Trading Life
Organ Trafficking, Illicit Networks, and Exploitation
Seán Columb



June 16, 2018, Cairo
Present: Seán Columb (S), Solomon (X), Petros (P), and Dawitt (Q)

S: This is it [points to recording device]. It’s just recording our conversation. I’ll delete the file afterwards. After we talk, I’ll write up your story and then I’ll delete the audio file. No name [will be recorded]; look no name on the recording, nothing. I will leave it [recorder] here; it’s easier. I can speak more naturally, and we can leave this to record without having to write everything down.

P: Yes, you can record.

S: Thanks. So, as you know, I spoke to Dawitt [his friend who sold a kidney] about the organ trade. I was hoping to hear about your experience, so I can understand better what’s involved. Also, I think it’s important that people outside of Egypt have an understanding, not just about the organ trade but the circumstances behind it. I’m trying to talk to as many people as possible to represent this accurately. If I’m not making sense, let me know. And, please don’t feel like you need to answer all my questions. We can stop anytime, OK?

P: OK.

S: Can you tell me about Eritrea?

P: I was living in Tessenei in Eritrea. It’s a small village near the Sudanese border. People are facing injustice from the regime, everyone. When I turned 14 years old, they took me to Sawa. This was not correct. I was too young and still at school. But they came in cars and took us away from our families.

S: Sawa . . . what is that?

P: It’s a military camp near the Sudanese border. They beat people and force you into military service. They separate you from your parents and you never see them again. Your life is no longer yours. My brother was with me at Sawa. They tried to brainwash us. They don’t want people to have political ideas, thoughts.

S: How did they try to brainwash you?

P: The government take girls as servants for the police to make them food, serve drinks, and to have sex with them. They do this to everybody. They take the girls and put them to work as sex servants on [military] camps, and they take the boys for the camps like Sawa to serve and kill. We have no media or journalists in Eritrea. This is forbidden. I was arrested along with my father and brother for using social media.

S: OK, let’s back up a bit. You were in Sawa and then after this you were arrested for using social media?

P: We have groups, and these groups were in opposition to the regime. The regime assumed that me and my father belonged to this opposition group, my brother also. They took us out of training and put us in prison for a few months and then released us back into Sawa to continue our service.

S: How long were you in Sawa?

P: It never ends. We stay at Sawa and then we serve in the military until we die. This is why we had to escape and leave this country. Our uncles helped us [Petros and his brother] to get from Eritrea to Sudan. We went at night by car until we arrived at a town called Kassala [in Sudan]. It’s the closest town to the Eritrean border. We were a lot of people, about 25 people, all in a car. We had to go without our parents because the [Eritrean] government was watching them. When we got to Kassala, the police took us to a place, like a camp. I think it was called El Sawra [displaced persons camp] but I’m not sure. We stayed in Kassala for about a year. We had relatives there who helped us to get Sudanese nationality. We changed our names to something Sudanese, so we could get passports. After they changed our names, they took us to Khartoum. There were elder people with us, who were taking charge of the situation. They are the ones who made us the [Sudanese] nationality and passport.

S: Was your plan to come to Egypt?

P: No, it wasn’t. My plan was to stay in Sudan, in safe places.

S: Why did you come to Egypt?

P: People who were with us on the journey from Eritrea to Sudan were now in Egypt. There were five of them who had been traveling with us. They were in contact with the guys who made us the passports and they recommended that we go there [Cairo]. They told us, “Come to Egypt. Here is good and you can come register at the UN and it is good.”

S: So, you came to register with the UN?

P: I worked in Sudan to collect some money, and this [money] I used to come to Egypt.

S: How did you get here [Egypt]? Did you take a bus?

P: I came by bus, and after that we crossed through Shalatin [a disputed territory between Sudan and Egypt] by smuggling.

S: I want to make sure I have this right: You took a bus from Khartoum to the Egyptian border at Shalatin, and then you paid a smuggler to take you as far as Cairo? What was that like?

