Marla Ruzicka deserves the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Unlike Paul Wolfowitz or George Tenet, she shouldn’t get it for botching the job in Iraq. No, she ought to receive it for trying damn hard to make America live up to its ideals in Iraq and elsewhere. But the medal would have to be awarded posthumously–because on Saturday, Marla, an irrepressible 28-year-old from California, was killed by a bomb when a suicide bomber, who was apparently trying to strike a US convoy on the highway to Baghdad International Airport, pulled up alongside her car pulled and detonated the explosives. Faiz Ali Salaam, her 43-year-old associate and the father of a two-month-old daughter, was also killed.
I met Marla several years ago. During the early months of the (still unfinished) war in Afghanistan, I became obsessed with the idea of providing compensation for the civilians killed or injured in Afghanistan as the result of the US military action. Few others–in the media, on Capitol Hill, in the foreign policy community–shared my concern, which rose from both a humanitarian sentiment and a sense of national self-interest. If the United States was killing and maiming civilians in Afghanistan to protect ourselves–even if inadvertently–it seemed to me Washington should do whatever it could not to piss off further the people in Afghanistan (and other countries) by ignoring the plight of the noncombatants. Soon after writing about this, I was contacted by Marla. She had been in Kabul, where she had conducted surveys to assess the extent of civilian casualties, and she was now in Washington pressing for US assistance to the families harmed. She had been doing the hard–and dangerous–on-the-ground work.
I was much impressed by her, as were others in Washington. She was a passionate, facts-driven advocate who cared about the individual lives of victims so often kept out of our collective conscience by being described as “collateral damage.” No, she urged, they count, too. As much as our fallen neighbors struck down on September 11. And she meant that quite literally. She argued that these people ought to be counted; their deaths should be recorded by someone, especially since the Bush administration showed a particular disinterest in mounting such calculations or even acknowledging the damage done to civilians. Marla wanted to chronicle the truth and aid the afflicted. She was brave. She was concerned. She was a hero.
During one of our conversations after the major fighting was done in Afghanistan, we discussed her future. She was not finished with her Afghanistan work, but she sensed there was a bigger issue afoot: the general attitude toward civilian victims of war. She was right. We both saw that a war in Iraq was on its way. There will be antiwar activists raising hell, I told her, and Marla easily could be one of their leaders. But she had identified and filled a crucial need overlooked by so many others in the antiwar movement. She had made herself indispensable to the cause of social justice, and she had, in a way, transcended the typical ideological and policy disputes. I encouraged her to continue and expand her efforts.
Marla did engage in organizing against the war in Iraq, but once Bush launched the invasion, she created a small, nonprofit outfit called the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC). Shortly after the invasion, she quickly organized a team of 160 Iraqis to conduct a survey. These researchers interviewed thousands and documented nearly 2,000 civilian deaths from the start of the invasion to May 1, 2003–the day Bush prematurely declared the end of major military operations in Iraq. “The purpose of the survey is not to quantify the total humanitarian impact of the war in Iraq, but rather to identify victims and families of those in need of recognition and assistance,” CIVIC later noted. “… Each death, injury and house that was destroyed represents a story and a need.” After her death, Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, told the Associated Press that it had been Ruzicka’s idea to create a special fund in last year’s multibillion-dollar foreign aid bill to help Iraqis whose businesses had been damaged by US bombs.
The innocent casualties of war were too real for Marla. In November 2003, she sent an email to Alternet in which she described one small tragedy in Iraq:
As terrorists wreak havoc on life in Baghdad, innocent families are getting caught in the crossfire.
On the 24th of October, former teacher Mohammad Kadhum Mansoor, 59, and his wife, Hamdia Radhi Kadhum, 45, were traveling with their three daughters — Beraa, 21, Fatima, 8, and Ayat, 5 years old — when they were tragically run over by an American tank.
A small grenade was thrown at the tank, causing it to loose control and veer onto the highway, over the family’s small Volkswagen. Mohammad and Hamdia were killed instantly, orphaning the three girls in the backseat. The girls survived, but with broken and fractured bodies. We are not sure of Ayat’s fate; her backbone is broken.
CIVIC staff member Faiz Al Salaam monitors the girls’ condition each day. Nobody in the military or the U.S. Army has visited them, nor has anyone offered to help this very poor family.
The only assistance from U.S. forces in Iraq is via the neighborhood Central Military Operations Center (CMOC). If the girls can get to their offices, their case will be filed and heard via a town council. This offers little hope for these girls, who are faced with immediate needs and a broken future.
