Marla Ruzicka, R.I.P.

Ken AshfordIraqLeave a Comment

MarlaMarla Ruzicka is one of the heroes of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  While surely there has been heroism and courage shown by the men and women in our military who fight with great honor and courage in what many of us still consider a flawed and stupid war, the courage and heroism is not limited to those Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan who carried a rifle or drove a military vehicle.  Marla Ruzicka’s tools weren’t rifles or Bradley fighting vehicles, but clipboards, computers, emails, and a remarkable ability to earn trust and persuade the powerful to do the right thing.

In her mid-twenties, Californian Ruzicka traveled to Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Taliban to conduct an empirically sound count of civilian victims killed by US bombs, and then to lobby for compensation Afghan civilian victims of US bombings. After confirming 824 dead–she figured the actual number was much larger, but those were deaths she was able to confirm–she returned to the US, where she successfully lobbied U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy to sponsor a $3.75 million appropriation for the Afghan victims and their families.

Ruzicka had founded her own NGO, The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC).  After returning for a while to Afghanistan, where she helped prod the US authorities on disbursing the funds authorized by Leahy’s legislation to the victims and their families, she eventually followed the US military into Iraq.  As in Afghanistan, she conducted extensive door-to-door canvasses with local volunteers, this time placing special focus on Iraqis hurt or killed after George W. Bush’s announced that the mission was accomplished. 

The story of an attractive, engaging and resourceful young woman from California who succeeded in bonding with Iraqis victimized by errant bombs and jittery 19 year old’s with M-4 rifles was quite a story, and she began to receive acclaim for her work and attention for her story.  She was interviewed on Nightline, written about in plenty of serious news articles, and was even profiled in "lighter" news sources like Elle and something called Travel Girl.

Leahy referred to her as a foreign policy "whistle blower."  The BBC declared that the "most reliable numbers so far are the work of this woman, Marla Ruzicka."  She spoke before the Soros-funded Open Society Institute, her work was incorporated into reports by Human Rights Watch, and she participated in a symposium sponsored by Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy along with top military leaders and theorists, military and political scholars, and accomplished writers and journalists.

But her focus remained on the innocent victims of war, like the three daughters of an Iraqi couple who were killed when an American tank swerved to avoid an exploding grenade and crushed their car.  Doing her work in Iraq meant, of course, that she herself was often in danger.  She was asked if she considered doing something safer, but her personal safety wasn’t as strong a feeling as the satisfaction she received from doing work that was important and rewarding.  "To have a job where you can make things better for people?  That’s a blessing…Why would I do anything else?"

Marla_1_4Saturday morning [April 16, 2005] she emailed this photo of herself with Harah, who was 3 months old when her entire family was killed by a U.S. rocket that destroyed the auto they were in.  Later that morning Ruzicka and CIVIC’s Iraq director Faiz Al Salaam drove near the Bagdhad airport to visit another little girl, one who had been injured by a bomb.  As they drove along the airport road, a car bomb exploded, and both Marla and Faiz were killed.

— "Death of a Hero", The Next Hurrah