I VISITED Sarajevo a few times in my previous life as a print journalist with the Business Times. This was part of the "on the job training" and exposure one has to go through as a journalist. I was sent to Belgrade to learn about, and provided coverage, of the month-long UN Conference for Trade and Development
Accompanied by friends and officers from the Primary Industries Ministry, we took a train ride to the famous city for lunch. And of course we took a picture of ourselves at the bridge which sparked the first world war. Sarajevo in the early '80s was part of Tito's Yugoslavia. It was a memorable visit indeed!
But a more memorable visit (for a different reason) was the one I made in the '90s when Yugoslavia vanished from the world's map to be replaced by Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia. Ethnic cleansing and political indifference were the midwives for these new nations.
Sarajevo was a city beaten and battered, ravaged by acts of unimaginable cruelty. I stayed at the Holiday Inn, whose windows were shattered by bullets and hotel guests had to make do with minimum comforts. Far cry from its glory days. The nights were cold and the days were warm but damp.
But Malaysia's name had apparently been etched deep in the hearts of many Bosnians, especially those in Sarajevo. Made aware by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad who made continous statements about the ethnic cleansing and other acts of cruelty in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Malaysians rallied behind Bosnians in many ways.
I remember being part of the Barisan Bertindak Bosnia (Bosnian Action Front) which was a loose grouping of NGOs and newspaper editors who devoted time, energy and space to highlight the plight of the Bosnians. Tun Mahathir as the Prime Minister then approved the sending of peace-keeping forces under UN sponsorship and ordinary Malaysians took part in a nationwide RM1 fund raising to help Bosnians reclaim their lives.
It was after all these that I visited Sarajevo again. The Bosnians, I later learnt, are grateful people. They remember us well. They remember the rakyat's funds collected via the Barisan Bertindak Boania which were given in two trenches.
The first was given in New York via Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi when he was Foreign Minister attending the UN assembly; and the second via Tun Dr Mahathir in an old mosque in the heart of Sarajevo. The handing over was just after Zohor prayers, meaning that the mosque was sufficiently repaired to enable jemaah prayers.
When we walked in the streets of old Sarajevo, the citizens gave us gifts; souvenirs were bought at discounts; and there were invitations for coffee all the time. It was a visit that held many fond memories. Dr Mahathir, more than anyone, was the reason for the warmth and hospitality that Malaysians enjoyed.
Just before taking our flight home, I stopped at a school which was rebuilt by Malaysian funds. Tun Dr Mahathir and his wife, Tun Dr Siti Hasmah mohd Ali, had stopped at the school because the teachers, students and pupils, and parents wanted to say Thank You.
It was a Thank You that brought tears to one's eyes and made our hair stood on ends. The whole school had lined the yard leading to the hall and the children sang a haunting tune that made everyone speechless.
I recalled that moment and the visits after reading the Sunday Star (Feb 4) where it was reported that Bosnian NGOs had nominated Dr M for the Nobel Peace Prize. It's a report that made my day, and many others too I'm sure.
As I said earlier, the Bosnians do remember, and continue to show their gratitude...