P: From Sudan to Egypt wasn’t that bad. The car was secure because we gave a lot of money, and the samsar [smuggler] will not receive his money until after when we arrived. We know we cannot trust this guy, so we arranged it that way with our friends in Cairo. They would only pay him if we arrived safely.

S: It is expensive?

P: It was expensive. We gave him about 500 per person.

S: U.S. dollars?

P: Yes.

S: And what happened when you came to Egypt?

P: When we arrived here, we registered ourselves with the UN at 6th of October [a district in Cairo]. We were staying at an apartment with some of our relatives and those who first came to Egypt.

S: Sorry, I forgot to ask, who did you travel with? Were you traveling with your brother?

P: I came to Egypt with my brother and also some guys who escaped. They came with us until Egypt, and some other people.

S: When you got to Cairo, did someone approach you about your kidney?

P: That wasn’t directly after we came to Egypt. The approach about the kidney happened after a year in Cairo. At the time we were living in an apartment in 6th of October. We were kicked out from the apartment because we didn’t have money, and we don’t have work. We stayed with some Sudanese. When they noticed we were broke, they suggested that we sell a kidney. Someone who came with us, by smuggling from Sudan, first he sold his kidney secretly without the knowledge of any one of us. He told us, “It’s an easy way you can have money. It’s not dangerous to sell your kidney. You will get about $5,000 [USD] for a kidney.” Five people who came before us, all of them have sold their kidney. And we all were about thirteen people who came after them. There were about seven Sudanese people with us, and we were about eight Eritrean people.

S: Who approached you?

P: The one who approached me is that one who sold [his kidney] first. He told us, “When you sell, you will get big money. You can send some money to your family, and you and your family can live in a good life when you have the money.”

S: What year was this?

P: This was about two years ago [2016].

S: How old were you then?

P: I was 17 years old. I was just 17 years old. That person who approached us [Petros, his brother, and six others from Eritrea], he told us they [brokers] would give about $5,000 for a kidney at that time. We needed money because when we [Petros and his brother] called our family, we realized that they really needed help to survive.

S: You wanted to send money to your parents?

P: Yes, I want to send money to my family. I have sisters. I wanted to send them money because they were in need. [Petros was visibly upset. He needed time to compose himself.]

S: Do you want a coffee?

P: No. Do you want a cigarette? [laughing]

S: No thanks. I’m going to turn this off [the recorder]. Let’s talk about something else for a while. I know this is difficult. [Recording starts again.]

S: You mentioned that you were approached by someone about selling your kidney.

P: This guy, he was from Sudan and he told us about someone [a broker] who arrange everything for us. In the beginning I told him I want to see the place [hospital] and this person [broker] or I won’t agree. He told me, “You can’t see the place unless you agree. When you say yes, Hasim [the broker] will come to see you.” The next time I spoke to him, he was with an Egyptian guy [Hasim]. He came and explained to us about the kidney procedure. At that time, we were badly in need of money, and the broker offered the money that we needed. After we talked, we agreed.

S: What did he say to you?

P: The Egyptian told us it’s a very easy operation. It won’t take more than 3 hours and after the operation I will give you the money directly.

S: What happened then?

P: In the beginning we all agreed we won’t go to the operation all at the same time, but we will do the operation one by one. If they give the money, the other one will go to the operation.

S: All thirteen?

P: No. There was seven of us.

S: How old were you?

P: We were about 18, 17, 16, and youngest one was 15 years old.

S: Did you have to have any medical tests?

P: They made a check for us. They came and took us by a black car to some place to do checks. They made blood tests and scanning.

S: Can you remember where it was?

P: We don’t know where this place was because they came and took us by a black car and they never bring us back after the blood tests. We spent two weeks at that place after we had the kidney operation. We were locked in the apartment. We were forbidden to go out of the apartment at all.

