Ruza Markovic: Strength and Purpose Born of War #52

Warwick Fairfax

January 19, 2021

Ruza Markovic had dreamt of and studied for a career in journalism — when war intervened to change the trajectory of her life.  While her family had emigrated to the U.S. from their native Yugoslavia when she was just 4, Markovic didn’t think twice when she was asked to return to her homeland in the early ’90s as a communications liaison to the teetering government while political unrest and then war-ravaged the Balkans. What she saw and experienced, she says, laid barren her faith in country, politics, the media, and herself.  Those trials and traumas, though, did not sap her spirit. They steeled her resolve to live her life in service to others — in part as an advocate for the liberating power of education.

To learn more about Ruza Markovic, visit www.proonemedia.com

Highlights

  • Her early memories of life in the U.S. — and her family’s Yugoslavian history (3:58)
  • Why she wanted to move back to Yugoslavia as a girl, and why her family didn’t (8:01)
  • How the war beginning in the Balkans changed everything (10:31)
  • Seeing a different face of America after moving from Wisconsin to Missouri (12:49)
  • How she fell in love with journalism (16:26)
  • Her homeland’s crucible moment (18:06)
  • Hope for the future in Serbia — and how it was dashed (21:03)
  • When the war began and she felt called to help (22:34)
  • Why she chose to go — when nine others who were tapped didn’t show up (29:30)
  • Getting out of the Balkans and almost getting arrested (36:38)
  • Coming back to the U.S. after another tragedy … and embracing the power of education (43:40)
  • The ways she still believes in the power of story (48:03)
  • “You can win or you can be right” (51:10)
  • Her message of hope to young people (53:22)
  • Why it’s important to talk about our crucibles (57:43)
  • The lessons other nations can learn from what happened in the Balkans (59:16
  • The blessing of having a son later in life (1:01:24)
  • Key episode takeaways (1:05:05)

Transcript

Warwick F:
Welcome to Beyond the Crucible. I’m Warwick Fairfax, the founder of Crucible Leadership.

Ruza M:
We were bugged and followed, and we often had conversations in the middle of the street in traffic because we knew. It wasn’t even pointless to even try to find it. And there was a moment where there was this big discussion about the American woman that came to work for the government. The reality is, I didn’t have a US passport. I had a green card. I believe I was the picture on the… I hadn’t even updated the green card, right? This was so loose. And I’m a kid out of college going, “I’m going. Nothing’s going to stop me.” And they’re having a discussion about the American woman, and I was literally barred from going into the office for at least two weeks.

Gary S:
That sounds like a pretty harrowing crucible, doesn’t it? And would you believe this terrifying trial didn’t just happen to today’s guest, Ruza Markovic? She actually stepped into a crucible that already existed in the early 90s when her home nation of Yugoslavia was torn apart by political unrest that led to a war of unfathomable tragedy. Hi, I’m Gary Schneeberger, cohost of the show and the communications director for Crucible Leadership.

Gary S:
In today’s episode, Ruza describes not only the dangerous experiences she endured as a young woman committed to helping her homeland, but also how she leveraged those profoundly difficult moments then and in the years since to build a life of significance as a communications executive and an advocate for the liberating power of education. She has seen more horrors and heartache than many, you’ll hear. But they have not sapped her spirit. In fact, they have steeled her resolve to live her life in service to others.

Warwick F:
Thank you so much for being here. And boy, you’ve had such an incredible life and amazing experiences, obviously some of them centered around the former Yugoslavia. But I’d like to start with your background and how you grew up, which I believe was in what was then Yugoslavia. So just talk about your parents, grandparents, just what life was like for you as a small child growing up in Yugoslavia.

Ruza M:
So we actually immigrated when I was four and a half. We came to the U.S…

Warwick F:
Oh, wow. Okay.

Ruza M:
However, my grandfather was a POW of World War II and a Nazi concentration camp survivor. So the Germans had a policy towards the Serbs that was unique because we fought back with everything we had. And so when his camp was liberated by the British, they gave him options of going back home, going to the US, or going to Australia. And they were sponsored by a church group in Racine, Wisconsin, hence the connection, and the entire group of POWs ended up in Racine, Wisconsin. So today, some of my closest friends are grandchildren of those same POW survivors. They became each other’s godparents to each other’s children. And that has lasted well over 40 years.

Warwick F:
Wow. So you had really a whole extended family and friends growing up in Racine. So even though you were a bit young to remember a lot of where you came from, where you came from came with you, in a sense.

Ruza M:
It completely came with me. And the backstory, really, is that my father saw his father go off to war when he was four years old. He didn’t see him visit again until he was 27. So we came to US because I as a little girl, and my mom having lost her mom at the age of seven, I spent a summer with my cousin’s grandmother back in what was then Yugoslavia. I’m named after my father’s grandmother, so I spent six months scribbling postcards and driving my parents absolutely bananas over, “When do I get to meet her? When do I get to meet her? It’s around the corner.” So when my grandfather came here, he obviously… I mean, it took probably 12 to 15 years, brought my grandmother here.

Ruza M:
And then my father, who was the only one to graduate from college of his brothers and sisters, was the only one that stayed behind. And he literally was the one that the embassy knew, because every relative that decided to go, he was the one that ushered them in. And even when it was our turn to come, we came on a tourist visa. My father was working as an engineer. My mother was working for the biggest record production company in the country. We were living upper middle class, Eastern European life. They traveled to Italy and Greece every summer, winter kind of thing. They had this life.

Ruza M:
And then I tugged at their heartstrings. We came for a visit, and my father at the time… Two things. He missed his father, obviously. And this was, I think the greatest tug. But the other, because his father was in the US, and because Yugoslavia was a communist country, but a quasi, sitting next to the iron curtain, we look like a picnic. We could travel. You felt as free as a bird on the street.

Ruza M:
As long as you climbed up the ladder from a business perspective, you saw a ceiling. And if you had a parent that was living in the US, your ceiling was shorter than everybody else’s. And so when he came to the US, and he saw a system that actually gave you back tax dollars, that thought just kind of blew his mind. And he went back, and we went back home. He made plans. And then we immigrated September 18th, 1973.

