- Associated Press - Sunday, October 16, 2011

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — 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.”

Mr. Cehajic put Ljiljana Kranjc on the air, and Bosnians soon were pledging money for surgery to save her from a fatal liver disease.

It was the start of something big. Today, millions of people tune to Mr. 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.

More than $40 million has been collected so far, with thousands of listeners making donations from about a half-dollar upward, allowing desperate people to travel abroad for life-saving 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.

Mr. Cehajic launched his medical talk show 12 years ago after he lost his own 19-month-old daughter because he did not have $206,000 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.”

Mr. 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 Ms. Krajnc in the studio, Mr. Cehajic tried something new: He announced her bank account number and vowed not to end the program until $137,000 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. Mr. Cehajic brought them all together into a nongovernmental organization called Open Network, which through his talk program has so far saved 117 lives.

Today, the show also airs in Serbia and Croatia.

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