April 18, 2005
"Country's Violence catches up to 'Angel of Mercy' Crusader in Iraq", by Doug Smith. (The Los Angeles Times)
BAGHDAD -- She hugged and laughed her way through war zones with an effervescence belying her seriousness of purpose.
No pass to get through a checkpoint? She leaned across her Iraqi driver to show the stern American guard the shock of blond hair beneath her flowing black robes.
"Please, please, please, please, please," she said, and then, "Where are you from?" She waved aside tough-looking guards from all corners of the world, never looking back to see if they had raised an AK-47 in her direction. In her one-woman mission to make the United States take responsibility for the innocent victims of its wars, 28-year-old Marla Ruzicka bubbled with a passion that seemed to lift her beyond danger.
Iraq's random violence caught up with Ruzicka on Saturday. Her car pulled alongside a convoy of U.S. contractors just as a suicide bomber detonated his car. Ruzicka, her driver-translator Faiz Ali Salim and one guard on the convoy were killed. Five other people were wounded.
Her death stunned a wide circle of diplomats, government officials, soldiers, journalists and ordinary people from Baghdad to Kabul, Afghanistan.
"God bless her pure soul, she was trying to help us," said Haj Natheer Bashir, the brother-in-law of an Iraqi teenager Ruzicka was trying to evacuate to the San Francisco Bay area for surgery. "She was just a kind lady."
A former Marine who now works for the State Department in Baghdad, said: "She was a remarkable woman and a kind person, and she affected everyone she came in contact with." The diplomat said he was not authorized to speak on the record about Ruzicka because her remains were awaiting DNA analysis for positive identification.
It wasn't clear where Ruzicka was going, why she was on the notoriously dangerous Baghdad airport road, or why her car pulled up alongside a convoy. Almost all Baghdad drivers slam on their brakes as soon as they see a row of slow-moving SUVs ahead to avoid getting in the way of possible car-bomb attacks.
Raised in conservative Lakeport, Calif., north of San Francisco, the 5-foot-3 Ruzicka was a high school basketball star and a leading three-point shooter. She also showed an early attraction toward humanitarian causes.
Ruzicka and her twin brother, Mark, were the youngest of six children of Clifford and Nancy Ruzicka. Mark, who gathered with family and friends at her parents' home in Lakeport on Sunday, said his twin sister had led a school protest against the Persian Gulf War in 1991 when she was in eighth grade, and was promptly suspended.
Her high school principal, Pat McGuire, sent an e-mail to the Ruzicka family on Sunday after learning of her death, recalling that reading the novel "Cry, the Beloved Country" and watching a videotape of the slaying of a young American woman in South Africa had ignited the desire in her to do humanitarian work.
During her college years at Long Island University she traveled to countries including Cuba, Guatemala and Costa Rica. When she visited Israel, she also traveled to Ramallah on the West Bank.
Her father, 69, a civil engineer, said the family became accustomed to her travels. "She had a lot of purpose in her life, so it was kind of natural that she would go into places like these," he said. He added that he was proud of her as a "lady with a tremendously open heart and warm feelings toward the people who've been in conflict and war."
About 10 years ago, she showed up at the San Francisco offices of the left-leaning Global Exchange, said its founder, Medea Benjamin, who was the Green Party's candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2000. She accompanied Benjamin to Afghanistan in 2001 after the war to oust the Taliban, and came back a changed person, said her friend and volunteer attorney, David Frankel. "She could no longer relate to the boring, mundane details of ordinary life," Frankel said.
Ruzicka returned to Afghanistan on her own funds, "finding people who were hurt, finding what they needed -- an artificial limb, a skin graft, a new roof over their house. She would find a way to fill the need directly," he said.
A few days after Baghdad fell in April 2003, Ruzicka showed up in Iraq. She began building a volunteer network to document civilian casualties. The records they compiled on more than 2,000 dead provided an early accounting of the war's toll. Although the currently accepted figure, based largely on news accounts, is between 17,000 and 20,000, Ruzicka's stands out because of the detail it contains, said Newsweek reporter Owen Matthews, a friend of Ruzicka.
Several friends said Ruzicka experienced steep emotional swings and had a troubled side to her life that drove her. "This was her therapy," said Matthews.
As she struggled to build her own organization, Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, Ruzicka began shuttling between Baghdad, an office in New York and her parents' home in the Bay area. She also traveled to Washington to lobby for assistance for Iraqi war victims. Tim Rieser, an aide to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., credited Ruzicka with inspiring an appropriation of $17.5 million in aid to Afghanistan and Iraq. Her own fund-raising effort wasn't taking off, though. "We always thought we would raise more than we could," said Kathleen Aguilera, a friend and former staff member.
