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Scarlet Gold

April 14, 2009 by · No comments

Ludmila Filipova

Photo: lepiaf.geo

This story is based on real facts

The Facts behind the story: Thousands of liters of blood plasma not screened for disease have been shipped to European, American and Asian laboratories over the past 30 years. Turned into expensive blood products there, they are then sold around the world. Hundreds of trafficking channels take part in this trade. As of now, this black market blood has claimed more than two million victims all over the world. Korina is one of hundreds of blood donors from Zimbabwe alone. When the Austrian Ministry of Health busted an Austrian blood-trafficking ring, thousands of liters of the killer liquid were quickly dumped on the Egyptian black market. Some of them were smuggled into Libya, where the infected blood was among the causes that condemned 500 innocent children to death from the AIDS virus. Amellé is one of them. All names in the story have been changed.

Harare, April 1997

Korina opened her eyes and stirred slightly. She felt heavy and shapeless.

Yesterday was hard. Must have dozed off from the alcohol… She tried to get up. The smell of male sweat flooded her nostrils. The hairy arm around her waist held her down. She carefully removed it. She didn’t want to wake the fat foreigner up. He had been her most repulsive client to date. Korina had almost gotten lost amidst his rolls of flab, covered in sickly white skin dotted with red spots. It was a sheer miracle she managed to find his penis.

But she had. Otherwise she wouldn’t get her money.

She started quietly hunting around in the darkness, searching for the Fat Guy’s money. Icy needles prickled her skin at the thought of waking him up to ask for what he owed her.

Then she saw it, lying there on the floor by the bed. She snatched it up like a crow swooping down on a sparkling bead. She didn’t even check how much it was. She didn’t want to wake him up, even if it wasn’t enough. She stuffed it in her bra and pulled her skirt on, looking for her panties.

They were gone. She remembered. The pervert had torn them off while breathing heavily on top of her, greasy and drunk. Other memories from the night flew into her head. She could almost feel the foam coming out of his mouth as he was muttering something into her ear. Perhaps what he said was nice. But she didn’t know his language. She remembered only the sticky spit that reeked of bourbon.

And she left. Pulled her skirt down as far as it would go and shut the door behind her.

Korina usually had an old green shawl that she wrapped around her waist during the day. It hid her legs to a little below the knees. That night, however, she hadn’t expected to meet the dawn in a client’s hotel room. She had come across the fat foreigner looking for fun by sheer accident. At home the food was almost gone. Korina quickened her pace.

On her thighs she could see the dried traces of what the Fat Guy had paid for. She didn’t wash them off. She was in a hurry. Bakari was alone and waiting for her. The white tracks stuck to each other as walked and made her skin itch. The Fat Guy’s smile popped into her head. A string of saliva seeping out of his mouth between his teeth, freckles glistening on his nose… She didn’t want to sleep with a guy like that again. Even if… Only if her son had nothing to eat. Today he would have food, though.

Korina smiled.

She turned around. Not a single window of the motel was lit.

Everyone was asleep. A cracked, blackened mirror hung from one of the beams that kept the hotel upright. She looked at her reflection, the smeared make-up. She wetted a few fingers with saliva and rubbed away the splotches.

Then she hurried down the dusty street towards the poor suburb of Harare where she lived. Her warped wooden sandals slapped the soles of her feet as she walked, as if trying to chase away flies. Korina decided to walk home to save the money she would otherwise pay for a bus ticket. She knew the city’s alleyways better than she knew her own body. She had grown up there. Now she roamed them every night, searching for johns.

She finally took the money out of her bra. Twenty dollars! No one had ever given her that much. That was the price of a balloon ride over Victoria Falls. One of Korina’s dreams was to see the falls. She would take her little Bakari there someday. The Fat Guy must have made a mistake. Or maybe that’s what they paid for such services in America? America was very popular in Harare. “Idiot!” she thought. But she quickened her pace even more, as if scared that the snoring Fat Guy would wake up and come after her to get his money back.

The morning sun was chasing her, sneaking through the palm branches overhead. Korina felt a kind of warm peacefulness coursing through her veins. She had forgotten it, that feeling of quiet comfort settling in her soul. Lately she was always tired, often feeling sick. She had a deep cough that brought up thick phlegm, and she even threw up from time to time. The doctor prescribed some medications for her and told her to take them regularly. She hadn’t told her son about that. She didn’t want to worry him. He was just a child.

She had chosen his name herself. In her language bakari meant “hope.” And he was her only hope. The only hope she had that it was worth going on in this life. He was the reason she couldn’t stop.

