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May 16, 2008

Champion Runner and War Survivor Graduates
from Columbia's Journalism School

A champion long-distance runner for the National Yugoslav track and field team, Mirsada Buric was training for the Olympics when violence erupted in the former Yugoslavia. The ethnic cleansing that followed in Bosnia and Herzegovina resulted in the murder of her only brother and the break up of her family. More than 16 years later, Buric is in New York, just days away from getting her master's degree from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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Mirsada Buric speaks about her life in the former Yugoslavia.

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Buric’s home village, Bojnik, located just three miles outside of Sarajevo, was ethnically cleansed two months after the war began on April 6, 1992, forcing Mirsada and her Bosniak (Muslim) family into a Bosnian Serb-controlled concentration camp—a frightening detention where her uncles were badly beaten and only a cup of tea and a piece of bread were provided as their daily food ration.

Released from the camp two weeks later, Buric resumed her athletic training in the only place she could—on the war-torn streets of Sarajevo. When air raid sirens signaled incoming bombs, she trained in basement parking garages.

“After surviving the concentration camp, death did not frighten me,” she said. “I had to run in the streets of Sarajevo, even though it was dangerous. It was my way of fighting back against the enemy.”

As newly independent Bosnia and Herzegovina descended into an ethno-religious war, Buric was selected to be a member of the inaugural Bosnia Olympic team for the 1992 games in Barcelona. Competing in the Olympic Games was a tangible goal to focus on amid the chaos in Sarajevo, but she could not be sure she would compete since the International Olympic Committee had not recognized Bosnia as an independent state. She trained anyway, dodging sniper fire during her daily runs in Sarajevo.

Finally, just one day before opening ceremonies, the International Olympic Committee recognized Bosnia as an independent state. Buric and her teammates and coaches sat in the airport for 12 hours, enduring unrelenting shelling before finally taking off. They arrived in Barcelona just in time to change into their new uniforms before marching into the stadium to rousing applause. Buric calls that ceremony the “most moving experience of her life.”

Buric had shouldered the intense strains of training for the Olympics, the ongoing war and the lack of access to basic needs such as food. Her legs now felt heavy and fatigued. Looking back over her shoulder during the crucial 5,000 meter race she could see the leaders and worried they might overtake her. Realizing she was the last runner on the track, she told herself she must finish. 

“The crowd began to cheer and clap for me,” said Buric. “I suddenly felt like I did while running on the streets of Sarajevo.  Instead of hearing rifle shots, I heard the clapping.  It was the crowd that got me over the finish line.”

Inspired by the flood of media attention Buric received during the games, Eric Adams, an American, contacted the runner offering his help. Although Buric wrote back, she did not expect anything to come of their communications. Adams, however, would eventually sponsor her emigration to the United States, and the two would later marry.

Buric left the former Yugoslavia for the United States on March 13, 1993. Two months after arriving in Prescott, Arizona, she was offered an athletic scholarship to Yavapai Community College to run cross country. In 1994, the Yavapai cross-country team won the national title and Buric took the national title for 5,000 meters. She transferred to Adams State University in 1995 and won four national indoor and outdoor titles, also in the 5,000 meters, qualifying for the 1995 World Championships in Sweden, where she represented Bosnia and set a national record that remains unrivaled today.

Buric maintained a 4.0 grade point average throughout her studies and training and graduated from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism in May 1996. She then became a reporter for the Daily Courier in Prescott, Arizona, garnering numerous awards during her seven years at the newspaper.

With her family, friends and professors cheering her on, she will cross another finish line, this time toward her goal of becoming a foreign correspondent. 

“I came to Columbia to acquire knowledge about the world today,” Buric said, who wishes to return to the region of the world where she feels most at home.  “I want to be a foreign correspondent in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. That is where my heart is.”

— Story by Tanya Domi