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Could Syria be harvesting human organs?

With hundreds, perhaps thousands, of prisoners and critically wounded civilians having vanished, it is worth investigating whether the supply of fresh organs has matched rising demand in the country

I thought I’d seen it all: random shooting and shelling of civilians, children executed by Assad’s thugs, bodies thrown off of roofs, teenagers’ tortured corpses. Then this week I saw on YouTube a man being buried alive by Syrian soldiers.

Today’s cell phone cameras capture everything, and the human rights organizations, if they’re doing their jobs, should be cataloging it all for the future trials for crimes against humanity.

But here’s a guess and question, pure conjecture about the Assad regime’s barbarism: Could they be harvesting human organs?

The nightmare came to me after reading a weekend feature in Yedioth Ahranoth in March about the border crossing between Israel and Syria. In the “good old days” before the civil war, Druse residents of the Golan Heights would send shipments of apples across the border, or brides would cross to meet their intended husbands. “There were approximately 100,000 crossings of UN personnel at the Kuneitra border gate,” the reporter wrote. “About 3,000 for humanitarian purposes – for medical reasons, mostly organ transplants in the hospitals in Damascus.”

An IDF soldier oversees the delivery of apples from Israel to Syria through the Kuneitra checkpoint in 2007 (photo credit: Haim Azulay/Flash90)
An IDF soldier oversees the delivery of apples from Israel to Syria through the Kuneitra checkpoint in 2007 (photo credit: Haim Azulay/Flash90)

According to Israeli government sources, the exit permits are granted by Israel’s Ministry of Interior. Many of the medical requests are for dental work or cosmetic surgery. But what of the transplants in Damascus?

In July 2010, during a tour of an Israeli hospital, Israel’s deputy minister Ayub Kara told Yediot that members of the Golan Druze community crossed the border and underwent organ transplants in Syria, receiving organs donated by relatives. The Israeli hospital responded that it would offer to carry out the transplants.

Private and public hospitals in Syria carry out transplant surgeries, particularly kidney transplants. By no means do I suggest that a particular doctor or hospitals are harvesting organs, only presenting the data and raising general questions about transplant facilities in Syria and their critical shortage of organs.

Dr. B. Saeed of the Surgical Kidney Hospital in Damascus has provided information to medical journals on transplant activity his country. Five years ago he wrote in a publication of the American National Institute of Health about “the problem of the widening gap between organ supply and demand in our country and… highlighted the obstacles to initiating a national deceased donation program as a viable option to address the challenge of organ shortage.”

In 2010, Saeed contributed to the International Journal of Organ Transplantation Medicine an article, “Current Challenges of Organ Donation Programs in Syria,” in which he described the practice of “kidney selling:

…although prohibited, [selling] has quickly become a common and readily available source of organs, and vendors have found ways to sell their kidneys through disreputable brokers, especially in the private sector.

Four years ago, Syria Today, an English-language publication in Damascus, interviewed a used-car salesman who brokered private kidney sales, some costing $15,000 and up:

Kidney trade is a secretive business in Syria and exact numbers are hard to track down. Physicians, however, say the number could easily reach 200 a year as the gap between organ demand and supply widens.

Today, the gap may have vanished in Syria, with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of prisoners and critically wounded civilians who have vanished.

Human rights investigators must investigate the possibility that some of them were victims of organ harvesting. UN observers should check on the numbers and types of operations being carried out in the three public transplant hospitals and the private hospitals in Damascus.

I pray to God this hunch is wrong, but no depravity is too evil for the Syrian regime.

Perhaps while they’re at it, investigators need to ask about corneal transplants, and who better to ask than a London-trained ophthalmologist named Dr. Bashar Assad.

About the Author
Lenny Ben-David served as a senior Israeli diplomat in Washington. Today he is director of publications at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is a public affairs consultant and publishes israeldailypicture.com. He is the author of "American Interests in the Holy Land Revealed in Early Photographs."