SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Three years ago, radio presenter Almir Cehajic got a knock on the door at his small Sarajevo station. It was a 38-year-old mother of three he had never met, who said hello and delivered a stark message: "I’m dying."
Cehajic put Ljiljana Kranjc on air and Bosnians were soon pledging money for surgery to save her from a fatal liver disease.
It was the start of something big. Today, millions of people tune into Cehajic’s talk show, which every week highlights the plight of a gravely ill person, collecting donations in the face of a failing health system that has gotten worse as Bosnia plods on without a government for more than a year.
A total of (euro) 30 million (more than $40 million) has been collected so far, with thousands making donations from a half euro upward, allowing desperate people to travel abroad for lifesaving surgery.
For many, what is most striking about the outpouring of generosity is that it cuts across ethnic and religious lines in an impoverished nation that remains torn by animosities stemming from the 1992-1995 war that pitted Muslim Bosniaks, Catholic Croats, and Orthodox Christian Serbs against one another.
Cehajic launched his medical talk show 12 years ago after he lost his own 19-month-old daughter because he did not have (euro) 150,000 for her heart surgery in Germany.
"She died and I died the same day," he says. "I feel like I am carrying a knife in my chest ever since."
Cehajic, a dentist, took on the show as a second job to publicize Bosnia’s health crisis and the problem of expensive surgeries abroad. Soon he had almost 3,000 callers who shared their horror stories with the public.
With Krajnc in the studio, Cehajic tried something new: He announced her bank account number on air and vowed not to end the program until (euro) 100,000 was collected for her surgery in Italy.
"I was desperate, I called the president live on the program, the prime minister, actors … everybody I could," he recalled. The donation hot-line number spread explosively by text message and on the Internet.
"Suddenly my producer informed me that 5,000 people called. Then 10,000. Then 20,000. Then 50,000," he said. "Then we saved Ljiljana Krajnc."
The astonishing response prompted 52 radio and two TV stations across Bosnia to begin airing his show. Cehajic brought them all together into a non-governmental organization called Open Network, which through his talk program has so far saved 117 lives. Today, the show also airs in Serbia and Croatia.
Ruzica Mrkajic from Bobar radio, which serves as the Open Network coordinator for the Bosnian Serb part of the country, is mostly amazed with how the show connected former bitter enemies that still can’t get along.
Bosnia remains split into two semi-autonomous ethnic mini-states in an unwieldy setup that has produced anomalies such as 13 health ministries, a bureaucratic nightmare that is one of the causes of Bosnia’s medical care dysfunction. Ethnic groups have squabbled over representation in ministries, blocking the formation of a government since October last year.
"Somehow this plight brought all Bosnians together. We share our sorrows and our happiness … I am so glad we managed to pull this off," Mrkajic said.
The network has helped 3,200 people with non-lethal diseases and extended financial assistance to 5,000 people in extreme poverty.
Among those saved through the program was Ajsa Hajdarevic, a 20-month-old baby born with multiple brain and intestine disorders.
A provincial hospital sent her to a state-run clinic in the capital Sarajevo, where doctors treated her for free because her insurance wouldn’t pay for her treatment. Eventually, however, she was declared a hopeless case and sent home. Unemployed father Edin Hajdarevic approached the Open Network for help.
"She was slowly turning black … Had Batko not intervened, I swear to you I would have taken a gun and killed my Ajsa and then myself. I would not have been able to watch her agony any longer," said Hajdarevic, referring to Cehajic by his radio nom de guerre.
The response to the appeal was enormous. The money was sent by Bosnians who saw the show on satellite TV while working in Afghanistan, the United States and around Europe, but most of it came from local viewers.
Within a few weeks, people collected (euro) 45,000 for surgery in a German hospital this summer. It saved Ajsa’s life but did not cure her. More funds were collected to buy proper equipment that allows her brain to get enough oxygen at home. There are plans for her to return to Germany for further treatment.
Cehajic recounts how a man from the former Bosnian Serb stronghold of Pale got on a bus to Sarajevo to deliver (euro) 5 for Asja to Open Network — explicitly asking the money to go for the Muslim baby in central Bosnia.
Currently the show is on a (euro) 144,000 collection drive for a bone marrow transplant for 11-year-old Bosnian Serb Ognjen Gudelj, who suffers from Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a type of blood cancer.
Gudelj is in a hospital in Kiel, Germany, waiting for the funds to come through so his operation can go forward. Again, the entire country is donating.
Another difficult case aired recently: An 8-year-old girl — her favorite word "beautiful", her favorite color pink — who doctors say is expected to die within a few weeks.
Confused by the studio lights, Mediha Muratovic kept scratching the Hello Kitty sticker on her trousers as Cehajic explained the slim chance of saving her life with a lung and heart transplant in Austria.
The show was aired in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia and riveted the public.
Thanks to the viewers’ donations, Mediha will travel to Vienna in 10 days to see if surgery is possible. Cehajic explained on air that if an operation is possible it would probably cost hundreds of thousands of euros.
The girl’s single and unemployed mother Rejhana Mujagic, 29, covered her tearful face with her hands in shock. She never heard of anyone having this much money.
Cehajic took Mediha in his lap and addressed Bosnia’s politicians, who that day again had failed to form a government.
"How much did you spend on your security for today’s meeting? Did you actually do anything?" he asked.
As the show ended, Mediha whispered to Cehajic: "You are beautiful, Batko."