Vera’s Kidney, Walter’s Money: Desperation, Greed and the Global Organ Trade

Part 1: – Published on Spiegel Online International, by Arndt Ginzel, Martin Kraushaar and Steffen Winter, August 3, 2012 (Photo Gallery).
(left column in german: … eine russische Frau verkauft ihre linke Niere für 8′100.- Euro. Ein todkranker Deutscher kauft sie für 81′892.72 Euro … in english: she sold her kidney for 8′100 Euro and he purchased it for 81′892.72 Euros).

She was a poor Russian immigrant in Israel, he was a well-off German businessman. The case of Vera and Walter reveals a thriving illegal trade in kidneys and other organs — and shows how it is fueled by desperation.

The deal brought together two people who had nothing in common. They were from different cultures, spoke different languages and would never meet. The only thing they shared was desperation … //

… Looking for a Better Life: 

  • In July 2008, Walter boarded a flight to Istanbul, where he was to meet with one of the middlemen the family had contacted. From there, he took a propeller plane to Kosovo.
  • Vera Shevdko, 50, a hotel maid from Israel, was on the same flight. She had emigrated from Moscow only a few months earlier, leaving her 10-year-old daughter behind with her ex-husband.
  • Shevdko had hoped to find a better life in Israel but, instead, she was now saddled with debt. Life in Tel Aviv is expensive, and she had rashly spent too much money on a party. And then there was Nastja, her daughter, who would always cry on the phone when she called.
  • As a hotel maid, Shevdko didn’t make enough money to pay for flights, and she certainly couldn’t afford to bring Nastja to Tel Aviv to live with her there.
  • In the spring, she had picked up a free Russian-language paper from the ground at the Tel Aviv bus terminal. There was an ad in the paper that read “Looking for Kidney Donors.” It promised good pay and included a telephone number. She had kept the paper, and now she remembered it and called the number. The man who answered the phone promised her $10,000 (about €8,100). Shevdko agreed to sell her kidney.
  • She says that she saw Walter for the first time in Istanbul. It was only a brief encounter. He was standing in front of her in the customs line after the plane had landed in Priština. According to Shevdko, he was tall and was holding hands with his wife. Walter and Vera didn’t speak to each other, but they were going to the same place: the Medicus Clinic on the city’s outskirts, which was partially funded by a German doctor.
  • At first glance, the story of Walter and Vera would seem to be an account of two adults who wanted to improve their situations and, driven by both hope and hopelessness, made a deal with each other. But a closer look at their story reveals the structure of international gangs that profit from the desperation of human beings. The market is worth billions, based as it is on the tens of thousands of seriously ill people like Walter around the world. In many cases, they don’t have enough time to wait until their names move to the top of long waiting lists.

Further Up the Waiting Lists: … //

… Growing Demand:

  • Medical advances have opened up new opportunities to the traffickers, with doctors now able to take parts of the liver and lungs from living donors. But the kidney is still the most sought-after organ. According to United Nations figures, some 10,000 kidneys are illegally transplanted each year, although some experts believe that the number could be as high as 20,000. And with both an expanding and aging global population, the demand for organs continues to grow.
  • In Europe alone, 40,000 seriously ill patients are waiting for a new kidney. That number includes 8,000 in Germany, of which only 2,850 received a replacement kidney through official channels last year. Three Germans who are on organ donor lists die every day, most of heart or liver disease. The organ mafia thrives because people fear that their time will run out before they become eligible for a transplant. As they face the prospect of death, they are willing to ignore moral qualms and the law — and to brutally exploit another human being to extend their own lives. Some even choose this route because they would prefer to have a fresh organ from a living body than an old organ from someone who just died.
  • Organ brokers offer such customers “kidney packages” at prices of up to €160,000 — all-inclusive, meaning that expenses and bribes are covered. The people who agree to have their body parts removed receive only a fraction of the money. In India and Bangladesh, organ traffickers offer €750 for an operation that will supposedly rescue a donor from poverty. And once a donor has agreed, there is no turning back. Local overseers apply pressure to those who are plagued by doubts or become concerned about the effects on their health. Not uncommonly, the victims are even cheated out of their miserable pay after the organ removal.

(full text).

Part 2: Meeting the Traffickers;

Part 3: Contempt of Humankind;

Part 4: Tracking Down the Suspects.

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