As she passed by the Center for Blood Donation, Korina remembered that she hadn’t donated any blood for months. “If I don’t give blood regularly they may take my blood donor card away,” the small black woman thought. For months now she hadn’t been feeling well and had therefore put her donor obligations off. It was probably due to fatigue. She was always on the run. Without the card, however, she would be lost. She would be out of a job.

Korina took out the plastic rectangle and closed her hand around it. Whenever she saw it, she remembered Abiona. Abiona had told her about this trick. When Korina started having sex with foreigners, the ones with the most money usually required an HIV-negative certificate from her. When Korina said she didn’t have one, they would throw her out like a dirty cat. The foreigners wouldn’t pay her.

Abiona, who had been in the profession for years, felt sorry for her. She told her how she herself went to the Center for Blood Donation and became a blood donor. After going through a few tests she was given a blood donor’s card. Foreigners took this card to mean she was clean. To Abiona it was a ticket to having a job. No one ever tested her again. But she had been donating blood as often as could during the past six years, so that they wouldn’t take her card away. She told Korina it wasn’t so bad, and it gave her a profitable job.

Now Abiona was dead. She had died two years ago. And no one bothered to tell Korina of what and how.

Today Korina felt somewhat better, so she decided to donate blood if the nurses started work that early. She knew Bakari was alone in her small rented room. She wouldn’t be long. And the boy was safe there. Old Aunt Kessi had promised to give him a slice of bread with some jam if his mother was late coming home from work. Bakari was a good boy. He didn’t cry when he was alone and he wasn’t afraid of the dark. He was on his own most nights, in any case.

Korina climbed up the stairs and headed down the white hallway. Blue fluorescent lights buzzed from the ceiling. There was a room at the end of the hall where a nurse pierced her vein every visit and let the blood gather in a bag.

The light was on in the room. So they were open.

The nurse didn’t ask her why she hadn’t come for quite some time. Instead she told her to wait at the door for a while. Korina looked at the poster that had hung in the waiting room ever since she first came to donate blood. She was scared back then. Shaking. She glued her eyes on the colorful image.

The poster showed an African child. He looked at her with his big black eyes. They looked as if a master artist had painted unimaginable pain in them. The pain was so enormous that Korina stopped shaking. Other Africans lay scattered around the child in the distance. Probably dead. The child’s mother was in the poster as well, stretching out her arms to hug him. Below her it said: “Donate blood. You can help!”

Why was this poster only hanging here in front of the blood donation room? Korina hadn’t seen it anywhere else. Of course, the people who came here wanted to donate blood. For whatever reason… Korina wasn’t doing it for the African boy in the poster. It was all for Bakari.

The nurse came out and called her name.
“Korina Ambuké!”
“Here,” she said proudly and followed the nurse into the room, trying to pull her short skirt further down.

The room was well lit, which made Korina feel naked. She was uneasy, having come in so disheveled and unwashed. It was a hospital after all, a place where people in white uniforms worked.

The nurse, however, didn’t seem to care about her clothes. At least she didn’t let it show if she did. All kinds of people came here. She couldn’t expect they would all be saints.

“Sit here, please,” she said sternly.

Korina sat on the couch, with her legs carefully crossed. She was looking down, picking at her dirty nails.

The nurse took out a sheet of paper and started questioning Korina while filling out the form.

“How many sexual partners do you have?”
“One,” Korina mumbled. She knew very well she was not supposed to say she had more than one. Abiona had warned her that the people in white coats would not approve of any more.
“Have you been ill recently?”
“No,” answered Korina, while trying to remove a small black stone from beneath her nail.

The nurse asked her to lie down on the coach. She wrapped a rubber tie tightly around Korina’s upper arm. Korina closed her eyes. The needle pierced the skin and entered the vein. The nurse removed the tie and let the blood gather in a plastic bag. Korina started feeling weak and dizzy. She was sleepy. She wanted to close her eyes. Her eyelids began to stick together. The nurse’s words floated further and further away.

When the nurse finally freed her from the needle and the bag she gave her a European-style candy bar.
“Eat it!” she ordered when she saw the dazed look in Korina’s eyes.

Korina held up the candy bar to take a better look at it. It seemed so beautiful and delicious in its colorful, shiny wrapper. There was some writing on it, too, but Korina couldn’t understand the words. They were in a foreign language.

They rarely gave out candy bars at the Center. In fact, it was only the third candy bar Korina had ever gotten since she started donating blood for the African kids who needed it. She quickly put the candy bar in her bra. She felt too weak to get up. Dizzy. She asked the nurse to let her lie down on the couch for a few more minutes.

