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Friday, 9 February, 2001, 13:28 GMT
Selling kidneys for cash in Moldova
Nicolae and bicycle
The money paid for Nicolae's first ever bicycle
By Sarah Rainsford in Minjir, Moldova

In a modest one-storey house in the village of Minjir, 26-year-old Nicolae Birdan threw another log on the fire.

On the bed his wife, Vera, sat breastfeeding their baby daughter. Four-year-old Vioril played quietly beside her. A pot of soup simmered on the stove.

We were homeless - we had no land, and no money

Nicolae Birdan
It was an image of tranquillity, but it has cost Nicolae dearly.

A welder by trade, like most people in Minjir, Nicolae works on the local farm. When money there dried-up, so did his wages. Unable to meet their bills, the Birdans were evicted from five flats in succession.

Vera and the two children
Nicolae was under pressure to feed his family
"We were homeless. We had no land, and no money," said Nicolae. "I couldn't feed my family, but I couldn't bring myself to steal.

"I would have ended up in prison, and then how could I have looked my son in the eye?"

The solution, when he found it, was a drastic one. At the suggestion of a friend, Nicolae decided to sell his left kidney.

"Of course I was scared, but I don't know how we'd have survived otherwise,"he said. "My friend told me about this woman who could take me to Istanbul and arrange the operation. She said it was no problem.

"Two months later I was there."

The transplant operation earned Nicolae $3,000. He paid off his debts, bought a house for his family, a supply of firewood, some wheat - and his first ever bicycle to get to work in the fields. For the time being, his problems were solved.

High price

Nicolae is not the only person to have resorted to such extreme measures. Moldovan police records detail 13 other cases in this village alone and locals suggest the true figure is far higher.

Selling a kidney makes you an invalid

Semeon Metse, doctor
Villages like Minjir are ripe picking for the so-called recruiters. Moldova is now officially the poorest country in Europe, and for men and women with no steady income, no land to live from - and no clear alternative - the money to be made is almost irresistible.

And if volunteer donors are plentiful, there are still more buyers prepared to travel hundreds of miles for a kidney. From Turkey, some donors are sent on to Georgia; other operations have been conducted in the Estonian capital Tallinn.

Nicolae said the man who received his kidney was a footballer from Europe. Others mention Israeli citizens, in one case an 11-year-old girl.

Estimates on how much the recipients are ready to pay vary wildly - some put the figure as high as $250,000.

Health risk

Under Moldovan law, Nicolae and others like him cannot be prosecuted for selling a kidney. But under a United Nations convention against trans-national organised crime, signed by Moldova in Palermo last December, the woman who recruited him and sent him by bus to Istanbul, can.

The family house
Now the Birdan family has a home
Nina Scobeola is wanted by local police and by Interpol. She is currently believed to be hiding in Turkey.

Daniel Wikler, staff ethicist with the WHO in Geneva, said that for middlemen like Scobeola, organ trafficking is a complex but highly lucrative business:

"This is happening all over the world, not just in eastern Europe, and it appears to have reached the wholesale level," he said. "I've heard reports that some brokers make deals with transplant centres for as many as 400 kidneys at a time. That's worth a tidy sum of money"

Moldovan Interior Minister Vladimir Turcan signed the UN protocol, and said his police force was on top of the problem.

"For the moment I think these are isolated incidents, but they indicate there's a ready supply of organs here, and demand abroad," he said. "It's something we have to work with our foreign colleagues to stop"

Back in Minjir, Nicolae pulled up his shirt to reveal a faint scar running diagonally from his stomach, round his waist and half way up his back. He said he felt healthy enough, but village doctor Semeon Metse warned that might not last:

"Selling a kidney makes you an invalid," he said. "If the remaining kidney gets infected, your life is immediately in danger.

"Without treatment you may live only two to three years more at best."

Nicolae was under no illusions.

"The money helped," he said. "But it's all gone already.

"And what for? Now my health is ruined too."

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