When I first saw her sitting by the swimming pool at the Al-Hamra Hotel last June, I thought, "What is this blond sprite doing in Baghdad?"
Our paths crossed only briefly. Not until this week did I learn of the incredible things that Marla Ruzicka accomplished before she was killed by a car bomb last Sunday at age 28.
The daughter of California Republicans, she devoted the last few years to helping innocent civilian victims of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. She was a one-woman human-rights dynamo whose death has produced an amazing outpouring of tributes from journalists and officials who knew her. She was able to focus attention on a subject many would rather ignore.
Civilian casualties are an inconvenient stain on the story line of Iraq liberation. The Iraqi wedding party bombed by mistake; the small girl shot dead by U.S. fire aimed next door; the family killed by nervous American soldiers at a checkpoint -- all are often dismissed as unavoidable collateral damage. U.S. officials don't give out any official figures on such deaths.
That leads to rampant speculation about numbers. Last October, the London-based medical publication the Lancet contended there were 100,000 civilian deaths as direct or indirect consequence of the Iraq invasion; this figure seems an exaggeration. The www.iraqbodycount.net project suggested just under 17,000 as of late 2004, based on deaths reported in the news media. There is no question that many thousands have died.
Iraqis can apply to the U.S. military for compensation, but the process is often arbitrary. If the death is deemed to be "combat-related," no payment is made.
Ruzicka made it her mission to compile data on civilian casualties and to seek aid for the victims. She started in Kabul, on a shoestring, charming journalists, military commanders and embassy officials into helping with the project, then seeking out Afghan victims and bringing them to U.S. attention.
After the overthrow of Saddam, she moved to Iraq, starting the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, or CIVIC (www.civicworldwide.org). With her courageous Iraqi aide, Faiz Ali Salem, who died alongside her, she organized Iraqi volunteers to survey civilian casualties. She traveled without guards, protected only by a black abaya, venturing where few foreigners dared go.
Her work was so impressive it persuaded Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to champion her idea of creating a Civic Assistance Program for Afghan and Iraqi civilian victims. This is the first program of its kind; around $10 million has already gone to each country, and another $10 million was just allocated for Iraq last week. The funds can be used for medical treatment, rebuilding damaged homes, business loans and other forms of aid.
"The program never would have happened without Marla's initiative," said Tim Reiser, an aide to Leahy who worked closely with Ruzicka. "Marla helped us learn about the victims' needs on the ground, which is one reason her loss is so devastating."
"We're talking about a new Iraq," Ruzicka told CNN in February 2004, "where there's supposed to be accountability and transparency. Under Saddam, human life didn't count, but now with a new start, every human life (in Iraq) is supposed to count."
On the day she died, she was on her way to help some Iraqis who had lost family members. The suicide bomber was aiming at a nearby U.S. convoy, but her car was caught in the blast.
"I have never met . . . someone so young who gave so much of herself to so many people, and who made such a difference doing it," Leahy said. He will move to rename the victims' aid program in her honor. Would that her death could jolt the Pentagon into revealing those civilian death numbers -- and getting the numbers down.