Warwick F:
Wow. And you were four years old.

Ruza M:
I was four years old. Sadly, my grandfather died six months later. So my father had those six months, but that’s all he had. And immigrant life is never easy, but particularly when you studied in school Russian or German… And he’s an engineer. And so he started first at a gas station, then at American Motors, which Gary probably remembers well.

Gary S:
Absolutely. Yeah.

Ruza M:
And in fact, he worked the graveyard shift. And for the first several years, I only saw my parents kind of in passing. And I was the classic latchkey kid, who basically walked to school every morning and back. And sometimes my dad would try to come pick me up and wouldn’t see me from snowbanks, and so we would kind of do this. Make a long story short, he gets laid off at one point. Now, in this entire time, my mom and I are besides ourselves. I want to go home. I don’t know why I’m here. None of this makes any sense to me. My mom has had, at the time, four sisters who had kids. We were all very, very close. And that bond for me left a lasting, to this day, really…

Warwick F:
And they were back in Yugoslavia while you were here in Racine, Wisconsin.

Ruza M:
… and I wanted to go home. My dad was so adamant. He was like, “We’re going to go home after I work as an engineer for one day in this country. Period, end of discussion.”

Warwick F:
Okay.

Ruza M:
And literally gets laid off. He takes his diploma. And he was interviewed at Modine Manufacturing, which is a big company in Racine, and hired on the spot. But here’s where the story… It’s very much the seed of the way I see my life having evolved from that point. He gets a job working for the man whose manuscript he was translating because it was published in a big technical journal, who happened to be in the same concentration camp with my grandfather.

Warwick F:
Oh my gosh.

Ruza M:
So it was one of those moments where you knew you were supposed to be where you were. See, it still gives me goosebumps. And from that point on, he really didn’t look back. We made it through five years, five years before we went back home for a visit. And my dad knew if we had gone any sooner, we probably would have changed our minds. Because while this country offers you all sorts of promise, going having to not having, and doing it willingly, is tough.

Ruza M:
So you went from having the standard life of an apartment, a car, travel, you had this life, to pumping gas, third shift, I don’t see my parents, we’re scrambling to save enough to buy a first home. When the war started in the Balkans, most of our family friends thought my father was prophetic. Because at that time in the 70s, nobody left. This wasn’t this mass exodus period in time.

Warwick F:
Right, because life was good. Just to cycle back for the audience that may not know, I think a guy by the name of Tito wasn’t it, he was sort of the guy in control of Yugoslavia. And while it was communist, it’s not like East Germany or Hungary or Bulgaria or some other parts in Eastern Europe that were pretty locked down, and if you breathed against the government you’d probably be in some prison. I’m sure it wasn’t perfect, but relative to other, if you were in East Germany, for instance, you’d be maybe a little envious of some of the folks in Yugoslavia, especially ones in middle class, upper middle class like your family. So at the time, it seemed like, why would you leave Yugoslavia? It has so much promise, and-

Ruza M:
And my father-

Warwick F:
… things look so good.

Ruza M:
… he tells stories to this day of running into Gandhi on the streets of Belgrade, because as part of the non-aligned movement, you had all of this excitement happening within the capital city. And again, people thought he was crazy, flat out. So he literally retired from Modine Manufacturing. He spent 25 great years. And I would say the highlight of his career is he got to work on the first cooling engine for the Dodge Viper and the Porsche. He lived what I call his childhood dream out every day. And we were very, very blessed.

Ruza M:
In the middle of that, in order to go up the corporate ladder, he had to take a position somewhere else, anywhere else. And we moved to Jefferson City, Missouri, where we had Greek neighbors, and that made our street the most international in a 700-mile radius. And it was the best thing that could have happened to us, because what comfort zone after that? When you live in an immigrant corridor that is Milwaukee to Chicago to Indiana, you’re in a bubble. Your home could be figuratively anywhere, right?

Warwick F:
Right.

Ruza M:
Because everything within the home still feels like you’re back home. And there’s pressure to be that way within an immigrant community. God forbid we all forget anything, right?

Warwick F:
Right.

Ruza M:
So you cut yourself off in many ways, certainly back then. It’s to a lesser degree today, because the world today, to a lesser degree, has all sorts of opportunities to communicate and travel.

Warwick F:
It’s so much more integrated and global. Yeah, I mean, there are advantages to being with those that you know and the people group and the background. On the other hand, you don’t expose yourself to part of what’s new and different people groups. I get it. So-

Ruza M:
And part of that experience in Missouri… First of all, I got to see a different face of America, if that makes any sense, right?

Warwick F:
Right.

Ruza M:
The moment the moving van pulled into the driveway, people coming out with cookies and pies and like a little Mayberry. It was crazy. But the other thing that happened, because truly, we were different. You know how different you are when I’m in the store with my mom and they’re like, “Is that Chinese or Mexican?” Right? And not even close. So you knew you were dropped in the middle of nowhere. But my parents worried I would forget. And so then became the, during summers, I was practicing Cyrillic. And they would send me back, so I would spend summers with cousins in Yugoslavia-

Warwick F:
So just-

Ruza M:
… from the age of 13 on.

Warwick F:
So did you grow up in the Serbian part of Yugoslavia?

Ruza M:
Yes.

Warwick F:
Or I guess your family?

Ruza M:
Yes. Belgrade

Warwick F:
Okay. So I should know… When I think of Cyrillic, I think of the Russian alphabet, but in Serbian, they also use Cyrillic?

Ruza M:
They also use Cyrillic. They use both. Not interchangeably, obviously.

Warwick F:
Right.

Ruza M:
But one thing that happened when the communists put the country together is that they kind of made this magic happen of, it could be this, or it could be that. So there was easier communication across the whole of the country. But they sent me back every summer, so needless to say, on top of the fact that my language skills are such that you can’t tell that I grew up here, in my native language. I also had a sense for politics, economics.

