by Vesna Peric Zimonjic
(IPS) BELGRADE --
weeks now, a local paper in the northern Serbian town of Novi Sad has been carrying an advertisement in the classified column under the title "Children that need to be taken care of."
The advertisement offers the healthy kidneys of a 38-year-old woman and her 41-year-old husband for sale with the explanation that the meager income of the two does not meet the basic needs of their family.
"It is high time we took care of the future of our sons, elementary and high school students. Selling our organs will help us do that," says the advertisement.
In the capital Belgrade, the most popular daily newspaper Blic refused to print similar offers by two men, saying that offering organs for sale is illegal.
But the two agreed to speak to reporters, on condition of anonymity, saying that they would go on offering their kidneys for sale because it meant salvation for them and their families.
"I tried everything," says "N.N.," 34, the father of a 16-month-old girl.
"I worked as an auto mechanic, taxi driver, apprentice cook and sold smuggled goods at markets. Nothing worked out. Most days my family and I are hungry. I have no more time for imagining a better future," he adds bitterly.
N.N.'s story is shared by thousands of ordinary Serbs who have been struggling since civil wars and the total isolation of their country under Slobodan Milosevic led to unprecedented poverty.
The change of the regime in October 2000 meant little in practical terms for many people, and economic recovery is still distant.
N.N. refuses to say how he learned about the possibility of selling a kidney, but seems to be aware of the going price.
"I'd be satisfied with 200,000 German marks ($100,000)," N.N. says. "When I tried to put the ad in Blic, they asked me if I was crazy. I'm not. This is the only way out for me."
In the country of seven million, official statistics say that only 1.7 million are employed. Unemployment has reached almost 40 percent. Another 300,000 to 500,000 people are likely to lose their jobs in 2002, experts say.
For M.N., 39, from Ub, a small town close to Belgrade, "it's better to sell a kidney than to commit suicide."
His grocery business collapsed in 1999, at the time of North Atlantic Treaty Organization air raids against Serbia. Due to the destruction of the power distribution system, Ub was left without electricity for days.
"Everything in the refridgerators just rotted," M.N. says. "This led to my first $3,000 debt. The debts accumulated later on and here I am, penniless."
Like N.N., he is aware that trade in organs is illegal, but "selling a kidney would mean survival."
"The idea illustrates the level of poverty among many Serbs now," says Belgrade University professor Zarko Trebjesanin. "In the 1990s, the material destruction led to the destruction of the human spirit...The idea of selling something that, by definition, is not for sale, marks the bottom line of the destruction for a society."
For years now, it has been an open secret that Serbia is a hub for an illegal trade in organs, mostly livers and kidneys.
"Donors" come from neighboring Bosnia or the southern Serbian province of Kosovo and go to the Western countries. It is hard to establish how much an organ costs, but couriers are paid up to $2,000 for a quick transfer to the country of destination.
Both police and health officials in Serbia are tight-lipped on the matter, saying only that the trade in human organs "is illegal."
Some officials admit that they became familiar with the problem "only recently, through media."
In the meantime, Belgrade is buzzing with a rumor that an anonymous Serb, through Internet bidding, sold his kidney for the fantastic sum of $1.5 million.
January 18, 2002 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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