Monthly Archives: January 2011

Camel wrestling etc

My audio story on the Selcuk camel wrestling is online now. You can listen to it here.

I also have a piece out on SETimes that is looking at the related issues of Turkey’s immigration readmission pact with the EU (currently being negotiated) and visa liberalization.

Whilst this might not immediately seem like a subject to set the pulse racing, it’s generated some heated debate on the comments section of the website. One of the more interesting features of SETimes is the fact that each story and comment is translated into ten different languages, resulting in some intense cross-cultural dialogues.

The comments on the visa story bear out how intensely many Turks feel about this issue. From the story:

According to Cengiz Aktar, chairman of the Department of EU Relations at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University, the EU’s past reluctance to liberalise its visa regime has caused “huge damage” to its perception in the country.

“Turks are systematically humiliated with visas,” Aktar told SETimes. “EU businessman can jump on the plane in the morning, sign the deal, and that’s that, but the Turk simply can’t do that: he’s queuing at the consulate.”

While a host of Balkan countries — including Serbia, Albania and Bosnia Herzegovina — have recently secured EU visa waivers, Turks have been forced to look on with envy, despite being a membership candidate, and holding a customs union with the EU since 1996.

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‘Dr Frankenstein’ speaks…

I recently interviewed Yusuf Ercin Sonmez, the transplant surgeon charged in relation to the organ trafficking scandal at the Medicus clinic in Kosovo.

The interview appeared in the Times today, and you can read it here (or, more likely, you can’t because you’re not signed up to the paywall).

For those of you not up to speed, the Medicus Clinic is at the centre of an alleged organ snatching ring, which involved scamming impoverished donors into giving kidneys which were then sold to recipients from Israel, Germany and elsewhere.

It blew up into an international news story because elements within the Kosovan government were allegedly involved, and more importantly, the case has been linked to a Council of Europe report (which makes fascinating, chilling reading) investigating alleged war crimes by Kosovo’s current leadership during their war of independence against Serbia.

Most shockingly, the report claims KLA leaders murdered Serb prisoners and sold their organs into the black market.

Sonmez is accused of being a lynchpin of the organ trafficking operation at Medicus, and performing kidney transplants there during 2008. He was arrested last week in Istanbul, bailed, and is now fighting extradition to Kosovo.

He is, to put it mildly, a controversial figure. Dubbed ‘Dr Frankenstein’, ‘Dr Vulture’ and ‘The Butcher’ in the Turkish press, he first came to public attention 14 years ago when a Turkish TV show conducted an undercover investigation into his transplant activities in Istanbul.

In 2002, Marina Jimenez of Canada’s National Post did a 5,000-word investigative piece on him and the international organ trafficking network of which he is allegedly an integral part. Not sure if it’s free anywhere online, but here it is on Highbeam. I thoroughly, thoroughly recommend it.

I was a little surprised when he agreed to an interview, but he had obviously decided (unwisely, in my opinion) to go to the press to try to clear his name in relation to this latest controversy. We met at his lawyer’s office, and I had no expectation of him saying anything earth-shattering.

Here is his explanation (from my Times story) of his work at Medicus:

Dr Sönmez said that his first contact with Medicus was when he was invited to take up a post there in late 2007. He said that he worked there for ten months, but only as an adviser and general surgeon.

He said that during his time there only one kidney transplant took place. The donor was Yilmaz Altun, 23, a Turk whose collapse at Pristina airport in November 2008 prompted the investigation. Mr Altun told UN police at the airport that his kidney had been stolen. He claimed that the surgeon who transferred it to an elderly Israeli recipient was Dr Sönmez.

“That was the first and the last at the clinic,” Dr Sönmez said, claiming that he did not perform the operation himself. “Normally, I follow all my patients until they are discharged. But in that case I was only the adviser. I stayed two days and then I left. After that, the whole scandal blew up.”

But Sonmez’ comments regarding his earlier career did surprise me. He told me he had performed 2,400 kidney transplants in his career, and when I asked him whether he ever suspected criminal activity surrounding the provision of his donors, or asked how they were matched with recipients, he said:

“If I ask how they do it, I’d be involved in it, so why would I ask? I need the official papers — that’s all.”

 He portrayed himself as a professional focused solely on his trade, to the exclusion of all other considerations- even moral ones.

