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Puan Hairani of Makan Cafe looking at pictures of the victims of the Grenfell fire, some of whom were her customers.
The writer standing behind the thin blue line in the aftermath of the London Bridge attack on June 3, 2017. PIX BY ZAHARAH OTHMAN

WHEN people ask me how I get to know about a certain incident, how I go about getting a story, I tell them to follow their gut feeling and their instincts. Follow your nose, I say.

That’s what happened during the London riots when Malaysian student Asyraf Hazifq unwittingly fell victim for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. I got his story in spite of an official statement that no Malaysians were affected in the riots.

Sometimes statements like this make me wonder. With the time difference between here and Malaysia, and with a story that is developing how can a statement be issued so soon?

To do a coverage, as a news correspondent abroad, you will have to cross several obstacles and convince the gatekeepers to make sure your stories get to see the light of day.

This was what happened on the morning of July 14, 2017. We had just finished our sahur at about 3am, when we received a message from a friend about a big fire breaking out not too far away from where we live. It was the big fire that ravaged the Grenfell Tower block in west London, killing 72 people.

Although a statement was already issued by Wisma Putra that no Malaysians were affected, I still made my way to White City, the nearest station to the location.

It was Ramadhan, the block of flats was said to be occupied by those from Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan and more.

Much later, I was to learn that there were indeed Malaysians living in the vicinity that were evacuated during the night.

I wandered among the people, many were still dazed from what had happened during the night.

They had left their homes with whatever they could grab, mostly with their children safe under their care. Sadly, many didn’t make it.

I saw a woman stopping people, showing them pictures of her five-year old son on her phone. She asked if anyone had seen him. In the chaos and dark stairways, she had handed over her son to a neighbour while she ran back to rescue her other children. That was the last time she saw him.

It was heartbreaking. In the midst of such heartbreaking scenes, I received a message from my son that his friend and family had been evacuated.

My nose suddenly picked up something newsworthy here. Most of my son’s football playing friends are Malaysians or Malaysian-born. And Zeferi Mohamed Zaidell was one of them.

In no time, I managed to find Zeferi who was now sitting on the green telling me about it. He looked worn out after being woken up by his daughter, with police banging on his doors in the early hours of the morning.

He and his young family were asked to vacate his flat, annexed to the burning tower. It had been their home for the past 10 years.

Zeferi, whose father Zaidell was a student officer at the Malaysian Students Department in London some years ago, was lucky that he could take his young family to his mother in law’s house nearby.

He returned to the scene to help distribute drinks, food and clothes which were fast coming from generous donors.

Stories coming out from the tragedy and the pandemonium that erupted were heartbreaking, and humbling at the same time.

Many residents were saved when people who were coming back from terawih prayers saw the burning tower and called the fire brigades. They even helped with the rescue efforts.

Families reported to have received final phone calls from relatives trapped in their flats, those who decided not to leave their elderly parents behind.

Getting the stories over took some convincing. An editor for a television station I contributed to had insisted on relying on the Wisma Putra statement although I maintained that a Malaysian family was affected by the tragedy.

As the person reporting from ground zero, so to speak, surely my words would suffice. As the tragedy happened to fellow Muslims during the holy month of Ramadhan, it would surely mean something.

I persevered with developing my story. I talked to volunteers helping at the centres and met many Malaysian students who helped.

I went to see Hairani Mohamad, who owns the Makan Café nearby and wondered if she knew any of the victims. I took her to the scene, already a smouldering wreck. Walking along a stretch that had turned into a “wall” of remembrance, she saw many pictures of those who used to be her customers.

Hairani wasted no time gathering friends to cook and deliver food to the temporary accommodations of the victims.

Having a Malaysian angle in stories like this helped boost its newsworthiness, even make it to the front page. But what’s more important here is the story about humanity.

This reminded me of the London bombings in July, 2005. In spite of the looming threat of Islamophobia, I went to the scene where a bus had exploded in Russel Square.

This then led me to the house of one survivor, Pak Agus, a manager of an Indonesian bank in London.

Sure, he wasn’t a Malaysian, but his jaw-dropping story about his experience on the double decker bus — seeing the roof being ripped off by the explosion and body parts strewn around him as he made his way out, was something I will always remember. I needed to tell his story.

I can still remember what he told me when I asked him: What was it that saved him?

In a thick Javanese accent, he said: “Whenever I leave home, I leave with my ablution for prayers, and with every step I take, I recite the zikir (recitation of prayers in remembrance of God).”

On March 22, 2017, the world was rocked again by an attack outside Westminster Palace. A policeman was stabbed to death in what was termed as “a terrorist attack”. Earlier, he had driven his car along Westminster Bridge and rammed it into a group of pedestrians, injuring 50 people.

On June 3, 2017, three people drove a hired van across London Bridge, running over pedestrians before continuing on foot and stabbing people at random at Borough Market and nearby restaurants.

As these incidents were termed “Islamist-related terrorism”, I felt it was my duty to report about them because they affect us all, as Muslims and human beings.

I didn’t go there just to find out if Malaysians were involved, or affected.

Then, among the crowd of people, police and journalists, I found a Malaysian lady with a placard pleading for the spread of love and peace in these very trying times.

Later in June that year in what was dubbed as tit-for-tat attack, a man who drove from Wales wreaked vengeance against Muslims who came out of a mosque after terawih prayers. An elderly man died.

I was there again, standing behind the thin blue line, pleading with the policeman to allow me to go into the mosque to see where the congregation stood before the attack.

The next day, I pleaded again with another policeman to be allowed in, when Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn came to visit and lend his support to the Muslim community.

I needed to see this to restore my faith in the so-called spirit of tolerance among the British community I am now a part of. I needed to see what was being done by the Muslim community to show that Islam is a religion of peace and that no one had the right to carry out any form of violence in the name of Islam.

And I will continue to do so at any event, tragic or not, and whether or not there are any Malaysians affected.

To do this, I will continue to trust my nose.

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