S: Do you know where the operation was performed? Was it in a hospital?

P: The operation took place in an apartment, in the basement. I remember, we were going down by stairs. At the beginning when we came to the operation, we were locked in the apartment and no one was allowed to come out. They told us, we will bring to you anything you want, if you want water, food, juice, smoking, girls, drinks, anything they would bring to us into the apartment. We weren’t allowed to come out at all, we were forbidden to come out. They brought two bodyguards who were standing at the apartment door at all times to make sure we were locked in.

S: Everything was guarded?

P: Yes, but everything we wanted they brought for us in the place. They would bring to us foods, drinks, girls; everything we wanted they would bring to us.

S: How long did they keep you there before the operation was performed?

P: We stayed in the apartment for about a month.

S: And after that?

P: A car came after we had done everything, like tests, they came by black car and you can see out, but no one can see inside [tinted windows]. When we dropped out from the car, we went downstairs. We didn’t went upstairs. We entered a white room.

S: Did they bring you into a different apartment or the same one?

P: It wasn’t the same apartment—we had gone far away. We drove all night to arrive in this place of the operation. We slept in a car, until we woke up from sleeping in the morning [and] the car was moving.

S: What happened then?

P: They took us one by one. Any one of us who entered this room, he spent about 6 to 7 hours in operation. After that my turn came and I entered the operation room; there came two doctors who were women. They change my clothes and they made me lie down on the bed and they injected me with some drugs. After that, voluntarily, you are going into sleep and you go out of the consciousness [general anesthetic], and you never woke up, unless they took the kidney and closed the operation wound after it had been taken.

S: Did the doctor explain what was happening? Did anyone give you information about the surgery itself?

P: The two doctors who changed our clothes, they explain to me how the operation will be done, they told me, kidney side will open easily and then it will be closed after they open, and it will be done smoothly.

S: And did they pay you afterward?

P: After the surgery they took us back to the apartment. We went back into the same apartment we were staying at. The money came in the next day. Everyone they gave an envelope and told everyone to find his name on envelopes and take his money.

S: Full $5,000?

P: $6,000, big ones.

S: More than you had agreed?

P: $6,000. Yes.

S: You were happy with this?

P: When I got the money, of course I was happy [laughing].

S: Did it last for long? How did you use it?

P: No.

S: What happened?

P: I sent $1,000 for my uncle back in Eritrea; they bought a home there. My sisters are coming here to Egypt in two months. I used $1,000 to rent an apartment for myself. I spent money in shopping, I used on clothes, watches, hats. Having fun.

S: How are you doing now?

P: My situation right now, I went back to work again.

S: What are you working at?

P: I’m working at car washing.

S: Is that OK?

P: Somehow.

S: Do they pay you fairly?

P: They give us E£400 [Egyptian pounds, about $22] a week. That’s OK.

S: What happened with your asylum claim? Have you told anyone else about this [selling kidney]?

P: I spoke with the UN, and they gave me a yellow card, and nothing happened until now. UN just give a yellow card and just write protection on the card, but they never really provide protection. Sometimes they send you to a church in Zamalek called All Saints. They gave me food for a month, and going back to Caritas that gives medication, and some assistances like that. But only Dawitt knows about this [points to abdomen] and you. He said you are a good guy. I think you are.

S: Thank you. How have you been feeling since the operation? Your health.

P: After the kidney was taken, I cannot work, sleep well. I cannot play football with my friends. There are many things I cannot do it right now.

S: Do you [Dawitt] feel the same?

D: Yeah. I feel the same. I cannot liftsomething heavy, I cannot go to gym, and I cannot take the stairs.

P: I noticed yesterday you [Dawitt] looked so tired.

D: Yeah, I was really tired. I don’t know about you [Petros], but I want to leave. I want to leave by boat and I want to go to Australia.

S: Would you stay here, or would you consider going a different way?