Ruzicka had been away from Iraq since summer, and returned to Baghdad several weeks ago. Aguilera said she thought Ruzicka was "hoping to bring it to the heart with individual donors" by collecting of individual tragedies.
Benjamin said she had cautioned Ruzicka about the danger of going back. "I thought it would be better to wait for a while and see if the situation got better than to put her life at risk," Benjamin said. "She was determined to go because the people she worked with didn't have the luxury not to be at risk."
Baghdad had changed since the early months after the war, when Western civilians could mingle with Iraqis in many parts of the country. In the new Baghdad, every excursion by Westerners outside a guarded compound is a carefully planned mission with two cars and a bodyguard. Aid workers have not been immune from the violence. Irish-born Margaret Hassan of Care International was killed by kidnappers in November.
Reporters seek to blend in by growing beards and wearing the casual look popular among Iraqis. Ruzicka adopted the flowing abaya and head coverings that Western women now use in transit. Still, ebullient and given to an irrepressible laugh, Ruzicka hardly blended in. Humanitarian organizations shun publicity, but Ruzicka openly courted the media. "I need it for my fund raising," she said.
Running her operation on a shoestring, Ruzicka was accompanied only by Faiz Ali Salim, 43, who served as her driver and translator. An unemployed commercial pilot, Ali Salim had become Ruzicka's right-hand man in Iraq after the war. Now the father of a baby girl and once again flying for Iraqi Air, he was doing his last tour with Ruzicka.
Despite the risks, Ruzicka traveled all over Baghdad. In one day, she met a government minister, visited a hospital, the U.S. military's Iraqi assistance center and conferred for hours with a reporter, searching for civilians wounded by U.S. military action.
It was Matthews, the Newsweek reporter, who gave Ruzicka one of her leads. In March, he had written about Rakan Hassan, a youth from Mosul orphaned and partially paralyzed by fire from a helicopter gunship.
Ruzicka had visited Hassan in the northern city and thought she could find a sponsor to get him to Oakland for surgery. The family had taken out passports and Ruzicka was working on getting visas. A doctor was going to be hired to make X-rays. Matthews said he was going to lend her $300.
On Saturday, Ruzicka had planned a party. But she wasn't there. News of her death came in fragments that no one could confirm. By morning, cellphones had carried it to Kabul, Vienna, Austria; Amman, Jordan; Washington and San Francisco. Late in the day, Bashir, the wounded young Iraqi's brother-in-law, answered a phone in Mosul and learned that the boy's benefactor would not return.
On the day before she died, Ruzicka called her parents. She got their answering machine, and left a short message telling them she loved them. Her father recalled admonishing her in their last conversation to be careful. "Daddy," she said, "I will be careful."
(Staff writers Jia-Rui Chong in Los Angeles, Saif Rasheed and Raheem Salman in Baghdad, and Times correspondent Robert Hollis in Lakeport contributed to this article).
© 2005 LA Times
"How many Iraqi civilians have been killed by American forces?" By Marla Ruzicka. (USA Today)
(Marla Ruzicka a 28-year-old humanitarian aid worker from California filed this piece from Baghdad a week before her death.).
In my two years in Iraq, the one question I am asked the most is: "How many Iraqi civilians have been killed by American forces?" The American public has a right to know how many Iraqis have lost their lives since the start of the war and as hostilities continue.
In a news conference at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in March 2002, Gen. Tommy Franks said, "We don't do body counts." His words outraged the Arab world and damaged the U.S. claim that its forces go to great lengths to minimize civilian casualties.
During the Iraq war, as U.S. troops pushed toward Baghdad, counting civilian casualties was not a priority for the military. However, since May 1, 2003, when President Bush declared major combat operations over and the U.S. military moved into a phase referred to as "stability operations," most units began to keep track of Iraqi civilians killed at checkpoints or during foot patrols by U.S. soldiers.
Here in Baghdad, a brigadier general commander explained to me that it is standard operating procedure for U.S. troops to file a spot report when they shoot a non-combatant. It is in the military's interest to release these statistics.
Recently, I obtained statistics on civilian casualties from a high-ranking U.S. military official. The numbers were for Baghdad only, for a short period, during a relatively quiet time. Other hot spots, such as the Ramadi and Mosul areas, could prove worse. The statistics showed that 29 civilians were killed by small-arms fire during firefights between U.S. troops and insurgents between Feb. 28 and April 5 — four times the number of Iraqi police killed in the same period. It is not clear whether the bullets that killed these civilians were fired by U.S. troops or insurgents.
