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.

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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."

Her athletic goal was to complete the 3,000-meter race for Bosnia. She did, finishing 31st out of 33 runners. "This hardest race of my life," she says. "I had no coach, almost no food. Some people not finish, going through what I go through."

In the Olympic village, Buric was a celebrity. Journalists from around the world tracked her down for interviews and pictures. "These people, they admire me," she says. "But what I do so big? Thousands of people in my country have tragedy just like me."

*

One of those pursuing Buric was Adam. But he had small problem: He didn't know her name. The first televised report he saw came and went so fast he didn't hear it. A week later, there she was again, shown training on the track in Barcelona.

Again her name eluded him. But by now Adam was so captivated by this woman's bravery that he vowed to discover who she was. He hurried to the library and scoured newspapers and sports magazines, hunting for her name.

The next day in the V.A. library, he spotted a blurb about Mirsada Buric of Bosnia in an out-of-town newspaper. "There she is! That's her!" Adam said, pressing his finger down on the story he still keeps in his scrapbook.

He picked up the phone and got the number for the Olympic village in Barcelona, then a number for the Bosnian team. He punched in the numbers. Again, pure chance intervened. Buric was out running, but her best friend, Natasha, came to the phone. She spoke English and gave Adam an address to write to Buric.

"I wrote right away," Adam recalls. "I said, 'Someone in America admires you very much.' " He sent her a photo of him taken from behind while he was shooting video on the Hopi Reservation. He signed his letter, "Love, Eric."

"I remember it was mid-August and I was on vacation when she wrote back," Adam says. "I was so excited. She explained that she couldn't return to her home in Sarajevo, and I thought maybe I could help her. I have to admit there was a physical attraction too."

Buric wondered about this "crazy man in America." She had a friend write a return letter, and she signed it, "Love, Mirsada." "When I saw that I went, 'Yes!' " Adam says.

A blizzard of letters followed, several a month. Buric was living as a refugee in Slovenia, separated from her family and unable to communicate with them.

Adam was touched by the increasingly desperate tone of her letters. But he was also getting swept up in the horror of the Bosnian war, particularly the pictures of wounded children trapped in Sarajevo and elsewhere without medical care.

"I couldn't sit back and do nothing," Adam says. "And of course I wanted to meet Mirsada too."

Driven by these twin desires, he flew to Croatia in January and toured two Bosnian refugee camps in a rented Russian car.

"I was deeply affected by what I saw, the utter hopelessness of the people," Adam says.

On Jan. 10, he met Buric at the bus station in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

"I walked right over to her and smiled, and she put her arm straight out to shake my hand, and I grabbed her and hugged her," Adam says. "She responded. I was a little surprised."

"He was very aggressive," Buric says. "I thought he was going to kiss me."

They went to a nice hotel for dinner. They talked through a translator. "The chemistry was definitely there," Adam says. "I wanted to take her with me right then, get her out of there. Leaving her the next morning was the saddest thing."

Last March, Adam arranged a visa for Buric. "I admire him because he one man in America and he try to help," Buric says. "He came to Slovenia because he care for me and to help children. That mean so much to me."

Jetting across the world to join two vastly different lives was a giant risk. But in the ensuing weeks, they learned that their instincts about one another were true. Adam proposed during a stroll around Prescott's courthouse square.

*

Today, Buric lives moment to moment, struggling to lead a normal life. She is taking courses and running cross-country at Yavapai Community College. Last month, she placed fourth in the 5K run in the national community college competition.

"This pretty good, what I do," she says and smiles at her unexpected boast.

But in the next breath, she tells about a speech she and Adam will give that night to an Amnesty International meeting in Prescott, and about the faxed pleas they send daily to relief agencies, the United Nations and politicians around the country, trying to get someone to pay attention to a war that has killed an estimated 15,000 children, according to UNICEF.

Buric and Adam even faxed a letter to President Clinton, asking if she could accompany him on one of his morning jogs. The letter told about Buric's mother, father, sister and her sister's two children, who are surviving under the continued Serb shelling of Sarajevo.

Dee Dee Myers, Clinton's press secretary, wrote back to wish Buric's family luck.

So this couple, working out of their cramped apartment in a small Arizona town, do what they can. Adam says that in the past year, he has spent $15,000 of his own money and untold hours working to get wounded kids out of Sarajevo.

The hard work might finally have produced a success. An 11-year-old boy named Jasmin Bajric, who had both eardrums blown out in a grenade explosion, might soon be airlifted out of Sarajevo into Adam's care. He has arranged for a doctor in Flagstaff to operate on Bajric at no cost.

Adam has also started a computer data bank to register all people missing or being held prisoner of war in Bosnia. His project, called Reconnecting Families of War, will include the distribution of MIW/POW (Missing in War/Prisoner of War) bracelets.

"I can't let this go," Adam says. "I know that I'll be thinking about it on our wedding day, as I do every day."

For Buric, the wedding is bittersweet. "I will try to be happy," she says. "But I will be sad too because no one from my family will be there. I never think this happen in my life, that I get married without my family there. Maybe one day I share it with them. That the biggest thing I wish in my life, to see my family again."

Her blue eyes turn away in sadness. "But you cannot know how life will happen."

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