Una storia tremenda

*Below you can find the full English version of my article “Selling a kidney to survive in Lebanon”

Lo scorso maggio sono andato in Libano e sono rimasto lì circa un mese. Avevo bisogno di staccare da una serie di situazioni personali. Ci sono momenti nei quali hai bisogno di lasciare andare la zavorra che ti sta tirando sul fondo.
Resettare la mente. Il Libano è un paese che amo e che conosco. E poi c’è un caro amico che lavora lì. Così ho deciso di andare a trovarlo. Ma dopo qualche giorno di vacanza, di mare e sole e cocktail alla sera, mi sono un po’ rotto. I giornalisti non vanno mai in vacanza, con la testa. E la situazione economica del paese peggiorava a vista d’occhio. Ma, come purtroppo sappiamo, spesso i media sono poco attenti sugli esteri, e i media italiani lo sono ancora di più. Ero anche impegnativo nel tentativo di finire di riscrivere la sceneggiatura di un documentario, nel frattempo, e guardando le notizie in rete sul paese, mi è caduto l’occhio sull’intervista a una responsabile di una Ong che parlava, tra le varie cose, anche di “voci” sul traffico di organi nei campi profughi siriani. La notizia non era nuova. C’erano stati articoli nel 2014 e poi nel 2017 la Bbc ha fatto un servizio su questo. Ma dal 2017 a oggi c’era poco, forse nulla. Era ancora in piedi questo traffico? C’era un controllo e un monitoraggio sui trapianti? Dove si svolgevano? Queste e tante altre domande mi frullavano in testa. Come prima cosa ho chiesto alla mia rete di contatti in loco: operatori umanitari, colleghi giornalisti, la delegazione dell’Unione Europea a Beirut. Nessuno ne sapeva niente. Almeno in tempi recenti.

Poi ho chiamato Hani. Hani è siriano, se non ricordo male di Damasco. E’ da diversi anni in Libano. E’ un uomo molto intelligente, serio soprattutto, e molto caparbio. E conosce a menadito la realtà dei campi profughi siriani su tutto il territorio. L’ho conosciuto nel 2018 quando stavo realizzando un reportage per la televisione svizzera sul Libano e sui rifugiati. Hani passa al setaccio ogni realtà. All’inizio non riusciamo a trovare persone da intervistare, poi, poco a poco, l’inchiesta prende forma. Troviamo delle persone, tra cui Naema e Bashar.

In questo lungo reportage (circa 25 minuti) per la Radiotelevisione Svizzera in lingua italiana, racconto anche i retroscena di questo lavoro. Un po’ il backstage del lavoro del giornalista. Un racconto in prima persona, un po’ uno stile ‘Gonzo’ alla Hunter Thompson, nei limiti concessi da un media generalista.

Mi serviva, in questo periodo, ricostruire la mia fottuta autostima. Uscire con un articolo del genere su El Pais, la più importante testata spagnola, non è male, direi. Ho letto per articoli o pezzi per la tv in lingua inglese parole come “devastante” o “stupefacente” su servizi che in confronto sono delle robette uguali a tante altre, se non forse ancora più blande. Ma la pubblicità, come si dice, è l’anima del commercio. Qui invece la parola non è buttata caso per farsi belli con poca roba, qui è precisa.

E’ una storia tremenda

Qui potete leggere l’articolo pubblicato su El Pais “Vender un riñón para sobrevivir en Líbano

Avrei avuto bisogno di molto più tempo e di soldi per andare avanti. Sarebbe stato un lavoro lungo, magari anche di mesi o di un anno, per seguire Naema e Bashar in tutto il loro percorso fino all’espianto e poi dopo. Ma purtroppo questo tempo, almeno a me, non è concesso.


An ugly business

Last May I went to Lebanon and stayed there for about a month. I needed a break from a series of heavy personal situations. There are some moments when you need to let go of the burdens that are pulling you down.

Reset the mind. Lebanon is a country I love and know. And I have a dear friend who works there. So I decided to go and see him. But after a few days of holiday, of sea and sun and cocktails in the evening, I got a bit bored.