When I asked him if he ever had ethical doubts about his work, he became pensive, paused for a long time, before saying: “It’s not a good question.”

He then embarked on a somewhat tortured analogy, likening his profession as a surgeon to that of an actor performing a role.

“The actor who puts his real emotions into a part can cry on the first night, the second night, maybe the third night, but after that, no more. The actor who just performs the role can cry for a hundred nights… There are rules that are written. There is nothing about morals and ethics- I try not to get mixed up in morals and ethics.”

This may seem shocking, until you consider the seriousness of the allegations against Sonmez: he has been accused many times over the years of being a key player in an organ trafficking operation. Sonmez has said in the past that the organ trade should be legalized and regulated, but people who claim to have been operated on by him have said they were forced to give up their kidneys at knifepoint.

Sonmez cannot reasonably claim that the poor young Turks and Eastern Europeans he has operated on were donating their kidneys to rich, old Israelis on purely humanitarian grounds. But he can, and does, claim that he was both morally and wilfully ignorant of what was really going on. This may or may not be true.

I asked him finally why he has persisted for more than 15 years in a notorious career that has destroyed his reputation. Would it not have been easier to just do something else?

“I was getting money, it was very easy.” he said. “I didn’t have to look around to collect patients to operate on. It was one week working, three weeks taking holidays. Is it not comfortable?”

Spittle at Selcuk

At the weekend I was lucky enough to enjoy a uniquely Turkish experience: the annual camel wrestling festival at Selcuk on the Aegean coast.

I was reporting on it for three different publications, doing written stories, an audio podcast, and a photo-essay. You can see my report in the Times here. The rest are coming later in the week.

But I slightly wish I’d just been there as a tourist, since I spent most of my time running around like a headless chicken. It’s an odd irony of journalism that when covering events like this you focus so much on what’s going on that you leave with the feeling that you haven’t quite taken it in.

And there was a lot to take in. I hadn’t anticipated the number of people (some 20,000), nor how avidly interested they all were. At one point, the crowd got so angry with journos blocking their view by taking pictures inside the arena that all of us were thrown out. I frequently got shouted at for blocking people’s sightlines.

The other thing that surprised me was how genuinely exciting the matches were. For those handful of people in the world not familiar with the sport, camel wrestling involves a duel between two male camels in which each tries to push the other onto his knees (though I admit I’m not entirely confident on what constitutes a ‘win’).

The combatants are all hybrids of the one-humped dromedary and the two-humped bactrian, and are bought mainly from Iran and Afghanistan, where they are apparently bred specially for the Turkish market.

The sport has no organizing federation, and so hard stats are difficult to come by, but I gathered that there are perhaps around 2,500 wrestling camels in Turkey.

Before witnessing the sport myself, I had imagined the term ‘wrestling’ was a misleading anthropomorphism of what actually went on. But that was the other thing that surprised me: the camels really were wrestling. Almost solely using their necks and forelegs, they deployed an arsenal of holds, blocks, swipes, and trips. The only handicaps were tight halters that prevented them biting each other.

To give you a sense of the tactical complexity that aficionados of the sport attribute to it, here’s perhaps my favourite quote of the weekend, from an official at the festival.

When asked if there had ever been a legendary camel that was head and hump above the rest, he told us of ‘Crazy Ozer’. “He’s unbeatable,” he said. “He fights with his brain- even a man couldn’t fight that good. He changes his tactics according to the strength and weight of his foe.”

I’ll let this video say the rest:

Fans and owners we interviewed were keen to distance it from bullfighting and the like, insisting that officials took every possible precaution to prevent injuries. In spite of the odd nosebleed, this seemed to be true. A dozen or so people were constantly on hand to drag apart the combatants (who can weigh up to 700kg) if they got out of control.

The atmosphere was something else again. Wreathed in the smoke of their barbeques, spectators drunk raki, ate sandwiches of sizzling camel sausage (pleasant, surprisingly mild), and danced to the zurnu (imagine a vuvuzela you can play a tune on).

A large proportion of the natural amphitheatre was taken up with some quite extensive Byzantine ruins, and in true Turkish style, toppled columns served as benches from which to watch the action.

I even saw this:

A country must truly have an embarrassment of archaeological riches when you can use what appears to be an ancient capital to help ring your campfire.

And of course, who could forget this?