Ruza M:
How could you not? Because I spent two months, really, every summer for summer after summer. And my greatest compliment was when kids were surprised that I had shoes that said, “Made in the US.” Because they had put it together, right? And that was my pride and joy, because I would spend the first two weeks kind of being quiet so that I wouldn’t give myself up to being kind of rusty. So when the opportunity came to be over there, it was kind of a natural progression.

Warwick F:
So did part of these experiences fuel your desire to be a journalist and go to Northwestern Medill school? Was there a link there between… How did all that happen?

Ruza M:
As a kid, the one thing that we never missed were the evening news, and World News Tonight was like the be all, end all. And the reason is because at the time, if a phone rang, we knew somebody died or someone was born. Right?

Warwick F:
Right.

Ruza M:
Your ability to communicate with family was so limited that that was the window to the rest of the world, and we’d all be listening for something in Europe, just something so that you felt connected. And so those were my heroes. So I literally wrote to Walter Cronkite in kindergarten for career day, and they wrote back.

Warwick F:
Wow.

Ruza M:
And that still sits in Wadewitz Elementary School, is a letter from Walter Cronkite’s people, I’m sure. But that was my goal. And the ridiculous part is, I was a math wiz. I mean, I took advanced calculus in college as a joke. So I mean, in retrospect, somebody should have said, “Is this really the path you want to go down? You’re an immigrant. English is your second language.” And I can’t spell to save my life. This is the path? It was the path.

Gary S:
I’ve never known another journalist who was any good at math. In fact, I used to say in newsrooms I worked in that there should be a big alarm that would go off whenever a journalist tried to do math, so that everybody knew… Woo, woo, woo, journalist doing math, back away. So bravo to you.

Warwick F:
I know one of the key points in your story is going to Yugoslavia in I think the early 90s. And I guess by then, life was different than when you, in your early, formative years, and-

Ruza M:
But not that different. Here’s the thing that haunts me to today. I watched, especially in those late 80s, early 90s years, where, because the moment people died, suddenly the debt is due. Right?

Warwick F:
Right.

Ruza M:
Suddenly the head of the mob family, which is really how you look at a dictator and how he lives. Suddenly the debt was due. Suddenly they were under the kind of austerity measures that you talk about today, Europe having implemented during this last economic crisis. They were rationing toothpaste. There was this moment in time of, how did we go from that to this? And also, when people died, you’re suddenly looking into the constitution, which is meaningless when you have a dictator… “Okay, we’re going to have a presidency, and every state, if you will, of this union will have a president that will serve for a year.”

Ruza M:
So think about how difficult it is to do things within a four year period. Within a year, it’s impossible. It became a zoo, and it became this… There was a lot done, and people did a lot, that actually, Saddam Hussein learned from. In fact, the same lunatic that built Tito’s bunkers built Hussein’s bunkers.

Warwick F:
Wow.

Ruza M:
And the same kind of seasoning the stew of, as long as there’s friction, people will look to me for peace. And so you’re in a communist country, and they’re starting to give more favor religiously to certain groups.

Warwick F:
Right, because you had… I mean, you know way more than me, but Serbians, Bosnians, people of maybe Christian Orthodox background, Muslims. I mean, its background… So it seems like Tito seemed to be able to hold what was maybe festering challenges that had gone on for hundreds of years. It wasn’t like this came from nowhere, all of these frictions.

Ruza M:
No, no, no. This was thousands of years in the making. However, World War I and World War II were brutal in the Balkans, and what the communists did is basically rewrite history to suit themselves. Well, once he died, this became this simmering stew, is the best way to explain it, and the lid going… Especially from an economic perspective. This was what I call ’84 to ’88, ’89. Then comes a president that goes, “This is crazy. Let’s change our economic policy, and let’s privatize.”

Ruza M:
So I’m in Serbia in 1990, watching people take literally a four by four piece of land in front of their home, and open a little shop and start selling whatever. Privatization started, and I remember how hopeful I was that they had a chance to actually become this vibrant European country. By March of ’91, that was over, just like this. And it was over because the politics had outpaced the economics, and it happened that quickly.

Warwick F:
That’s an important lesson. So from what I understand, there was a US Congresswoman that asked, “Can you go and be a communications liaison with,” some US person who was going to be Prime Minister?

Ruza M:
Correct.

Warwick F:
And from what I understand, there was going to be 10 people, and turns out you were the only one on the plane. So just talk about that whole… That must have been an amazing experience, because here, you weren’t going to see family. You were going there professionally-

Ruza M:
Right.

Warwick F:
… to help the country of your birth.

Ruza M:
The war began, and I remember even friends from school, now university friends, being like, “How can you live with yourself as,” whatever ethnicity they were associating with what’s happening in the media. And I think for me, the heartbreak was, I had family in trouble. I had an aunt and cousins in Sarajevo. I had an aunt, cousins in Bosnia. And out of my mom’s four sisters, of the five of them, four had a daughter each. We were incredibly close. Their kids are like my kids.

Ruza M:
And so this is happening. I wrote to Walter Cronkite in kindergarten, so I’m watching Nightline, and I’m watching Serbs bomb churches. The only problem is, the only churches that I see falling are Serbian. And my head’s going, if you can’t get it right, Houston, we’re in trouble. And so I reached out to a couple of… Jim Moody, I believe, a Congressman from Wisconsin who had actually spent some time in the Balkans as a young man after, I think serving in the military, something to that effect, and had run into Helen Delich Bentley. She was married Bentley, but she was a Serb.

Warwick F:
Oh, wow. Because I think she was a Congresswoman from Maryland.

Ruza M:
Yes. For many, many years.

Warwick F:
I live in Maryland, so that name-

Ruza M:
For many, many years. And she kind of put me on her radar, and calls me up one morning at 3:30. Literally, the woman never slept. And was like, “We need your help. We have this team of young journalists I’m assembling.” Milan Panic, who was, at the time, CEO of ICN Pharmaceuticals. He had zero reason, zero reason to actually go do this. But a personal friend, and a lifelong friend, had at the time been politically involved in the country, and so as a personal favor, he said yes. And so he gets the state department to approve the fact that he has a US… not to lose his US citizen. He serves as Prime Minister.