Journalists never go on holiday, with their heads. And the economic situation in the country was getting worse by the day. But, as we unfortunately know, the media often pay little attention to foreign affairs, and the Italian media are even more so. I was also busy trying to finish rewriting the screenplay for a documentary, in the meantime, and looking at the news on the web about the country, my eye fell on an interview with an NGO manager who was talking, among other things, about ‘rumours’ of organ trafficking in Syrian refugee camps. The news was not new. There had been articles in 2014 and then in 2017 the BBC did a report on this. But from 2017 to now there was little, perhaps nothing. Was this trafficking still going on? Was there any control and monitoring of transplants? How were the contacts taking place? Where were the transplants taking place? This and many other questions were buzzing around in my head. First, I asked my network of contacts on the ground: humanitarian workers, fellow journalists, the EU delegation in Beirut. Nobody knew anything about it. At least not recently.

Then I called Hani. Hani is Syrian, if I remember correctly from Damascus. He has been in Lebanon for several years. He is a very intelligent man, serious above all, and very stubborn. And he knows the reality of the Syrian refugee camps all over the territory very well indeed. I met him in 2018 when I was doing a report for Swiss television on Lebanon and refugees. Hani sifts through every reality. When we were first sent out, we couldn’t find people to interview, but then, little by little, the investigation took shape.

In this long audio reportage (about 25 minutes) for Swiss RadioTelevision, I also tell the backstage story of this work. A bit of the backstage of the journalist’s work. A first-person account, a bit like Hunter Thompson’s ‘Gonzo’, within the limits of a mainstream media.

I needed, in this period, to rebuild my fucking self-esteem. To come out with an article like this in El Pais, the most important Spanish newspaper is not bad, I would say. I’ve read words like “devastating” or “unbelievable” in English-language articles or TV stories that are just as much crap in comparison. But advertising, as they say, is the soul of commerce. Here, on the other hand, the word is not just thrown around to make yourself look good with cheap stuff, here it’s precise.

It’s a dreadful story.

I would have needed a lot more time and money to get going. It would have been a long job, maybe even months or a year, to follow Naema and Bashar all the way through to their explantation and after. But unfortunately this time, at least for me, is not available.


Selling a kidney to survive in Lebanon

Naema Al ali Um Bassam is sitting in a half-empty room with peeling walls. The metallic hum of a fan hanging on the wall envelops the silence of the room. A worn carpet and a few old cushions are the minimalist furnishings found in most of the poorer homes here in Shatila, a labyrinth of concrete and roads in a forgotten corner of Beirut where more than twenty-two thousand Palestinians and an unknown number of Syrian refugees live. Shatila is one of those places where people invent a job if they don’t have one, and where the art of getting by is passed on from one generation to the next. Even more so today, in a country, Lebanon, which is experiencing a disastrous economic situation after being forced to declare bankruptcy last March. This land has experienced many crises, some long and dramatic. And yet, although politically unstable, it was considered one of the most reliable countries in which to invest financially. Not today.

There were people decapitated in the streets, it was terrifying, we were scared to death and so we crossed illegally into Lebanon. We have been here for seven years“. Naima has nine children and an undefined age on a face prematurely marked by wrinkles and fatigue. She fled Manbij after the arrival of Daesh. Repudiated by her husband, today she finds herself having to make a choice of survival: selling a kidney. “This idea of selling an organ came to me like that, nobody had told me before. I started looking around to see if I could find a way to feed my children. I contacted a Palestinian man who had founded a small association and I went to look for him in Sidon. In his office he told me: ‘you have to understand something very important: this is a criminal business, and it can happen that they take your kidney and then give you nothing. So you’d better wait for the right moment and the right person, otherwise don’t do such a thing’. I don’t know these things, but if I find a reliable person I’ll do it, so with the money I collect they can feed everyone for a few years“.

When asked if she knows what it is like to go through this kind of operation and the post-operative risks, that she might even die, Naema stares blankly, lost. She looks around for confirmation of those words and then repeats that she needs the money. “My children sell paper handkerchiefs or roses at intersections and traffic lights. They are almost all minors. I have to provide for them”.

