortly thereafter, Gada deemed the woman unfit for work, and she returned to Indonesia.
In 2015, amidst reports of widespread abuse, Indonesia issued a permanent ban on sending women to the Middle East as domestic workers.