Ruza M:
And they were outnumbered, really, from a press perspective. There was so much Western media that they couldn’t handle it. And every time we’d see a report on the news, my angst was, just get it right. This isn’t about whose side I am. This isn’t a sporting event. This is, the moment you get it wrong, you have now proven to dictator A, B, C, or D, because mind you, they just woke up from communism five seconds ago. They have no other sense. You have just proven that jerk right, that the world is manipulating the situation politically. And when they don’t get it right on major television news… Or, look, Chicago Trib.

Ruza M:
Right before I went overseas, I was in a meeting with a then editor, who happened to be Greek, which made me crazy because he should know better, in the sense of, there is a big picture on the front page saying, “Croatian soldier holds cross of bombed church.” Well, here’s the problem. It’s a Serbian cross. So is he happy? The context of the photo was so off that my head is exploding, going, these are basics. I wouldn’t expect a US journalist to necessarily understand the inner politicking within Serbia, within Croatia, because we are known for five levels of chess, nothing simple. And everything is some sort of game.

Warwick F:
But while you can’t expect, you can assume that they’re going to be professional, and if they don’t understand, they will ask questions, I’m sure they had interpreters with them, and try to get it right. Because this is sort of a cauldron of nationalities and people groups, and making mistakes, in this case-

Ruza M:
If I had a-

Warwick F:
… I don’t know if it can cost lives, but it can cause a lot of damage.

Ruza M:
If I had a penny for every time CNN showed you one city and talked about another. You don’t know the difference, but I know the difference. And so to me, not only are they putting my chosen profession into big question, right? Neon signs going, is this as good as it gets? Is this as much as they care? Once I’m there, and I’ll never forget arriving, and I’ll never forget the day that we went to Kosovo, which is still a mess, with Cyrus Vance and Lord Owen.

Warwick F:
And Cyrus, was he Secretary of State-

Ruza M:
Yes.

Warwick F:
… under Clinton? Okay.

Ruza M:
And a US diplomat of what I call enormous stature. I’ve only been in his presence once, and that was it. So the level of complexity to the situation was heartbreaking. There were no easy answers. But at one point, the Italian Foreign Minister raged at the press corps, going, “When you publish that there is fighting where there is not, tomorrow there will be, and who bears responsibility for that?” Because the biggest issue in these kinds of conflicts is not hatred, it’s fear. I’m living next to my neighbor, and I don’t know what he stockpiled in his basement.

Ruza M:
So the first incidences of what they later named ethnic cleansing were people in cities, cut off. There’s no internet. I don’t know what’s going on. I’m hearing things through radio that isn’t accurate. And we’re probably next. So they took the minority of people in that city and bussed them out for their own safety. This happened over and over again. The problem is, the big light bulb of, what are they doing, turned on, and all sides stopped taking prisoners. So the level to which it went from bad to slaughter overnight…

Gary S:
I want to rewind just a little-

Ruza M:
But I know we’re getting kind of off tangent, so…

Warwick F:
Yeah, yeah. No, it’s all good.

Gary S:
No, no, no, no.

Ruza M:
I could talk about politics forever.

Gary S:
I just want to rewind a bit, Ruza, because you said something about fear being the driving force behind this. And Warwick mentioned that there were initially going to be 10 young student journalists who were going to go over there and who were going to help sort of sort through this, help the acting Prime Minister deal with this. You were the only one who showed up. You were the only one who wasn’t afraid to go there.

Gary S:
I kind of know the answer to this question because I knew the young woman you were before you went there, because we worked together at the paper in Racine when you were an intern in 1989. I knew the steel in your spine. I knew who you were then. But for our listeners, who did not know you then, what was it that kept you from being too afraid to get on the plane and get off the plane? Nine people dropped out. You didn’t. Why?

Ruza M:
The morning that Helen Bentley called me, I had the same experience my father had when he was hired by a man who was in the same concentration camp with him. I had a moment of clarity of, I’m meant to do this. So it was this, you see the road turning, and in very many ways, I had my father screaming in my ear, going, “You also have an economics degree. Go get a job. Stop working with…” I was working with a small media agency in Chicago, and so the road very dramatically turned, and this was very much all I hoped for, was to use my language skills, to see my family.

Ruza M:
So a combination of hopes and dreams, and every door opened. I could have been at Reuters or AP after all of that happened, but I saw the underbelly of the… It saved me 20 years of sitting in a news organization thinking that the power of the pen is the power of the pen. You can’t take the person out of the story. In these circumstances, people…

Warwick F:
And unlike some other journalists, you knew the whole history.

Ruza M:
Right.

Warwick F:
You understand the whole complex contextual situation. So you could have been at Reuters and worked your way up the ladder being successful, but it sounds like you felt like, “Well, nothing wrong with success, but I have some unique abilities and background to hopefully let me help a little bit.”

Ruza M:
Well, no. Let me restate that. Let me restate that. Every door when I came into the Balkans opened, and I could have stayed at Reuters in the Balkans and covered the war.

Warwick F:
Right.

Ruza M:
Right?

Warwick F:
Okay.

Ruza M:
But I saw the underbelly of, I saw my heroes sitting at the press club bar sending kids to the front lines as stringers, completely detached from the reality, because it wasn’t affecting them. It wasn’t their family.

Warwick F:
Isn’t that what they call in journalism, phoning it in-

Ruza M:
Yeah.

Warwick F:
… kind of thing? Rather than being out there on the front lines, they just kind of… I mean, I don’t know, that’s a sad image. But-

Ruza M:
But from a family perspective, the other thing that got me on the plane is immigrant communities, when the phone rings, you answer it. And back in the 70s and 80s, when your flat tire went out, you had to call somebody. Right?

Warwick F:
Right.

Ruza M:
So I grew up with a sense of duty. And so the moment that I was tapped and I was going, people came out of the woodwork to carry medicine for family, money for family. I mean, I walked in with let’s just say a whole lot of money that was not mine basically hidden on me.

Warwick F:
Wow.

Ruza M:
Just because of the situation, it’s not going to stop people from helping their family.

