Marla Ruzicka in Baghdad, 2004, with a girl who lost her entire family to US bombing. (J.B. Russell)
Arifa had lost nearly everything when Marla Ruzicka walked through the door and into her life. The American intervention in Afghanistan had started just weeks before. A US bomb missed its target by three miles and landed instead on Arifa’s home, leaving her a widow at the age of 30. She buried her husband, eldest son and six other family members under small, chipped stone markers on a dirt street outside Kabul.
To Arifa, Marla must have seemed to be from a different world, and in many ways she was. A quintessential California girl, Marla was gregarious and full of can-do optimism. But Afghanistan was sinking into her skin. The stories of all the wounded civilians deeply affected her as she traveled across the country in 2002. How could it be that her own country had no idea how many people were being harmed by its combat operations? How could it be that their loved ones received nothing for their losses?
Among the Afghan families Marla talked with, she took a particular shine to Arifa, who had not seen an American face following the deaths of her family members. There was no place for Afghans with grievances to go, so Marla made signs for Arifa to hold outside the American embassy, hoping that someone would do something to help this widow.
When Marla wasn’t visiting war victims, she was visiting US military bases. She found a fighting force entirely unprepared to deal with civilian casualties. Officers told her they didn’t have a mandate to count casualties, didn’t know where the injured were, and had no way of explaining to the survivors what happened or offering them compensation for damages.
In fact, responsibility for civilian casualties was denied at the highest levels of the chain of command. Just months after the US invasion of Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, “We did not start this war. So understand, responsibility for every single casualty in this war, whether they’re innocent Afghans or innocent Americans, rests at the feet of the [sic] Al Qaeda and the Taliban.”
That mindset was unconscionable to Marla. She flew from Kabul to Washington, armed with testimonies from war victims and soldiers alike. In Congress and at the Defense Department, she tirelessly pressed for recognition of and help for civilians harmed by US combat operations, framing the issue both as an ethical one and as an increasingly strategic imperative—showing that anger grew in the vacuum created when civilian casualties were ignored or dismissed.
One retired Air Force officer told me, “Marla was quite probably the gutsiest human being I have ever met.” So it’s not shocking that she was successful in Washington, where guts make up half of any advocacy effort. Working with the staff of Senator Patrick Leahy, Marla helped create new humanitarian aid programs specifically for civilians harmed by US combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The program in Iraq was later named in Marla’s honor after she was killed in Baghdad in 2005 by a suicide bomber while on her way to do what she did best: give grieving families hope. Marla would never see how much her work meant to war victims, or the effect it would eventually have on the military she always believed would do the right thing.
It turns out she was right to believe in change. Over the course of ten years at war, the US military shifted its mindset, learning through trial and error the worth of paying attention to the population’s well-being. Working with international partners in Afghanistan, US forces began tracking civilian casualties and meeting with families to explain what happened to their loved ones. Monetary payments offered by American commanders, called “condolences” [for more, see Nick Turse, “Blood Money: Afghanistan’s Reparations Files”], have helped ease the suffering of Afghan and Iraqi civilians, as well as reduce anger toward America.