P: I would like to go somewhere else. For several times, I go to Alex [Alexandria] to go somewhere else by smuggling but I couldn’t make it. I have been trying to go to Libya, to get to Europe by sea. Every time I went on sea by boat, the coast guards catch us and then send us back.

S: Can you tell me more about the boats?

P: The coast guards ask about our ID. If you have a Sudanese passport, they deport you to Sudan, but we gave them our UN cards, so they released us in Cairo. The police call UN and tell them that here there are some who want to escape by smuggling, what should we do, and the UN response: just release them in Cairo.

S: Do you pay the smugglers in advance?

P: So you don’t pay in the beginning. You have to make an agreement with the smuggler and give him half of the money, and you will leave the rest of the money with your brother or friend. When you arrive there, you going to call that someone that you had leftthe money with, and tell him, I had arrived, and then he going to give him the rest of the money. In case you didn’t make it and you didn’t arrive, when you came back you going to take the rest of, half of, the money from him. Some people they don’t give your money back; some people they tell you it’s not our problem you came back, so you lost your money.

S: Do you have to know someone in particular?

P: You don’t have to know some particular you can deal with anyone, but you don’t have to give all your money to someone.

D: You just give him half of the money.

S: Was it better in Sudan?

P: In Sudan, of course was better. Even if there was some harassment, but they will never beat you or hustling to take your money. And they don’t put you in prison like they do here and beat you.

D: Here they beat you and take your phone and your money. One day I was walking on the street, someone came with knife, and after I ran they cut me on my legs so they could take my phone. We are facing injustice, racial discrimination. That’s why people want to leave Egypt. Not just us. The Egyptians want to leave too.

S: Can you tell me a little more about this network, this broker from Sudan? He was working with an Egyptian and you mentioned there were people guarding the apartment.

P: The Sudanese broker talks to you, and the Egyptian come after to talk and convince you. After the operation, someone will come to the apartment to knock on the door to give you the money. You don’t have any communication with them [brokers] at this time. You only talk with someone who is in charge of the apartment. He is the only person you can talk to, and this person is always an Egyptian. And the Sudanese [brokers] just talk to you by the phone. They don’t want to have nothing to do with you after the operation. They [broker network] only give him about $500 to recruit a person, and then he keeps silent after that.

S: What about the doctor?

P: The doctor, also you don’t see them. They drug you [general anesthetic], and you don’t see them after that. You only see the two nurses before and after the operation, but you will never see the doctor even before or after.

S: Is this still happening?

P: Yes, it happens now without papers [consent forms].

S: Really?

P: Yeah, it’s happening right now. It’s like a network, a mafia. All just word of mouth, to speak, to know, through the people. This is the only way to know what they are doing. Because now some who donated their kidney is scared to talk about these issues. He [the organ seller] will be in a bad psychological situation. He doesn’t want anyone to know this case. Only if you met someone who have the courage to talk and tell you that he has done a kidney operation. People feel ashamed to talk about this, what they have done. I am glad I can tell you this and you can know, and others will know because of you.

S: I will do my best. . . . How many nationalities are involved?

P: There are many nationalities involved: Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan . . .

S: What about Syrian, Yemeni, and other nationalities?

P: There are Yemeni involved.

S: But mostly Sudanese, Eritrean, and Somalis?

P: Mostly Sudanese, some Djibouti and other Africans, and right now there is a war in Yemen. Some people come from Yemen with money and others they come without money; and those who come with no money, they sell their kidney to survive.

S: OK, I think that’s enough questions. Let’s relax. Really, thank you for talking to me.

P: Thank you, man. I want that book when you’re finished.

This transcript was recorded in English and Arabic. The respondent [Petros] could understand and speak some English but would revert to using Arabic when providing more detailed discussion. The interview was conducted with an interpreter from Sudan [Solomon]. The dialogue is repeated verbatim as it was recorded and communicated to me. The interpreter’s first language is Arabic. The vernacular in the dialogue reflects this.