Warwick F:
They want to help. So I understand there was a couple of challenges you faced. I think you were maybe mistaken for somebody else, and potentially on some arrest list, and then I think there was another time when they thought maybe you were potentially part of some prisoner exchange. I mean, this wasn’t like going to the French Riviera on some holiday.

Ruza M:
No. No. No, not at all.

Warwick F:
You had some challenges.

Ruza M:
We were bugged and followed, and we often had conversations in the middle of the street in traffic, because we knew. It wasn’t even pointless to even try to find it. And there was a moment where there was this big discussion about the American woman that came to work for the government. The reality is, I didn’t have a US passport. I had a green card. I believe I was the picture on the… I hadn’t even updated the green card, right? This was so loose. And I’m a kid out of college going, “I’m going. Nothing’s going to stop me.” And they’re having a discussion about the American woman, and I was literally barred from going into the office for at least two weeks, and I was holed up in Panic’s private office, which used to be Tito’s office. So that was just a jolly good time, because I-

Warwick F:
Wow.

Ruza M:
… got to comb through all sorts of stuff. But the first time that it came out, there was a headline, and so my first reaction is, my mother’s going to kill me. And it had zero to do with the severity of the situation. It had to do with, my aunts are going to flip out, and my mother’s going to kill me.

Warwick F:
Right. What’s happened to Ruza in America? Have they just sort of corrupted her?

Ruza M:
Yeah, exactly.

Warwick F:
What’s she done?

Ruza M:
Exactly. Exactly.

Warwick F:
And then there was a whole prisoner exchange episode, and that was pretty dicey too, right? It was sort of on the border between different places?

Ruza M:
So I leave the Balkans. We were threatened with house arrest when Panic ran against Milosevic. And we absolutely found evidence that he had stolen the election.

Warwick F:
Wow.

Ruza M:
We had 24 hours to flee. But that wasn’t good enough for me. To put it this way, when you go through something like that that’s so much bigger than yourself, you can’t just come back here and get a job. I mean, your entire perspective… First of all, it rocked who I wanted to be when I grow up, my question of country, but both. Right? The US government wasn’t exactly forthcoming, if you will. There was a lot of… Just because they let Panic take the role with zero support.

Ruza M:
So my questioning of who’s on first, and what the hell is happening, just opened this Pandora’s box of, who am I? Why am I here? What’s the point? And to the point that, so now I’m home, and now I’m back in Racine, and I know every journalist on the planet covering the story. I have their phone numbers. And I’m watching their bylines being printed, going, “This is garbage.” So I started faxing them to them, and they literally took the journalistic pyramid and flipped it. So the lead was buried. This randomness came to the top, and there was all of this angst around, why is this happening? Where is it happening?

Ruza M:
And at a certain point, the media agency that I was working with in Chicago was indeed supported by Helen Bentley. But when I came home, that was a whole other affair. They had made strange bedfellows with Milosevic’s crew, and so I had to part ways in a very kind of strategic way, not to get myself… I was more afraid in the US, to be quite honest, in the community that I was back in Serbia, because people didn’t know what was going on back there. So it was this, you want to believe one thing, you don’t… It was crazy, to put it mildly.

Warwick F:
How did you adjust back to normal life? I mean, I understand you got into corporate communications for a company, and now have your own firm. How did you make that adjustment? Because it sounds like that was-

Ruza M:
There was a moment in time-

Warwick F:
… a searing experience, that whole time.

Ruza M:
There was a moment in time… Well, first of all, I got to a document that I couldn’t believe I saw at this media center when I was indeed going to say hello and goodbye to them, that as they were in a meeting, I literally faxed to a journalist who screamed at me on the phone for half an hour, going, “It will be obvious where this came from, so go hide. Go bury your head somewhere. Come back here.”

Warwick F:
Wow.

Ruza M:
He was so worried, and the story was so big, that it would come back to me, that he handed it to The Washington Post. And I’m still pissed that it appeared on page three and not on page one.

Gary S:
I love that. I would be, too.

Ruza M:
So then I go to Arizona. I come to Arizona. He wanted me to bury my head in the sand, so I’m going to go visit family in Arizona. And I go back to Wisconsin just to visit my folks, and the phone rings. And now it’s one of the people I worked with with Panic, asking me to go back and monitor the first Bosnian elections. Again, I have this moment of, wild horses couldn’t stop me. Let’s go. When do we leave? That’s when we entered Sarajevo 10 days before the last peace accord held.

Ruza M:
And I am a female exec from one of Panic’s companies in the Balkans, took the long car ride from Belgrade to Sarajevo, which I have taken many times to visit my aunt. But you can’t go into the city because your license plate, back in the day, gives you up to what city you’re from. You’re in the middle of a war zone. That’s not happening. So they drop us off at a bridge. You’ve got kids armed to the hilt. The kids. I mean, I at the time-

Ruza M:
… was maybe 26. They were maybe 18, 19. And a guy came up to us and asked us whether we were part of the prisoner exchange. And I’m looking down. It is literally a bridge, and there’s nothing stopping anyone from shooting you, and no one would care, not even for five seconds. So you start cracking jokes with the people who are armed so that they start easing off. And by the time we were picked up, everyone was having a jolly good time, because there’s no other way to cut through the tension.

Ruza M:
But there was no point in time that I was afraid, because I knew the people who had called me to do this were going to come from Sarajevo, because they had gone before us to set everything up to pick us up, and indeed they did. And there was a moment in time in that city as I looked to see how most of the city was intact, how the fighting had happened from one mountainside to the hospital, which was one of the tallest buildings in town, and the Holiday Inn. And I just sat there and bawled. It was one of those first moments in all of this nonsense that I truly, truly just lost it and said, “Enough. Enough.” If I can’t help-

Warwick F:
And-

Ruza M:
… God, don’t keep driving me into this if I can’t effect the change that-

Warwick F:
I’m sure it was devastating. For US listeners, Sarajevo was the site of the winter Olympics. I’m trying to remember… When was that? Was it in the 80s?

Ruza M:
’84. 1984.

Warwick F:
’84, just before all this happened. I think I saw some documentary after it where the ice skating was and ski runs, it was just nothing. It was devastating. So I’m sure all those images are probably in your mind of what it once was.