“Eat the candy bar!” the nurse repeated.

Korina got scared. She got so scared that they would take away the candy bar since she hadn’t eaten it yet that the blood rushed to her head. She summoned all her strength and got up. She hastily left the room and closed the door behind her. Then she sat down for a minute on the bench in the waiting room.

The nursed closed the plastic bag with 500 ml of Korina’s blood and gave it a number: 99502. Then she cleaned a few blood drops from the floor and looked for the candy wrapper. It wasn’t there.

“She must have eaten that, too,” she said mockingly.

Korina started back down the white hallway. She went down the stairs and continued along the dusty street. She took the candy bar out of her bra to make sure it was still there. She couldn’t believe have colorful and shiny it was. She couldn’t wait to give it to Bakari. He would smile. She would do anything to make him smile. Korina quickened her steps. She stopped at the market to buy some meat, three bananas and a few other small things.

Bakari was eight. He was sitting quietly in the room where he and his mother lived. As soon as he saw Korina at the door a smile lit up his face. He happily ran to her, as if he had been scared he would never see her again. “Poor kid,” Korina thought. “He must have thought I had forgotten about him.”

Korina hugged him close and then sat down beside him at the wooden table. He was doing his homework. Korina started coughing hard. She took out a napkin and placed it in front of her mouth. Bakari stopped smiling and looked at her, frightened. She took the candy bar out of her bra and handed it to him, forcing a smile.

“Look what I’ve got for you.”

The child smiled again. His eyes were shining as he hungrily examined the colorful candy wrapper. He unwrapped it quickly and ate it. It was only the third candy bar he had eaten in his life. He liked them a lot!

Korina stood up and changed her clothes. Then she lay down to recover a bit. As soon as she felt strong enough, she made Bakari a sandwich and put his notebooks in the small backpack the boy carried to school. Then they started out hand-in-hand along the dusty street to the local elementary school. Bakari loved studying. He was doing well, too. Korina, however, felt more and more tired with every step they took. The child didn’t stop chattering. She pressed his little hand in hers, as if hoping that would make her feel better.

The sun was getting hotter and somehow stung her skin.

“The boys told me my father was white. A bad white man. And that’s why I’m so light.”

“Your father… He’s a good man, Bakari. He helps us. He thinks a lot about you. I know that. He’ll come as soon as he can,” she explained calmly. Then she took what was left of the twenty dollars out of her bra. “Do you see this? He sent them for you. Your father. Hart Edison. He wants you to have enough food. He said you should be a good boy, and you should study hard. That’s what he said.”

“Really?” the boy asked, looking at the money, curious and proud. This was not just any old money. This was money from his father.

Korina felt sicker. She just wanted to take the boy to school and then rest.

“Is he white?” continued the boy.
“Not all white men are bad.”
“He must be a big shot, huh? To send so much money…”

Korina didn’t answer. She heard a metallic growling behind her and instinctively pulled the boy to the side of the street. The big metal body of a truck sped by them. There weren’t many cars there and people weren’t used to watching out for them on the streets.

It was a refrigerator truck. Korina had never seen one before. She followed it with her eyes until it got lost in a cloud of saffron dust.

The truck was speeding towards Durban. It was carrying dozens of bags full of a thick yellow liquid produced from human blood at the Center for Blood Donation in Harare. Korina’s blood was loaded in one of the canisters. It was going to the National Center for Blood Donation, where it would be sent to various international pharmaceutical companies.

Korina never found out what was beyond that dusty street.

The truck reached the National Center in a day. The donated blood was then unloaded and readied for transfer. The blood plasma is not used in Africa – it is sold all over the world instead. But most developed countries refuse to buy blood products from Africa. To get around this, local traffickers have learned to label it “animal plasma” and to bribe key officials.
Benghazi, three years later

Seven thousand kilometers away from the dusty street Korina never got beyond, Leila Alaabdali was running down a narrow street in Benghazi. She was clutching a thin, pale girl. The child was silent with her eyes firmly pressed shut, as if playing hide-and-seek with evil spirits.

Amellé was the terrified woman’s sixth child. She had been quite sickly ever since she was born. Leila had not had such problems with any of her other five children. She wondered whether she might be doing a bad job of raising the little girl, but no one would tell her exactly what was wrong.

Amellé had been born in the Haliphatia hospital a year and eight months earlier. Before that Leila had suffered a miscarriage at the same medical center. She had lost a lot of blood and needed a blood transfusion. It seemed like only yesterday that she heard the doctor saying:

“We’ll give her an albumin transfusion. She’s very weak. Get the IVs ready.” He paused and then added: “100 ml of alcupan, intravenously.”

