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Macabre Market

Skopje’s medical students are buying bones stolen from graves. They say they have no other choice. [Also in Russian.] by Ljubica Grozdanovska 17 March 2008 SKOPJE | Like a character in a crime movie, Olga walked through the dark alleys of the city’s Taftalidje district late one February night. Waiting in the shadows was a person whose name she didn’t know. Olga had made a deal with him on the phone a few days before to buy a human skull.

“I don’t know this person. I don’t know what he looks like or how he will provide the skull,” said Olga, whose name was changed to protect her identity. “It was his idea to meet here in these alleys, and he insisted that it must be in the evening. I’m so afraid.”

Trade in human bones is illegal in Macedonia, so medical students like Olga turn to the black market to acquire skulls and other bones for hands-on home study of human anatomy. Students at the Medical Faculty of Sts. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje aren’t allowed to take the medical school’s bones home.

The risk of being caught buying bones is negligible, students say, compared with the possibility of failing the difficult anatomy exam that is required to receive a medical degree.

Students find bone dealers through friends at school. Most of the bones come from undertakers who steal them for sale.

“Almost all students at the faculty buy bones from undertakers,” Olga said. “There are rumors that some undertakers dig into old and abandoned graves – graves that no one visits anymore. A whole network has developed. Students from Skopje buy bones from graveyards in Bitola and vice versa, so no one can track them.”
The plot of last year’s Macedonian film “Shadows” involves the trade in human bones. Photo: Bavaria Film International

When the day came for Olga to buy the skull, she almost didn't go through with it. One thought encouraged her not to back out.

“I have to buy a real human skull because that is the only way I can study and pass this exam,” Olga said.

After 20 minutes of suspenseful waiting, the “bone dealer” finally showed up. He told Olga the skull would cost 50 euros.

“The most important thing is that you shouldn’t say where you got it because we both will be in trouble,” the man said. He told Olga that if she needed more bones, she should let him know a few weeks in advance. A bone would cost between 15 and 20 euros.

“Think about it,” the man said.

Olga pulled 50 euros from her pocket, and the man handed over a black plastic bag he took from his car before driving away.

Nervously, Olga clutched the plastic bag, but she didn’t dare open it until she was far away from the scene.

She opened the bag as soon as she got home. The skull was only chipped in a few places. Olga judged that it must have belonged to a young woman.

THE REAL THING

Medical students in Macedonia insist that they need to have real skulls and other bones at home for study because the practice they get with them in the classroom is insufficient.

Professors recommend that they buy plastic replicas. But students say the alternatives aren’t good enough – even though they cost less than the real thing. A plastic skull costs around 30 euros.

“The plastic skulls don’t have all the details that we need to know if we want to pass the anatomy exam. So we are forced to buy real ones,” Olga said.

After examining her acquisition, Olga said the skull she had purchased was not in as good a condition as it should have been. Nevertheless, she was happy she finally had one.

Most skulls sold on the black market are dug straight from the grave and are often dirty or broken, which makes them difficult to study.

Many students have to prepare their purchased skulls for study by themselves. Students often re-sell their bones after taking the exam.

A 32-year-old graduate from the Skopje Medical Faculty who spoke anonymously said he once bought a poorly preserved skull from an undertaker near the town of Bitola. It cost him 30 euros.

“I paid a cheap price, but I had to do a lot of work on it,” he said.

He boiled the skull in salt water and filled it with corn. He said this ensures that the bones of the skull and their edges are distinct.

“I finished by painting it with a transparent layer” to give the skull its sheen, he said.

A PUBLIC SECRET

Representatives of several public cemetery management companies did not want to comment on the reports of a black market in bones. Some, however, said they had no evidence of cemetery workers re-opening graves.

A number of undertakers and cemetery workers in Skopje, Bitola, and other towns approached for this article declined to talk about the bone trade. A staff member of the Skopje medical school said school authorities are aware of the situation, but didn't know how to handle it. The staff member declined to give any other information regarding the illegal trade in bones.

A few months ago, Skopje police found a bag full of bones near the Lepenec River. Forensics showed the bones were several decades old. Authorities never found the owner of the bag, nor could they determine what the bones were for.

According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, there are no official cases of bone stealing. Ivo Kotevski, a ministry spokesman, said authorities aren’t sure how to handle what he called the “public secret” of the illegal bone market, because while everyone knows it exists, there is no tangible proof of it.

So public is the secret that it is even mentioned in a movie called Shadows, directed by Milcho Manchevski. In the movie, released last year, a young male doctor is haunted by ghosts. The bones of the four ghosts (a beautiful girl, a middle-aged man, a baby, and an old lady) had been collected from a cemetery in a deserted village. The man’s mother, who is also a doctor, had purchased the bones of the “shadows” illegally from an undertaker.

Olga keeps the skull she bought on her desk. It is the first thing that she sees every morning when she wakes up.

She has taped red and blue wires to it to represent blood vessels and nerves. “You can’t learn this on a plastic skull. That is why I needed the skull so much,” Olga said.

She hasn’t yet decided what to do with the skull when she’s done with it. And while she isn’t worried that she’ll be haunted by a ghost, Olga is curious to know whose skull she bought.

“It’s creepy but dazzling, and you never seem to stop asking yourself to whom it belonged,” she said. “How did this person die? Did she die from natural causes or violently? How old was she when she died?”
Ljubica Grozdanovska is a journalist based in Skopje.
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