Ruza M:
But once you realize… Because I went to go see Sniper Alley. It’s funny. Sitting at the hotel at the Holiday Inn as we were getting our assignments of where we were going to go as monitors, all of the busboys and the folks in the kitchen would start talking to me because I was the youngest among all of these people. And so they would tell me more than I possibly could hear on the news of what actually was happening. And so one of them willingly took me to see where this was.

Ruza M:
And when he explained to me that the only time anyone had to cross was when the authorities in the city turned off the water on a slow news day, I was sick, because the media made a really bad, ugly history, and a situation that is thousands of years in the making, 10 times worse.

Warwick F:
So you come back to the US. You decide, “Okay, this guy wants me to go here, and I’m done with this.” How in the world do you move on with your life in Phoenix and corporate communications? How do you do that from the searing experience?

Ruza M:
So I had one foot here, and I still had one foot there. You still have to survive. You still have to make money. So I had what I call my in in communications jobs, still kind of open to the opportunity, especially when Milosevic was ousted and in came the first democratically elected president of Serbia. And then came the phone calls about wanting to help work for him. Of course I was in. I was all in. Three days before I was scheduled to leave, he was assassinated, and that really was the end.

Warwick F:
Oh my gosh.

Ruza M:
That was the end. That was the moment. I had this moment of… And even through the bombing of Belgrade, which I don’t wish any human to actually understand what it’s like to watch on CNN the building that you know you have family living in being shelled. It ripped us all apart. But my hope was that that was a new day and a new leaf and a turning of the page, and that’s the moment when I went, “I can’t do this anymore.” And that was the same moment that I’ll say the phone rang, and I was interviewed by several education companies.

Ruza M:
And especially those that were dealing with international students appealed to my heart, because I knew instinctively that what happened in the Balkans, you had an economic fallout that led to a brain drain. Who was left behind with those that had no options? And if you peel the onion back and you look at where the lines were drawn and where the biggest fighting was, you’ll see that they were the lowest levels of education. Those two things are inevitably tied.

Warwick F:
It sounds like what I’m hearing, Ruza, is you had this, I don’t know, maybe a dream or mission form as you were growing up, and then spent some time in what was then Yugoslavia, maybe I can’t resurrect the whole country and undo thousands of years of conflict, but maybe I can do something.

Ruza M:
Right.

Warwick F:
I can have a little bit that can maybe move it on a good path, but then at a certain point, that dream, that mission died, if you will, that, gee, I can’t do this. It’s not my mission. It sounds like your mission shifted.

Ruza M:
It did.

Warwick F:
And out of that, the whole passion for education and the importance of, I think you said education being the bedrock of democracy. Sounds like, though, from that mission, that it changed for you is something else.

Ruza M:
There was a moment in time when I was like, “Look. As bad as it is that this situation existed and all of these amazing people with great potential are leaving the country…” There was this moment of time of, yes, but one day, that same person that is left behind who rules, pick a city, will one day pick up the phone and call an intel, and want an intel to come to their city and open up offices and jobs. And guess who they’re going to have to talk to? Someone from the Balkans. Right? There came a moment where the opportunity for globalization and being in a position to influence bigger or greater change kind of woke up in me to go, “Come on. Get on with it.”

Warwick F:
So how would you describe your mission now? Because I know you have corporate communications, but it sounds like there’s a mission that you’re passionate about that really animates and drives you. How would you describe that mission for you today?

Ruza M:
There’s been a lot that’s influenced how I got here, but for me, it still goes back to telling a really good, authentic story that can affect how a person feels and can affect change. We recently did… And I am really proud of the fact that COVID and cancer, they hit at the same time… And I have to chuckle, because when you asked me to do a write up, I had to literally go back and add the cancer.

Warwick F:
And that’s amazing. Just for listeners, in the midst of COVID, you got a cancer diagnosis.

Ruza M:
Right.

Warwick F:
Which, you’ve had so much on your plate, it’s like you must have thought, “Really?”

Ruza M:
Exactly.

Warwick F:
I mean, come on. Is it going to be like plagues of locusts? What next kind of thing.

Ruza M:
No question. Right?

Warwick F:
Yeah.

Ruza M:
I also have this sense that I have this guardian angel, and her name is Maud, and she drinks. And she takes me out to a ledge, and by the time she kind of figures out where I am, she always saves me. But there’s this moment of dangling off a ledge. So to me, it was more, I truly believe God tests those that He loves, and that there are people who can go through stuff and still not get it. So to me, it was one more speed bump. It’s not an obstacle. It’s another walk through fire to get to the other side.

Warwick F:
I almost-

Ruza M:
Because what I want is right there, and this is the one more thing I’ve got to get through.

Warwick F:
I mean, I know this is a little metaphysical, but I wonder if God’s saying, “Well, I know Ruza is made of very strong stuff, so I’m going to test her, but I know she can handle it.” I don’t know whether that’s biblical or not, but do you ever feel like that He feels like, “Not everybody can handle it, but Ruza can.”

Ruza M:
But I also feel like-

Warwick F:
“She can learn.”

Ruza M:
… life is not really a make your own mystery book. Right? I feel like that if people stepped back and looked at the serendipity that inevitably leads us all… I will never forget the first interview Oprah did with Deepak Chopra. And he explained how modern medicine has gotten us to a point that you can open up a brain and understand where things happen and why they’re happening, but we can’t figure out where thoughts come from. So to me, these forks in the road are those whispers of, “Here comes the next path. Here’s the next chapter.”

Ruza M:
But I also really feel like you’ve got two choices in life. You can win, or you can be right. And being right is a lonely mountain, but the places that have been my crucible moments have inevitably been where… Because my nature is win-win. My nature is, let’s figure it out. And for those of us from the Balkans, we’re really good at figuring it out, making it work and finding a middle ground. When that’s not possible, that’s been when I’ve hit a wall. That’s been the moment. There was no win-win for me in sitting in a newsroom watching inaccuracies being printed.