Organ trafficking in Lebanon proliferated until the government decided to regulate the donation sector. “Between 2009 and 2010 we started to create a very sophisticated infrastructure to promote organ donations and at the same time we became responsible for monitoring living donations, focusing on combating illegal organ trafficking” says Dr Antoine Stephan, from the National Organ Donor Association. “Before 2014, the number of non-blood-related donors was as high as 54%. Now the percentages have dropped to ten per cent. And we only do transplants between people of the same nationality. It is not possible for a Lebanese to receive a kidney from a Palestinian or a Syrian. We can say for sure that we have succeeded in stamping out the market for commercial organ donations in the country. I am absolutely sure that there are no Syrian donors in Lebanon. Whether they go to donate organs in Syria or in another country, such as Turkey, I don’t know“.

However, Farida Ounan, the association’s coordinator, adds: “We receive calls every day from people who need money and don’t have a salary, asking us if they can sell their organs, especially kidneys, to get a certain amount of money in exchange. And when we tell them that it is illegal and that it discourages real donors, they raise their voices, try to convince us that they need the money, no matter how much  it is, they don’t care, they say they need the money to be able to feed their children and support their families“.

Despite the regulations put in place on transplants, a parallel market has proliferated, mainly involving Syrian refugees. In April 2017, a BBC report covered the case, interviewing a mediator who was involved in selling the organs of at least thirty Syrians.

Nuna Matar is the president of a Christian Lebanese NGO, Triumphant Mercy, which provides educational support to hundreds of Syrian children in the Bekaa Valley. Her office, inside a community centre, is located in the Sabtiyeh area. In an interview with the Saudi paper ‘Arab News‘ in 2019, Matar had reported on a climate of violence and suspected organ trafficking in the refugee camps. “There was a time, much more than now, it was 2019, before the pandemic, in which people were terrified of kidnapping for organ harvesting. I’ll give you an example: I have a school and a lot of parents wanted to contact me to ask me who the bus driver was, who was taking them to school, if I knew them well and if I trusted them. They didn’t even want the children to stand in the middle of the road waiting for the driver to come and pick them up, because there were so many stories of trafficking in human beings and organs going around, that everyone was worried,” concludes Matar.

It is common to think that this kind of activity takes place anonymously on the dark web, a place on the net where everything is allowed, but things are often less complicated than they may seem. A simple Facebook page, for example. There are dozens of such pages on the famous social network. On some, you can register with a simple invitation, while on others, you first have to show your identity documents and medical examinations relative to the organ you want to sell.

Bashar Jomaa Ahmad is 24 years old and also, like Naema, fled Syria at war. His family is in Turkey. He recently found a job in a bakery in Jounieh, just outside Beirut. He has posted dozens of messages on various Facebook pages, along with his medical tests, and is awaiting responses from some people interested in buying one of his kidneys. “This is the last message I received from a customer, it’s from 29 May. When it gets more involved, we stop talking on Facebook posts and exchange messages in private. A guy from Morocco asked me if I could move to his country. And I then replied that he could come to Lebanon and then we would go to Syria together. But he didn’t answer me after that. If you can reach an intermediary, it’s done. I haven’t been able to do it here at the moment, but I’ve contacted some in Turkey and I’m carrying on negotiations. Look at this profile, for example, he is a mediator. In Turkey we can do this operation. We find a way. And they cover everything, room and board, the hospital stay, they pay well for the kidney, in short, it would be perfect”.

In May 2020, a report carried out by the American TV station CBS, using hidden cameras, revealed how easy it is for traffickers to operate in Turkey by exploiting the misery of Syrian refugees. Syria itself is another black hole of illegality. Many people claim that there are clinics where transplants can be carried out illegally, outside Damascus, but these claims are difficult to verify on the ground.

I know it’s a crazy idea, but it’s the only way I can start a new life. If I can earn about eight or ten thousand euros, I will spend it to get to Europe and from there to England. Many people have told me that it is a place where living conditions are better and I like it as a country, and learning English is easier than other languages. And if things improve, I can help my family in Turkey and open a business. And who knows, if I have enough money, I might even get back the kidney I lost. I have often thought of committing suicide in the past because I had nothing in front of me, a future or anything else to attach myself to. But since I started with my goal, to sell a kidney and change my life, I have stopped thinking about my death. And if I couldn’t, of course, I’d go back to thinking about killing myself, because it would be a miserable life.

So what’s the sense of living?

Copyright Cristiano Tinazzi/El pais

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