The U.S. needs to have a clear procedure to respond to cases like Ayat’s. CIVIC is working to try to establish such a system of assistance, but for now, the very least we can do to show our sympathy is to help Ayat and her sisters ourselves.
Thank you, and let’s hope and pray for a peaceful Iraq.
The task that Marla had assumed for herself was to make America better–even when she disagreed with the government. She opposed the war in Iraq. But once the United States began killing people in Iraq, she wanted this mission conducted with true concern for those errantly harmed. In December 2003, the San Francisco Chronicle published an accurate profile of her. It noted:
Marla Ruzicka’s life is driven by numbers. The numbers of Iraqi civilians dead, the numbers of the wounded. How many of their homes have been destroyed?
As founder of CIVIC (Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict), Ruzicka works 15-hour days in the thick of the war zone, going door to door to assess the harm done to innocent Iraqis caught in the line of fire. Ruzicka then uses that information to lobby the U.S. government for assistance….
While the Defense Department keeps official records of U.S. troops killed and wounded (440 and 2,470 as of Dec. 1), no one has stepped forward to do the same for Iraqi civilians but Ruzicka, the self-appointed watchdog of civilians harmed in recent Middle East conflicts….
An unofficial survey she undertook in Afghanistan confirmed 824 dead. Returning to the United States, she lobbied Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to insert language in an appropriations bill that would provide $3.75 million to help victims. In July, the money started trickling in to the devastated country….
“Marla is an exceptionally determined, energetic and brave young woman who has traveled to the front lines to focus attention on an issue that too often gets ignored,” he said. “Civilians bear the brunt of the suffering in wars today, but there is no policy to help them. Marla and her organization have helped put a human face on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq by identifying the victims and their needs, and by lobbying for assistance.”
…Would she ever consider doing something a little … safer?
“To have a job where you can make things better for people? That’s a blessing,” she said. “Why would I do anything else?”
Don’t forget about DAVID CORN’s BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on the lame questions newspaper editors tossed at Bush, John Negroponte’s lazy reading skills, Bush’s bad math reagrding Iraq, and the latest on the banned-in Arkansas controversy.
Author Peter Bergen, a friend of hers, noted yesterday,
One really interesting thing is that Marla was very opposed to the Iraq war before it began, but once the war started I never heard her express any opinion about the war itself. Once the war started she just wanted to help people who were hurt, not engage in a debate about the merits of the war. Beneath her Californian happy-go-luck demeanor Marla was a very hardheaded realist about what needed to be done. The war happened. People were hurt. She wanted to help them. And an example of her realistic approach is how she worked in Afghanistan and Iraq compensating the families who died. Marla had no patience for people who demonstrated against the war, and did nothing else.
Marla told one interviewer, “My long-term goal is to get a desk at the State Department that looks at civilian casualties.” It seems like that would be a natural. Shouldn’t a nation keep track of and be concerned about the damage done to civilians when it engages in military actions? Yet what a dream that was–and remains.
There will be memorials for Marla Ruzicka. Senators Patrick Leahy and Barbara Boxer have said they will offer tributes to her on the Senate floor. Last night after I heard the news of her death, I looked in on my two daughters–age four and five-and-a-half. Thinking of Marla’s parents, Nancy and Clifford Ruzicka, I imagined how proud I will be if my children grow up to be women who have the sort of strength and conviction Marla possessed. And how scared I will be.
CIVIC was the brainchild of one helluva woman. But the idea, the simple idea–that we care about the innocent people killed in our name–was much larger than one person. Or it should be. Unlike the leaders of the US government, Marla knew that America–for humanitarian and security reasons–had an obligation to help noncombatants injured by US forces. Marla deserved many more years. And the people she helped and tried to help deserved more assistance from this idealistic American.
She will, of course, not be receiving the Medal of Freedom from a president who leads an administration that has said it does not bother to collect data on civilians killed or injured by its military and that has been tremendously slow to compensate the innocent Afghan and Iraqi civilians who have lost loved ones, limbs, homes and businesses due to US military actions. In fact, according to an article in The Washington Post, Marla had “stayed in Baghdad longer than she had planned because she believed she had found the key to establishing that the U.S. military kept records of its civilian victims, despite its official statements otherwise, colleagues said.”
In the years I have written this column I don’t think I have ever asked a reader to make a donation to an organization. But please consider contributing to CIVIC. You can do so by clicking here. It won’t be just for Marla. It will be for the people she lived and died for–and for a principle that all Americans ought to consider seriously: when we fight a war, we are responsible for the triumphs and for the costs.
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