Marla Ruzicka

 

The founder of the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC)

Profile by Cate Malek
July, 2005

Marla Ruzicka has often been described as a whirlwind. By 28 years old, the blonde-haired Californian had already founded an NGO and helped to secure $20 million from the U.S. government for Iraqi and Afghani war victims [1]. In her free time, instead of resting, she threw parties for journalists living in Iraq or spent hours swimming in the hotel pool [2]. Everyone who met the young activist said she had endless energy.

Ruzicka directed the majority of that energy to the organization she founded and directed, the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC). Her original goal was to count civilian deaths in the ongoing conflict in Iraq. It was something the military wasn't taking responsibility for. In March of 2002, Gen. Tommy Franks declared, "We don't do body counts [3]." In fact, it is doubtful that any military in history has ever tracked civilian deaths. Ruzicka believed that by not tracking civilian deaths, militaries are able to hide the cost of violent conflict. It also allows soldiers to dehumanize enemy civilians, turning them into "collateral damage" they don't need to worry about. Marla believed the United States had a responsibility to acknowledge the civilians who had died during the conflict and, at the least, to offer their families compensation.

Ruzicka ran CIVIC by herself on a shoestring budget of about $100,000 a year. She and 150 other volunteers visited hospitals and went door to door surveying Iraqis, trying to get accurate data on the number of civilians who had been killed or injured. She took the results of her first survey to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), and persuaded him to sponsor legislation providing $2.5 million for war victims in Afghanistan and $10 million for Iraqi victims. The money for Afghanistan has since grown to $7.5 million [4]. After the money was provided for the victims, Ruzicka remained in Iraq making sure families who had lost relatives received the reparations they were now entitled to. Her friends and coworkers estimate that her work in Iraq and Afghanistan has helped thousands of people.

One example of the families she helped were two little girls who lost their parents when their car was apparently hit by an American rocket. Their mother threw them from a car window just before the car exploded, saving their lives. The older girl, 3-year-old Zahraa, had third degree burns over 90 percent of her body. Ruzicka managed to get her airlifted to an American hospital, but the girl's injuries were severe and she died several hours later. However, her younger sister, Harah, who was then 3 months old, survived. Ruzicka visited Harah and her grandmother several times and made sure they received compensation [5]. Ruzicka's work has become a controversial subject in the United States. Those against the war in Iraq have declared her a saint, but war supporters accuse her of obstructing the war effort. The fact that she is now a subject of partisan debate is a final paradox for a woman who herself gave up partisanship, deciding it was ineffective.

Ruzicka earned a reputation for herself when she was arrested for disrupting speeches by Colin Powell and George W. Bush. However, she quickly realized that protesting wasn't accomplishing much. In 2003, she told The San Francisco New and Featured section, "I decided not to take a position on the war but to try to do the right humanitarian thing. No one can heal the wounds that have been inflicted; you just have to recognize that people have been harmed [6]."

Instead of taking sides, Ruzicka chose to play the role of the witness. Witnesses play a critical role in reducing the damage from violent conflict. By publicizing violence, they hold those in power accountable for it, thus preventing abuses.

Senator Patrick Leahy said, "Marla Ruzicka is out there saying, 'Wait, everybody. Here is what is really happening. You'd better know about this.' We have whistle blowers in industry. Maybe sometimes we need whistle blowers in foreign policy [7]."

Ruzicka hoped that someday tracking civilian casualities would become business-as-usual for the U.S. military. Her goal was to create a desk at the state department devoted to the task [8]. In early April, Marla filed a report saying that, despite their denials, the U.S. military has, in fact, been tracking civilian casualties in Iraq. She wrote:

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. ... 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 [9].

One week later, on April 16, 2005, while traveling one of Baghdad's most dangerous roads, a suicide bomber killed Ruzicka and her driver. Witnesses believe the bomber was targeting a U.S. Army convoy and she was in the wrong place at the wrong time [10].

Although Ruzicka's death was unexpected, it was not a complete surprise. Ruzicka chose to stay in Iraq even though most Western humanitarian organizations have pulled out, saying it is too dangerous. She felt that the rewards of her job were worth the incredible risks.

She told The San Francisco New and Featured section, "To have a job where you can make things better for people? That's a blessing. Why would I do anything else [11]?"


[1] Knickmeyer, Ellen, "Victims' Champion is Killed in Iraq," The Washington Post, April 18, 2005, A13. Can be found at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A61492-2005Apr17.html

[2] Steele, Jonathan, "Obituary: Marla Ruzicka," The Guardian, Tuesday April 19, 2005. Can be found at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,2763,1462967,00.html

[3] Follman, Mark, "War Room: Counting the Dead," Salon.com, April 21, 2005. Can be found at: http://www.salon.com/politics/war-room/index.html?blog=/politics/war-room/2005/04/21/marla/index.html

[4] Kessler, Glen, "U.S. Activist Mends Lives Torn by War," The Washington Post, August 23. 2004, A13. Can be found at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A24737-2004Aug22.html

[5] Abrahamson, Jennifer, "Obit: Marla Ruzicka," Slate, April 19, 2005. Can be found at: http://fray.slate.msn.com/id/2117056/

[6] Ganahl, Jane, "Marla Ruzicka: 26-Year-Old Doing 'The Right Humanitarian Thing," The San Francisco New and Featured section, December 30, 2003. Can be found at: http://www.commondreams.org/headlines03/1230-08.htm

[7] "Marla Ruzicka," Wickipedia,can be found at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marla-Ruzicka

[8] ibid. Slate

[9] ibid. Salon

[10] Flower, Kevin; Mohyeldin, Ayman; et. al. "Humanitarian Group Founder Killed in Iraq," CNN.com, April 18, 2005. Can be found at: http://www.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/meast/04/17/iraq.main/

[11] ibid. The San Francisco New and Featured section