Ruza M:
There was no moment for me when I’m in a corporate setting, and inevitably there was a comment made that I remember like lightning striking, going, “Okay. Here comes the next chapter.” Because I had no choice at that moment. Everything I tried to make it a win-win became a, I had to take a stand. It transgressed that moment of win-win.

Warwick F:
People that are listening to this, there might be young people listening, and some might have gone through hard times and may be disillusioned about everything, from the world to politics to business people and all of the stuff that happens in the workplace that is often not appropriate. There’s probably a bunch of young people that are disillusioned. What message of hope do you have for those who maybe they were idealistic and had a dream, and maybe it’s been dented a bit or shattered a bit by the hardships of life and by the actions of others? What message of hope do you have for young people that maybe their dream and vision has got tarnished? What message of hope do you have for people like that?

Ruza M:
You can’t let the outside world really stop you from pursuing your dreams. It’s planted. It’s the whisper in your ear. It’s the thought that modern medicine can’t figure out where it’s coming from. There’s a reason God gave you that dream. And even if you have to put it on the back shelf because you have a family, you’re doing this, doing that, doing the other, the fact that it’s there, one way or another, it will come back around. Inevitably, it will come back around. There will be an opportunity if you open yourself up to it.

Ruza M:
So if you don’t talk to the person you’re sitting next to on a plane, you have no idea why God put that person next to you. If you don’t open yourself up to the fact that the people in your life are meant to be there at this particular time, good, bad, and ugly, you have the power, and I have many times literally made a list of, especially because I’m a saver, right? I want to save everyone. And I’ve made a list of… In fact, I’ve told people, I’ve told my own family that I’ve seen killing themselves to try to help a community or family members, to go, “How many people would you have helped if you had turned this way and not… There’s a point in time where you’re not helping anyone because you’re drowning in a negativity that you can’t change.”

Ruza M:
So I have parted ways. I’ve never burned a bridge, but I have definitely turned a page, where just because we’re friends, I won’t get dragged into that drama. There’s a certain level of focus and energy that you need to get through a day and to get where you’re going, and everything is literally one day at a time. The world can change this quickly. And if you don’t leave yourself open to the possibility that good can happen, it won’t. And I think that’s the other lessons for me, really, has been, because I am from the Balkans, and we’re all kind of moody, broody. I like a good rainy day.

Ruza M:
Phoenix, right? The irony of that is incredible. So pulling myself out of contemplative… We like to wallow. We like to tell war stories. We like to go, “But there’s no hope in that. There’s no effecting change in that.”

Warwick F:
But it sounds like you’ve chosen a different path. You’ve been through some very tough experiences, seen some terrible things that people do to each other for reasons that go back thousands of years, that probably nobody can even remember where it started and why. But yet you could be cynical, you could be disillusioned. I think you’re obviously wiser. As the years go by, hopefully wisdom happens. But yet you’re not cynical. I think you still have a sense of hope and optimism. And that, to me, is a great gift, because a lot of people, having seen what you’ve seen, say, “there’s no hope in humanity. Wars will go on forever. The Balkans will always…”

Warwick F:
I mean, it was the Balkans that started World War I. And speaking of Sarajevo, it’s been in the center of a lot of things. It’s like, what reason is there for hope? War will break out. You can be negative, but yet I sense you have a sense of not naïve optimism, but informed optimism, if you will. But you choose to hope rather than choose to wallow through your whole life.

Ruza M:
And I do think, though, when you open yourself up to having a conversation like this, you do have to talk about the things that you’ve gone through, and not in a way that it gives them oxygen, but that gives you perspective. And one of the reasons that the videos that you have seen, outside of now running a company and publicity and stuff, the reason that I really started talking… For many, many years, I didn’t talk about any of this, especially the stuff in the Balkans.

Ruza M:
And part of the thing that has driven me is I see a lot of parallels in the world today. I know what it’s like to go into one family’s home and they’re listening to this news station, and go to that family’s home and they’re listening to another news station, how families, through politics break up. And I’ve seen this movie before, and it doesn’t end well. And so one thing that’s galvanized me is, there’s no one I know from the Balkans that isn’t having some sort of the same kind of deja vu of, it changes that fast. And the thought of, well, we’re not them.

Warwick F:
But them could be anybody. You could look at Northern Ireland.

Ruza M:
Right.

Warwick F:
Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland, Catholic, Protestant. It’s like, “Well, why are you attacking them?” “Well, they attacked one of us.” It’s gone and there certainly for hundreds of years. There’s conflict anywhere that, oh, those people don’t get it. They’re the enemy. I mean, it’s-

Ruza M:
There are-

Warwick F:
It’s everywhere.

Ruza M:
… three beautiful families in Phoenix who all came from the outskirts of Sarajevo. One is Serbian, one is Croatian, and one is Muslim. They were godparents to each other’s kids and were neighbors. And they left at the same time together because they knew they’d be ripped apart if they hadn’t. So God works in mysterious ways.

Warwick F:
When you see things like that, you think miracles can happen-

Ruza M:
Exactly.

Warwick F:
… because rationally, those three should not-

Ruza M:
No.

Warwick F:
… be friends. It makes no sense.

Ruza M:
But for many, many years, they were. And this is the lesson from what politics can do, what economics can do, when people, when fear, really, of, I don’t know what will happen next, starts to take hold. I feel like the last four years in this country, there needs to be some sort of a cathartic… Four. Last 10. Some sort of a cathartic discussion around, “We may see things differently, but there’s far more that unites us than divides us.” And I think-

Warwick F:
That’s a very important message.

Ruza M:
… everyone is too afraid to even start that conversation, that that’s what worries me.

Gary S:
That is a perfect note to say… I think I heard the captain turn on the fasten seatbelt sign, and we’re getting to the point where it’s time to begin thinking about landing the plane. Before we do that, though, Ruza, I would be remiss if I did not give listeners the opportunity to find out more about Pro One Media, so tell them how they can find you and your services online.

Ruza M:
ProOneMedia.com. We have done 35 years of media and video production. And I’m very, very blessed equally I found them serendipitously. I was in another big, publicly traded corporate company, and my father actually had an accident with my… I was worried that he was with my son, and I remember having this moment of, can I leave? It’s like I’m… The whole corporate setting, once you walk in that door, there’s this sense that certain rules apply. In any event, I ran out the door, right? My father had been in an accident.

