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Yemenis sell organs for survival

The scars from Adnan Ali’s recent kidney surgery are fading, but his emotional pain lingers.

Ali – who is unemployed, divorced and in his early thirties – recently found himself facing a stark choice. He could either sign up to fight with the Houthi rebels on the front lines of the war in Yemen, seek work in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, or sell his organs.

“There are no jobs, and my wife left me for another man,” Ali said despondently from his postoperative bed in Yemen’s Bani Matar district, southwest of the capital Sanaa.

After more than two years of war, many working-class Yemenis have turned to selling grocery items and khat – a mild, chewable narcotic – to make a meagre living. Others have opted to sell their organs to survive.

In Ali’s case, he said that a Yemeni-Egyptian taxi driver who moonlights as an organ broker used to wait outside the Sanaa passport office, where he stalked and questioned Ali, then preyed on his financial insecurities, persuading him to sell his kidney. Ali had gone to the passport office with a plan to visit Saudi Arabia; upon discovering this, the broker showed Ali his own scars and said he had earned enough money from selling his kidney to get married and buy a car.

The broker organised Ali’s passport, contacted an Egyptian organ dealer, and created a fake medical report attesting that Ali was suffering from an illness that required travel to Cairo for medical treatment. The broker and Ali agreed on a $10,000 payment for Ali’s kidney, which was destined for an elderly man from Kuwait.

In Cairo, Ali recalled staying in a small, dilapidated rental apartment in the bustling Giza district for 25 days, while his expenses were covered by the trafficking ring. He was prevented from going outside.

Ali’s case is not unique. Although the scope of the organ trade among desperate Yemenis is unclear, other victims of trafficking rings told that the networks operate anonymously in inconspicuous shisha bars and coffee shops in Yemen and Egypt.

More than 20 million Yemenis currently need humanitarian assistance, according to the UN, while it is estimated that the Yemeni Central Bank’s foreign exchange reserves have dropped from $4.7bn in late 2014 to less than $1bn in September 2016. Salaries for health facility staff, teachers and other public-sector workers have been paid irregularly since September 2016, leaving more than a million state employees and their families without a regular income.

Last month, activists on Facebook circulated a photograph of a Yemeni female teacher allegedly offering one of her kidneys for sale, with the caption: “This is what a deceptive government with false legitimacy has led us to. I am offering one of my kidneys for sale to save my children from hunger. Salary is life.”

As Yemen’s war drags on, the future is anything but certain. But for Adnan Ali, who will soon enter his second marriage with the woman of his dreams and launch a taxi service, there are signs of a brighter future.

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