The last week has seen a range of stories both on social media and in the mainstream about children, particularly in Punjab but other parts of the country as well, who have gone missing. The numbers were alarming, but of equal concern was the story within the story that some of those missing children were being taken to have their organs harvested.
Some of the social media posts were yet more disturbing — that children were dissolved in vats of acid after they had organs removed (an echo of a previous mass-murder where allegedly victims were disposed of in the same way by Javed Iqbal) and that at least two bodies had been found with incision marks.
A picture of a girl trussed up in a cardboard box was circulated. It was alleged to have been taken in Lahore. It was that picture that finally set me looking for connections and verification — and came up mostly empty handed.
Firstly, the tangled story of the body in the box. This story has its origins in Indonesia, not Malaysia or Thailand. It showed up in a Singaporean online newspaper originally, making no mention of Lahore. It was alleged that the child, with others, was found in a truck on the Thai-Malay border and that she was being taken to Thailand for her organs to be harvested.
It looked plausible… but I dug deeper and my original conclusions were wrong — and I had fallen into the same trap as others by sharing with friends and colleagues incorrect information. A salutary lesson.
The box was the clue. It has a name prominently displayed — SanQua — which is an Indonesian brand of bottled water not available in Malaysia or Thailand and the girl in the box has a name — Putri Nur Fauziah.
She went missing on October 1, 2015, was reported as such by her parents, and her body was found a day later on a rubbish dump near her home, not in a truck bound for Thailand. She had been raped and asphyxiated. A suspect is in custody, but poor Putri has gone viral on the internet and in Pakistan finds herself in Lahore, but bound for an organ farm somewhere in Thailand.
A person unknown circulated the pictures of her body with Lahore as the key addition. It got ‘forwarded’ countless times and the completely unfounded belief that children were being kidnapped in Lahore, bundled up and shipped abroad to have their organs removed and transplanted was born. It will have a longer life than that of the murdered child that gave birth to it.
Looking wider I found an absence of any records or verified reports of the cadavers of children being found with the tell-tale marks of organ removal. There were no reports of an autopsy that I could find, neither were there any first-hand and independently verified reports of the bodies of children sans organs being retrieved.
No photographs either. Neither were there reports that I could find of the police or any other investigative agency having found evidence of a ‘mafia’ involved in the child-organ trade, nor of any raid on a hospital or other medical facility that was engaged in such illegal business.
No doctors or anesthetists had been detained (it needs both to remove organs) and there was no evidence of a clandestine cold-chain to preserve the viability of harvested organs.
There was plenty of evidence on the surface of illegal organ transplants in Pakistan, and of hospitals involved, some named, that have been engaged in such practices for many years.
That they have been in business so long is indicative of an official blind eye being turned to them, indicating complicity in illegal organ transfers at every level of law enforcement in the federal and provincial administrations.
People sell their organs because of grinding poverty or the need to settle a debt or pay for a marriage, but the number who are kidnapped for organ harvesting are seeming vanishingly small. There are enough willing donors to make kidnap-for-harvesting an unlikely option for organised criminals.
And nobody was able to stack up a first-hand account of a child being taken from the streets, brought to a medical facility ad-hoc or otherwise, their organs removed and then killed and their bodies dumped. Not a single end-to-end verifiable incident involving a named child and identified parents.
There also emerged some interesting evidence about the way that missing children are recorded by the police. Children who go missing and are reported as such are often recorded by the police as ‘abducted’ whatever the actual reason for their absence from the home.
An administrative convenience perhaps but this alone skews perceptions… ‘abducted’ is not a million miles in the minds of most people from ‘kidnapped’. And that includes journalists. Most of those ‘abducted’ — 98 per cent — either go back of their own volition or are found by the police or welfare agencies. Which leaves two per cent still missing and a host of questions.
The Punjab police have done something to address this issue, and presented a well-designed infographic that broke down the various categories of missing children and the resolution of their cases. Helpful as it is to those of us that see it, most will not, and the ‘kidnapped’ perception will remain firmly embedded in the wider public consciousness.
Lastly, in my unhappy trawl through this slough of misery I was struck by an almost complete absence of critical thinking. Hundreds of thousands of people happily disseminating material unquestioningly, and propagating folk devils and moral panics almost willy-nilly — and who can be distinctly disgruntled when challenged as my inbox bore evidence of. You disagree with me at your peril, Mr Cork.
I have no doubt whatsoever that children are being kidnapped, but equally have found not a shred of verifiable evidence that they are being fed into the national or global illegal organ trade. Think before you press ‘enter’ or ‘send’, check sources and origins and set your credulity filters to ‘on’.