Ruza M:
And I stopped at one point and said… There’s a big part of my story about my son. I went through many, many miscarriages, and a divorce, and again, had no interest in leaving Apollo. And a friend of mine called me to serve as a reference, because he was looking for a job. And as I was talking to this person, he was like, “Would you mind meeting with our CEO?” So I decided to have breakfast with the lovely lady. By dinner, I had a job offer, and I ended up in Florida.

Ruza M:
What I didn’t know is that, outside of being a very powerful businesswoman, she had four kids, six grandkids, and she and her husband, who’s an attorney, would prank call their grandkids as Disney characters during lunch. I knew I was in trouble. And she’d pick at me when we’d be on a bumpy plane ride to the middle of nowhere, and my fatalistic tendency is, being from the Balkans, of it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. She was like, “Do you want to be a mother? Do you want to be a mother?” So I didn’t tell anybody when I started fertility treatments, found specialists. And of course it worked because it’s crazy.

Ruza M:
And I have an eight-year-old son. So when my father had this accident and I’m sitting in my corporate role, I’m driving to the scene, going, “This is crazy. This is absolutely crazy.” And I went, “I have to jump off this corporate ladder. This child is more important to me than necessarily this stature and career.” And by complete happenstance, I ran into this company that was… The couple that owned it previously were retiring. And the entire client base are corporate companies that are publicly traded, which is the world I came from. So again, it was very, very serendipitous. And I’m very blessed…

Warwick F:
Having your own company, you get to at least have a little bit more say about your hours and flexibility and being with your son. So yeah, it sounds like you’ve continued to follow your own path and listen to the still small voice, however we think of those little turning points in our life-

Ruza M:
For sure.

Warwick F:
… and you’ve-

Ruza M:
And it’s given me the opportunity to help a lot of nonprofits, so it’s given me… Because now I’m the person who says, “Yes, you can.”

Gary S:
Right. And that sounds a lot like what we talk about at Crucible Leadership and Beyond the Crucible as a life of significance. You are definitely well-ensconced, well along the road to an entirely different kind of life of significance than maybe than you lived earlier. And that’s-

Warwick F:
Absolutely. Because we talk about a life of significance being a life on purpose, dedicated to serving others, and clearly that’s what you do, and have sought to do, I don’t know, pretty much, sounds like, your whole life.

Ruza M:
Right.

Warwick F:
So it’s the definition, I think, of a life of significance, which is, to me, what we think life’s all about.

Gary S:
That last sound was the wheels touching down on the runway, so the captain has indeed landed the plane. Gather your peanut bags, get your luggage. As we go, though, there are three, and there are plenty more than three. I pulled three, I think. And actually, Ruza, I stole one from you from the sheet that you filled out before we did this. So I pulled two, and then I stole one from you, so I’ll give you full credit when I read it. But takeaways from this episode that I think listeners can apply to their own lives and their own crucibles.

Gary S:
The first one is, and this was all over your story as a young woman, Ruza, is, don’t let fear cancel your vision. Don’t let it override your passion. Sometimes it will lead you to not just experience a crucible, but in your case, it led you to jump into a crucible, which is a different kind of experience than we’ve had on the show before. Your skills and passions, listener, may be exactly the things needed to help others endure a crucible that they’re going through. Your life of significance could actually begin by choosing to enter a crucible. That’s number one.

Gary S:
Number two, as we say in every show… It’s interesting. At the end of every show, and I’m going to say it in a few minutes, we say that your crucibles don’t have to be the end of your story. They’re not the end of your story. They can be the beginning of a new and more rewarding story if you learn the lessons of them. And one of the things that we heard from Ruza today is that she recognized, in the midst of the crucible she’d been through, a commonality that education was a dividing line in some of the things she saw in the strife in countries that she experienced.

Gary S:
There’s a line of education. That was the line of demarcation between people who got through it okay and people who didn’t. And she’s dedicated herself since moving into this new chapter in her life. She’s dedicated herself for more than a decade of raising education levels. As she puts it in her bio, or as someone put it in a story on her, she has that education is the bedrock of democracy and economic sustainability, and that Ruza has worked to bring education to the forefront of corporate activism and giving. And that all started because she learned a lesson from her crucibles.

Gary S:
And then the last point, which I am stealing shamelessly… Well, it’s not really shamelessly because I’m saying that it was Ruza who created it. She wrote this in the sheet that we ask people to tell us about themselves before we do the show. Ruza said this about some advice she would give to listeners. This was her fourth point. I love this. I am going to shamelessly steal this in my personal life as I talk to people, just so you know. But she said this, the fourth point she made, “One way to get through your crucibles, call on the good old-fashioned sense of spite,” quote, unquote.

Gary S:
Not what you would think it means, right, being spiteful toward people. This is what Ruza means by that. In spite of him or her or that or this situation or that situation, in spite of these things, you’re going to move on. You’re going to keep at it. You’re going to keep pursuing your life of significance. She adds at the end, “Nothing is more gratifying than being underestimated.” It is my suspicion that that has happened fewer and fewer times in your life as life has gone on. You are a hard woman to underestimate.

Gary S:
Listener, thank you for spending time with us today on Beyond the Crucible. As always, Warwick and I would ask, if you like what you’ve heard here, if you’ve found hope, you’ve found wisdom, you’ve found some action steps you can take to get through your own crucibles from this, please click subscribe to the podcast so that you can not miss any other episode and help Warwick and I get the show out to more people. Until the next time we are together, remember what has shone through in this conversation with Ruza Markovic, and that is this.

Gary S:
Your crucible experiences are not the end of your story. In fact, they can be the beginning, as they have been for Ruza, to a new chapter in your story that can become the most rewarding chapter in your story. Why can it become the most rewarding chapter in your story? Because when you learn the lessons of those crucibles, you can apply them to what you do next, to the chapter you write next, and that chapter is the most fulfilling that you’ll experience because in the end, it leads to a life of significance.

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