No need to hide, but still on run

MIKE LITTWIN

July 29, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

BARCELONA, Spain -- Mirsada Buric is a 22-year-old, Olympian middle-distance runner from Sarajevo. Only the last part is extraordinary.

She wears stylish sunglasses, lots of rings, laughs easily and tells stories of fallen friends, a village destroyed, a 13-day internment and interminable shelling.

Now, she is safe, but only after a dramatic airport escape. Back home, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the place you see on the evening news, the bleeding continues.

"I still can't believe I'm here," she says through a translator while sitting under an umbrella in the idyll that is the Olympic Village. "Physically, I'm here. But my mind, my heart, everything is there."

This is the flip side of the Dream Team Olympics. This is the real-world, no-stopover-in-Monaco side.

There's no training table where she comes from. In Sarajevo, a city under siege, there is barely food. For some, there is bread. Others are reduced to eating grass. Yes, real-world stuff.

Buric used to train in the stadium near the Sarajevo airport, but then the sniper fire grew too intense and they had to close the place down. So she moved to the streets, a lonely figure running against a backdrop of burned-out buildings and in rhythm to the occasional shell whistling overhead. People would cheer her on from the basement windows where they hid from the war.

The first lesson of training in a war zone is not to stop when the shelling begins. If you can't find shelter or a doorway to duck under, you keep running, on the theory that a moving target is harder to hit.

"Once," she says, "there was an [air-raid] alert. From the place I was training, I could see the front lines. Near me, I hear the shells falling. I hear the sound of shrapnel -- how do you say it? -- blowing around me. I am terrified, but I have to keep going. It is too dangerous to stay in one place. It made me run faster."

She laughs at the last part. I guess you learn to laugh when you're not crying. Her brother is missing. Her village is destroyed.

Still, she runs. She had to run, which is maybe why any long-distance runner does it. But for Buric, the motive is more complicated. She had to run because someone was trying, in the most direct terms, to tell her she couldn't.

"I run because that's how I protest against those who are shooting at us, against those who are shelling at us," Buric said.

It's a long, ugly, unresolved war among ethnic groups that have been fighting, off and on, for centuries. You may remember World War I got its start there with some of the same groups involved. Bosnia-Herzegovina is one of the breakaway republics carved out of the shell that was Yugoslavia.

Serbs fight with Croats and with Muslims, of which Buric is one. Towns and villages are routinely "purged" of one or more ethnic groups. Twenty thousand have died in the fighting; 2.5 million have been displaced.

Josko Bodulic, a Croat, a Bosnia Olympic committeeman and Buric's translator, says he was made to move out of his apartment in Sarajevo by Serb gunmen.

"They just walked up and said to get out," he says. "I packed two suitcases and left everything else behind."

Buric's village, Ahatovici, just outside of Sarajevo, was the site of what the Bosnians say was a terrible crime. Serbian militia captured the village, destroyed it and put the residents in a labor camp where they were given one piece of bread and one cup of tea a day. Buric says a militiaman attempted to rape her, although she was able to talk him out of it.

It was from that village that, according to the Bosnians, 42 men were put on a bus and then cut down by bazooka fire. The bodies were said to be buried in a common grave.

Eventually, Buric, who was captured on June 1, when other Olympians were fine-tuning their training, was released with 350 other Moslem women and children in exchange for 38 Serbian militiamen.

And still she trained on the streets of Sarajevo, with the same resolve, and hoped she could make it somehow to Barcelona. To get there, she had to leave from an airport under constant attack. For a month, she and eight other Bosnian athletes trapped in Sarajevo waited for a plane.

Finally, last Friday, they went to the airport at 10 a.m., with the hope a plane would arrive. They went with hope and with two armored cars accompanying their bus. Two days before, a jTC French plane had been hit by gunfire. As they arrived, shells were falling.

They waited. They were used to waiting. At 5:30, an International Olympic Committee plane finally slipped in to take them away. But the plane held only 15, and the Bosnian delegation numbered 23. They weren't going to leave unless they all could leave. What to do?

The airport would close at 7, and there were three planes left. One was headed to London, one to Munich, and one was a Russian plane flying the U.N. colors. After some negotiation, the U.N. people agreed to take the group to Split and on to Sagreb, which meant safety.

A day later, they were marching in the opening ceremonies.

A day later, when the Bosnian team took its place in the parade of nations, a great cheer went up for the shattered country.

"The most impressive part was when we entered the stadium," Buric says. "My eyes were full of tears when I heard people applauding and cheering. It was not so important for us as it was for the people left in Bosnia."

It was the most moving moment of the evening that was, in part, a celebration of the new world order. In some parts of the world, the new order still needs work.

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