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.
None of these practices by US forces are perfect, but they show progress. When my colleagues and I travel to American bases at home to discuss civilian protection with officers, we find that more and more are returning from combat touting the value, and the necessity, of compassion and humanity—lessons Marla could have taught them herself. And the organization Marla created, our own Center for Civilians in Conflict, is thriving.
As for Arifa, I met her in Afghanistan in 2006, four years after her first contact with Marla. Without an income, she was being forced to leave her home, a small mud-brick house with two rooms, no indoor plumbing, and tattered plastic over the windows to keep out the dust and cold. She and her remaining children had little help, since the aid programs Marla worked so hard to create with Senator Leahy hadn’t yet become operational. Arifa used her burqa to wipe the tears away when remembering the kindness Marla had shown her, as an American and a friend.
One year later I visited Arifa again, hoping that the now-operational aid program had done some good. She opened the door beaming, and brought me to see her sparkling new sewing machines, bought by “the Americans.” She was teaching local girls to sew and selling traditional clothing at a market to earn an income. Arifa told me, “Now I know what the purpose of my life is…and I know the Americans, they did not mean to cause my family harm.”
I wish I could finish this story here, but Arifa’s story—like that of most war victims—is complex. We got back in touch with her for this piece and found that she’s struggling again. She told us, “The assistance was good, and I thought I would make my own business…but I had more needs and expenses than I was earning. I had the entire family to feed.”
The United States will leave behind a complicated legacy in Afghanistan, one that will be debated long into the future. If Marla were here, I suspect it’s people like Arifa she’d be concerned about. Afghanistan doesn’t have a support system in place to help people like her, and US and allied-nation efforts haven’t gone nearly far enough to help the many thousands like her. Arifa told us, “I still pray for security of my people and this nation…. I don’t want [foreign forces] to be leaving this country with a tainted future.”
ALSO IN THIS ISSUE
“America’s Afghan Victims,” by Bob Dreyfuss and Nick Turse
“Afghanistan’s Casualty Data Black Market,” by Nick Turse
“How the US War in Afghanistan Fueled the Taliban Insurgency,” by Bob Dreyfuss
“America’s Lethal Profiling of Afghan Men,” by Nick Turse
and also online:
“Blood Money: Afghanistan’s Reparations Files,” by Nick Turse
“Mass-Casualty Attacks in the Afghan War,” by Bob Dreyfuss