A good place to search for Iraqi civilian death counts is the Iraqi Assistance Center in Baghdad and the General Information Centers set up by the U.S. military across Iraq. Iraqis who have been harmed by Americans have the right to file claims for compensation at these locations, and some claims have been paid. But others have been denied, even when the U.S. forces were in the wrong.
The Marines have also been paying compensation in Fallujah and Najaf. These data serve as a good barometer of the civilian costs of battle in both cities.
These statistics demonstrate that the U.S. military can and does track civilian casualties. Troops on the ground keep these records because they recognize they have a responsibility to review each action taken and that it is in their interest to minimize mistakes, especially since winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis is a key component of their strategy. The military should also want to release this information for the purposes of comparison with reports such as the Lancet study published late last year. It suggested that since the U.S.-led invasion there had been 100,000 deaths in Iraq.
A further step should be taken. In my dealings with U.S. military officials here, they have shown regret and remorse for the deaths and injuries of civilians. Systematically recording and publicly releasing civilian casualty numbers would assist in helping the victims who survive to piece their lives back together. A number is important not only to quantify the cost of war, but as a reminder of those whose dreams will never be realized in a free and democratic Iraq.
April 18, 2005
Civilian War Victims Advocate Marla Ruzicka Mourned.
Human Rights Watch mourns the death of Marla Ruzicka, a tireless human rights activist working to provide compensation for civilian victims of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The 28-year-old Ruzicka, founder of the non-governmental Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), was killed by a suicide bomber while traveling on the Baghdad Airport road on Saturday.
Ruzicka’s colleague, Faiz Ali Salim, 43, also died in the explosion. Five others were injured in the attack, which seemed aimed at a security convoy driving ahead of Ruzicka’s car. Human Rights Watch extended its condolence to the families of Ruzicka and Salim.
Ruzicka had worked extensively in Iraq and in Afghanistan to document the exact number of civilians killed or injured by U.S. forces, and helped victims receive compensation from the U.S. government.
During her last trip to Iraq, Ruzicka managed to obtain information from the U.S. military about the number of civilians killed during hostilities after the end of major combat operations. The information she received related only to a brief period in the Baghdad area, but was important in establishing that the U.S. did in fact record civilian injuries. She was trying to get the U.S. government to publicly release these statistics about all areas of Iraq.
“Everyone who met Marla was struck by her incredible effervescence and commitment,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “She was courageous and relentless in pursuit of accurate information about civilians caught up in war and her desire to provide some compensation to relieve their suffering. Her personal warmth and dedication made her a formidable advocate for her cause.”
Ruzicka and her colleagues at CIVIC (nearly all local volunteers) worked to identify victims individually, gathering detailed information about the circumstances of their injury, their personal lives, and the impact of the war on them. This information was widely viewed as some of the most accurate data about the condition of civilians and helped put a human face on their suffering. Its reliability made it possible for many civilian victims to receive compensation.
Ruzicka began her work on behalf of civilian victims in Afghanistan in December 2001. As a result of her efforts in precisely identifying injured civilians, the U.S. Senate appropriated 2.5 million dollars to assist Afghans injured by U.S. action, a sum that has now grown to 7.5 million.
With the beginning of the war in Iraq, she expanded her own campaign there, and successfully lobbied the U.S. government to set aside 10 million dollars to compensate Iraqi victims.
Ruzicka was famous for her generosity in helping newly arrived journalists and aid workers unfamiliar with Iraq and Afghanistan. Her close association with Afghan and Iraqi aid workers and her tremendous respect for them established a standard for other foreigners working in those countries to follow. While she was well-known for eschewing personal comfort in pursuit of her work, she was even better known for organizing social gatherings that brought together local activists, journalists, aid workers, and government and military officials.
Ruzicka was scheduled to leave Iraq within a week. Ruzicka, who had decreased her time in Iraq due to security concerns, had traveled to Nepal in December 2004 to investigate the civil war raging there and to assess the possibility of expanding her work there.
“Marla’s passion for her cause was obvious and infectious, but it was the accuracy of her data and the veracity of her information that made it possible for many others to rely on it,” Roth said. “Human Rights Watch staff who worked closely with her in the conflict zones in Afghanistan, Iraq, and in the halls of Washington were all impressed by her. She was an inspiration to us all.”
In an essay she wrote just a few days before her death, Ruzicka explained the significance of her work providing detailed information about the deaths of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan: “A number is important not only to quantify the cost of the war, but to me each number is also a story of someone whose hopes, dreams and potential will never be realized, and who left behind a family.”
by Los Angeles Times