The call came Sunday morning while I waited on a Brooklyn subway platform. I was late to meet a friend for brunch at the trendy cafe where I had last dined with my 28-year-old friend Marla Ruzicka as we hammered out the details of a book we were beginning to write about her work. It was my mother. “Marla’s been killed,” she said.
How had she died? In the end, it seems she was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Traveling on one of the most dangerous roads in Baghdad, a 6-mile stretch leading to the airport, it appears a suicide bomber infiltrated a security convoy that just happened to be passing Marla’s car. Marla and her dear friend Faiz Ali Salim—the Iraq country director of the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, the organization she founded in 2003—who had been visiting a family that had lost relatives during the U.S. bombing campaign, were both engulfed in flames and killed.
I first met Marla when I was an aid worker with the United Nations in Kabul. Penniless and barely 25 years old, she generated an unparalleled raw charisma that almost seemed misplaced among the more seasoned cast of aid workers and journalists. But she was much more than the idealistic, often bubbly California girl she sometimes seemed. In a few years, Marla transformed herself into one of the savviest human rights advocates in the world, a woman who had dreams of establishing a civilian casualty desk at the State Department someday.
But on that trajectory, more than any other humanitarian worker, Marla took unprecedented risks to help the men, women, and children trapped in the crossfire of the U.S. military bombing campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. In both countries, she eventually became the voice for thousands of victims, ensuring that their stories reached the outside world. Marla connected war reporters with these personal stories of loss and conducted door-to-door surveys, gathering a comprehensive record detailing civilian casualties, injuries, and damage in Afghanistan and Iraq. She didn’t simply take notes and disappear forever. She talked to the families, held their hands, and consoled them on repeated visits.
Marla brought her surveys to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who delivered a moving speech about Marla on the Senate floor yesterday, during which he said:
It was Marla’s initiative—going to Afghanistan, meeting those families, getting the media’s attention, coming back here and meeting with me and my staff—that led to the creation of a program that has contributed more than $8 million for medical assistance, to rebuild homes, to provide loans to start businesses, and for other aid to innocent Afghan victims of the military operations.
After Operation Iraqi Freedom, Marla returned to Washington with a new survey in hand, which led to the creation of a program known as the Civilian Assistance Program, which has provided $10 million to families and communities of Iraqi civilians killed by U.S. and other coalition forces. Another $10 million was allocated for this program just last week, according to Leahy’s remarks.
Working in war zones—and especially Baghdad—is tremendously dangerous. All journalists and aid workers who work in them face the risk of death, injury, and abduction. Yet Marla was unique. She was a one-woman, cash-strapped organization. She often relied on her wits, charm, and the hospitality of others to survive, crashing on their hotel room floors and bumming rides whenever she could. She did not have the finances to afford the costly security detail that provides some protection for others who work in Baghdad. Yet she was determined to continue meeting with the families she felt so close to and providing them with what aid she could. And such was the case the day she died.
The last time I saw Marla was March 17, when she was wishing strangers a happy St. Patrick’s Day in New York’s East Village. The previous day, she told me she was planning to draw up a will to ensure that CIVIC would survive, even if she didn’t. It was unusual for her, though she had been quite affected by the violence when she left Iraq in May 2004. She rarely talked about the risks of working in the field, and she didn’t let anything stand in her way. I cringed when she told me she wanted to include plans for the book in her will as well, to make sure her story would be protected. Now, I can’t help but recall what she said through a fit of giggles that day before we headed off to a social event at the Open Society Institute, which had given a grant to CIVIC and provided her with free office space: “Let’s face it. It will make a better story for the families if I’m killed.”
Over the past few days I have seen many descriptions of Marla, including those likening her to an angel or a saint. Neither of those words do her justice. She was driven by a passion I have never encountered before, and she had a boundless heart. But she was also consumed by extreme lows as well as highs, tears along with laughter. In discussing plans for a book, she wanted to be depicted as the rich and complex woman that she was. But she would quickly remind me that the families’ stories were most important. So, she wasn’t a saint, but she possessed saintlike qualities.
I believe Marla was truly content during the last moments of her life. Not only because she was happiest when helping Iraqi civilians, but also because she was visiting the family that was closest to her heart. In April 2003, Harah’s family was fleeing the U.S. bombing in Baghdad when their car was accidentally struck in a munitions attack. Harah’s mother threw her and her older sister Zahraa out of the window while the rest of the family perished. Harah, then an infant, survived with no more than a few scratches, while 3-year-old Zahraa suffered third-degree * burns on 90 percent of her body. Through tireless campaigning, Marla miraculously convinced the U.S. Army to airlift Zahraa out of a Baghdad hospital to a U.S. military facility. Marla saw this event as her greatest triumph. Two weeks later, Marla was informed that Zahraa had succumbed to her wounds. Devastated, she and Faiz delivered the heartbreaking news to the girl’s grandmother, who is with Marla in the last photographs taken of her just days ago. It meant the world to Marla to ensure that Zahraa’s family was coping.