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Inside Bangladesh’s organ bazaar

In what is supposed to be a microfinance mecca, many go to extreme measures to pay off debts.

Bangladesh organ trade joypurhat 01Enlarge
23-year-old Mehdi Hassan, from Bamongram village in northeastern Bangladesh, sold part of his liver to an black market organ broker and received nothing in return. (Sebastian Strangio/GlobalPost)

JOYPURHAT, Bangladesh — Mehdi Hasan’s scar runs in a wide arc from his waist to a point just beneath his rib-cage.

The jagged pink laceration still aches, the 23-year-old says, a daily reminder of the operation he underwent in the capital Dhaka five months ago, in the hopes of raising some quick cash.

In exchange for 60 percent of his liver, an illegal organ broker had promised him 300,000 taka ($3,960) — a royal sum in Bamongram, his small village of mud- brick homes and verdant rice paddies in Bangladesh’s northeast.

But when the broker failed to show up after the 10-hour operation, Hasan found himself stranded in Dhaka with nothing but mounting hospital bills and chronic pains in his chest and abdomen.

“He didn’t pay me a single penny,” Hasan said.

“Some sellers feel like sub-humans, as if they sold one of God’s gifts.”
~Dr. Monir Moniruzzaman, anthropologist

In Bangladesh, the trade in internal organs is big business. Each year, hundreds put their body parts up for sale in the underground organ bazaar hoping to escape the clutches of poverty, only to be short changed by brokers or burdened with chronic health problems, according to police officials and residents.

The grisly trade made headlines here in August, when police broke up a network of organ brokers centered on Joypurhat, a district in the northeast of the country. The agents, led by one organ-seller-turned-broker, preyed on poor villagers — many plagued by mounting microcredit debts — promising them a ladder out of poverty.

Given Bangladesh's reputation as the birthplace of Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus' Grameen Bank, it's a rather ironic turn of events — one that exposes a dark side of the country's microfinance success story.

Hasan, a rural day-laborer, said he hoped to use the payment as seed money for a small business. Though he eventually received 145,000 taka ($1,914) in compensation from the family of the sick man who received his liver, the money has nearly run dry, and the pain has impeded his ability to return to work.

“Plowing the land or digging the land is really tough with all this pain,” he said. Like the raised welt cutting a swathe across his belly, “I feel like I’ll have to carry this pain throughout my life.”

Police estimate that 43 people sold their kidneys in Joypurhat, with another 10 or so villagers in the pipeline when the ring leaders were arrested in late August.

Alamgir Chowdhury, a local television correspondent who has followed the story closely, says most people go to the operating table out of desperation. “To pay back the installments on [pre-existing] loans they took out new ones with local money-lenders. They got caught in a web of loans,” he said.

Selina Akter, from nearby Berendy village, went under the knife in July to pay down 400,000 taka ($5,280) in microfinance debts.

“I had a vegetable farming business and it went into loss, and then I had to take loans from another [microcredit] NGO to pay them back,” said the 25-year-old, who received 220,000 taka ($2,904) in exchange for her kidney. Three other members of her family — her husband, father-in-law and brother-in-law — also sold kidneys to alleviate the family’s debts.

In the case of Mahmuda Akter, who is not related to Selina, it was the constant, humiliating visits from debt collectors — pursuing 150,000 taka ($1,980) in microcredit debts — that finally pushed her over the edge.

“When the NGOs came here to collect money from me they harassed me and said bad things, things which cannot be repeated,” said Mahmuda.

She received 250,000 taka for her kidney after an operation in March. Though it helped eliminate her debt, she now regrets having the operation. “I heard from the neighbors that if you donate a kidney you can make some money,” she said. “I feel like I had to sell it because I was under too much pressure.”

According to Fazlul Karim, the police inspector who led the investigation into the Joypurhat organ-trafficking ring, the network was headed by a local man named Abdus Sattar.

While working at a garment firm in Dhaka, Sattar sold his own kidney to a sick man in 2005. Then, apparently seeing an opportunity to profit from the grisly trade, he allegedly returned to Joypurhat and started seeking out potential sellers.

Slowly, police say, Sattar and his agents built up a network that connected