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Running on Love--and Hope : Bosnia: Mirsada Buric's dedication to her war-torn land took her to the Olympics. The devotion of one man brought her to America. But her crusade for peace goes on.

December 28, 1993|LEO W. BANKS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PRESCOTT, Ariz. — Mirsada Buric halts in mid-sentence and her blue eyes fill with wonder. It's as if she can't believe it herself, this impossible story she's telling of finding love amid the savagery of war.

"You cannot know how life will happen," says the 23-year-old Muslim from Bosnia-Herzegovina, shaking her head. "You cannot know."

It began in Sarajevo in the summer of 1992. Buric, one of Yugoslavia's finest international runners, had just spent 13 days in a concentration camp, surviving on a slice of bread and a cup of tea a day.

The horrors she witnessed ignited something in her, a flame of indignation. Her goal had always been to compete at the Olympic Games. But now her desire to get to Barcelona, and to use the Olympics as a stage to speak to the world, became a crusade.

She trained in the streets of Sarajevo, running through Serb sniper fire. Twice she was nearly killed, she says. One bullet whizzed over her head and slammed into a tree where she had stopped to stretch.

The television networks picked up the story of Buric's bravery and beamed it across the world, from Sarajevo to Prescott, where Eric Adam was watching TV in his living room.

What happened to Adam went beyond logic, and it was better than desire. It was love at first sight.

"I whipped around when I saw this woman running," says the soft-spoken Adam, a 35-year-old audio-visual specialist at the veterans' hospital in Prescott. "I was impressed. I knew instantly that I'd meet her some day."

Several months later, he was on a plane to Europe. And on Friday, Adam and Buric will marry in a ceremony in Phoenix.

It seems the perfect end to a magical episode. Except that Buric can't get through the story of their meeting without choking back tears of despair and bitterness at what she left behind.

"People always want to put love in front of our story," says Buric, who has been speaking English for less than a year. "They think I am enjoying now because Eric and I get married. But I am not such a happy person. I am stressful. I cry a lot. Sometimes I have really bad day and cannot stop.

"Every minute of life I think about what is happening to my family in Bosnia. Nothing in this world I can do to stop situation. Sometimes I hate to hear 'love story.' "

Her eyes flash with anger. "What about war? Nobody want to hear about the killing. Why you not want to hear?"

*

On the night of April 5, 1992, Buric was sitting with her brother, Mensud, in the living room of their home in Bojnik, a village outside Sarajevo. They were watching a video when the sky outside ignited.

Buric says she ran to the balcony and saw the night lights of Sarajevo mixing with the lights of exploding bombs. "I hurry downstairs to tell my parents," says Buric, then a college senior about to receive a journalism degree. "They were asleep. I said, 'Mom, the Serbs attack Sarajevo. War has started.' "

Buric ran to the telephone to call her sister, Majda, who lived in the city with her two children. The phone rang 15 times. "I was shaking," Buric says. Finally, Majda answered. She had been in the cellar. "Don't ask me how things are," Majda wept into the phone. "All Sarajevo is burning."

Within six weeks, Bojnik had been surrounded by several Serb factions. According to news reports, they started killing Muslim men and hauling the women and children away to camps. Mensud left home on the first of June to fight, his sister says. It was the last time she saw him.

"We can find no trail what happened to him," Buric says.

The soldiers took Buric, her family and other Muslims from the village to a concentration camp. Some prisoners were beaten. Buric says she was kicked in the face.

Before leaving Bojnik, Buric says she was allowed to return home to collect her trophies. She found the house shot up. She says one of the soldiers followed her inside and tried to rape her. She told him he'd have to kill her first. He relented, probably fearing the repercussions of killing a well-known runner.

Buric was freed in a prisoner exchange. But she couldn't return to her village because it had been "ethnically cleansed" of Muslims. She went to Sarajevo and began running, careful to stay close to buildings to make herself less of a target to enemy rifles.

The start of the Olympics was 26 days away and Buric was in a weakened condition. In besieged Sarajevo, finding enough food to keep her strength was a daily struggle. For that entire training period, she says, she survived only on rice and pasta.

She ate at a Sarajevo hotel that catered to athletes, but Serb snipers had the building under their sights.

"Sniper man everywhere," she says. "They shoot everything moving, but I keep running. I'm a little scared, but I don't care. I keep running. When you spend 13 days in concentration camp and Serbs can kill you any minute, any second, and you know how easy you lose your life, you don't care what happen to you. For me, it was important to be in Barcelona."

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