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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 May, 2003, 11:14 GMT 12:14 UK
Moldova's desperate organ donors

By Bethany Bell
BBC, Moldova

Gheorghi Ungureanu sits under the grapevine trellis outside his simple farmhouse in the village of Mingir, 80 kilometres south of the capital, Chisinau.

Many of his neighbours are hoeing the fields of their smallholdings. But Gheorghi, who is 48 years old, can't do heavy work anymore.

Horses and carts near Mingir
Many Moldovan farmers use horses and carts
Not since he sold his kidney in 1999 for $3,000. It was not something he had planned to do.

"I went away because I was promised a job at a factory, where I could earn more money," he said. "The situation in Moldova is very hard."

Gheorghi was expecting to be taken to work in Israel but instead he ended up in Turkey.

"They took us to Istanbul and we were seen by many doctors who gave us lots of blood tests. We were taken to hospital," he said.

Eventually he was given a paper to sign, agreeing to sell his kidney.

"I was afraid. I don't quite know how I decided to do it. It was very difficult after the operation - I could hardly move. I woke up in pain."

'High stakes'

The desperate economic situation in Moldova is a breeding ground for trafficking, both of organs and of human beings.

People in rich countries will do almost anything for a kidney and in Moldova they are desperate for money
Ruth-Gaby Vermot-Mangold
Council of Europe
It is estimated that 80% of the population live below poverty level. In the Soviet era, people had tractors to work the land - now they are lucky if they have horses and carts.

A medical worker in Mingir said about 36 people in this village of 7,000 people are thought to have sold a kidney.

Ruth-Gaby Vermot-Mangold, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's rapporteur on trafficking of organs in Europe, says it is time to lift the taboo on the illicit trade.

"The stakes are very high," she says. "The trade will only stop when the economic situation in Moldova improves. People in rich countries will do almost anything for a kidney and in Moldova they are desperate for money."

Mrs Vermot-Mangold says the trail in illegal organ-trafficking leads from Moldova to Turkey where kidneys are sold to Israelis, Arabs, and Western Europeans.

She says the going rate for a kidney is $165-250,000.

Penal code

Gheorghi was told his kidney was given to an Israeli woman.

Gheorghi Ungureanu
Gheorghi spend the proceeds on his house and his daughter's wedding
"Her husband later thanked me," he said, "but I thought that they probably paid much more money for the kidney than I received."

The Moldovan Government is currently working on a new penal code to provide a legal basis to fight the illicit trade in organs.

Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev says the government is taking the problem seriously.

"Groups of experts are working now with the people who have sold their organs or who have been trafficked and we are trying to prevent others doing the same," he says.

"We think we are going in the right direction, but we need the support of developed countries."

Health problems

Mingir now lives uncomfortably with its reputation as a centre for trafficked organs.

We are not very healthy even with all of our organs so what happens if you sell one of them? Money can't buy your health back
Maria, 60
Maria, a 60-year-old woman in a bright yellow and red headscarf, shook her head.

"I know a young boy, a neighbour, who sold his kidney - now he is back and he is in a difficult situation," she said.

"He cannot work now, he can do only the easy things. I don't think it's good to sell your organs.

"We are not very healthy even with all of our organs so what happens if you sell one of them? Money can't buy your health back."

Most healthy people can live healthily with just one kidney, but some suffer if the remaining kidney develops problems.

Gheorghi spent his $3,000 on improvements to his house and on his daughter's wedding. But his wife, Ilia, says he should never have agreed to give up his kidney.

Gheorghi shrugged his shoulders: "The money is all gone now."

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