The nurse grabbed a package of albumin. Leila weakly followed the movements with her eyes. She knew her husband wouldn’t approve. She even memorized the number on the bottle, which was 99502. She asked if she could see the label. The nurse looked at her sweaty forehead and stroked her hair.

She handed her the bottle, adding that Leila had lost a lot of blood and that she might not make it without the transfusion. The label gave the product name followed by the name of an Austrian company. That made the woman in the hospital bed relax. Here in Libya they used European products only in very rare cases. They were too expensive, but supposed to be good.

“Don’t tell my husband,” the blue lips murmured.

Leila did not have a choice. She had other children to take care of.
The nurse started the transfusion.

At last, the young woman arrived at the emergency room. She was still clutching the child in her arms while looking for a doctor to ask for help. Amellé hadn’t started walking yet. She was skinny with an emaciated face. Her skin was so white that it seemed transparent. A few brown locks caressed her bloodless cheeks. The dark eyes looked too big and were always open too wide. The child almost never left their home.

She hadn’t seen the world she was born into except for the room she occupied at the house and the hospital. Leila was always afraid that the little one would catch some new illness. She was ill so often. And all the while her eyes were so alive. Always wanting to see, wanting to learn. She would stretch her little arms out of the crib as if begging for life.

The pediatrician said the girl shouldn’t go out. She was supposed to stay away from sick people. Whenever Leila asked why, he wouldn’t give her a comprehensible explanation, but instead confused her with obscure scientific terminology. Leila thought the little girl was just too frail. Maybe the reason for Amellé’s frailty was the fact that she was conceived after the miscarriage. Leila herself hadn’t been feeling very well ever since. Who would have thought she would get pregnant again so quickly? She named her Amellé, which means “hope” in Arabic.

Amellé’s condition worsened again that night. She hadn’t had any food for almost 24 hours. She drank only water. She also threw up a lot. Leila tried to feed her some glucose, but the child would not eat it. As soon as she ran a temperature again, the mother scooped her up and took her straight to the Children’s Hospital. Salem, her husband, was at work, so she had to take the child on her own. She called for a taxi. Then she ran along the empty streets until she reached the place.

At the reception desk she was asked to sit down and wait for a doctor. There were lots of children in the waiting room. The air was heavy, filled with coughing, children’s cries, and shouts from frustrated mothers at the passing medical staff. Amellé had fixed her big eyes on her mother. Too much pain, too many questions could be read in them.

Leila felt too ashamed to look the little one in the eye. Amellé seemed to understand that. Her mother didn’t know what to tell her any more, what to promise. What if she were the one responsible for her condition? It took a long time for Leila to recover after she was released from the hospital. She stayed in bed taking handfuls of pills. Then she found out she was pregnant again. What if all these medicines had been harmful to the fetus?

“We’ll leave this place soon, darling,” she spoke gently to the child, who seemed to be fighting for nothing less than her life. “You’ll be better soon. You’ll see. And then, we won’t need to come back to this place. You’ll be playing with your brothers. You’ll be running, and going to school…”
Leila herself wanted to believe those words so badly.

Amellé’s hands were tightly grasping her mother’s clothes; as if someone was trying to tear the two of them apart. She was probably in pain. But she wasn’t crying. In principle, she almost never cried. She would just breathe heavily from time to time, clenching her fists. But even then she would remain silent. Sometimes she would bite her lips like adults do to suppress pain. Her eyes would slowly close. Like they were now. Leila knew something was terribly wrong again.

The doctor on duty emerged at the end of the corridor at last. He took Leila and Amellé to a large room full of other mothers and their children. He listened to her lungs. Then he himself put a needle in her tiny veins and started an intravenous infusion. On the way out, he said he would stop by as soon as he could.

“I’m afraid, doctor. Please don’t leave us alone!” begged the desperate mother.

“It’s total chaos here tonight. I’ll come back soon.”

“When is Amellé going to be healthy again?” She didn’t expect an answer, but she couldn’t help asking.
The doctor didn’t say anything. Maybe he hadn’t heard her final question. When Leila looked around for him, she realized he had left the room.

He was walking towards his office, then sat at the computer. The doctor opened a file with the names of AIDS patients. He had recorded the little girl and her mother already fifth times and now he entered their last visit. Then he closed the file and left the room to continue his rounds. He couldn’t tell her. It was national policy to keep information about AIDS victims hidden from their families, especially when children were the ones infected. This information was kept only in secret hospital-internal files.

After Amellé’s death, Leila stopped believing in hope.

Photo: lepiaf.geo

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