An American activist who dared to help Iraqi victims

Intrepid humanitarian aid worker Marla Ruzicka died in Baghdad Saturday when her car was caught in an insurgent attack.

Californian Marla Ruzicka was the head of an NGO whose blend of tenacity and optimism kept her in Iraq long after almost every other humanitarian aid organization had left.

Marla and her Iraqi driver died Saturday when their car was tragically caught between a suicide car bomber and a US military convoy.

Marla was more than a source for a story, she was one of those quiet cheerleaders that kept me - and the Iraqis she touched - going almost from the moment that I arrived here three years ago.

I first met her in Jordan, just before the war. A reporter friend told me that I should get to know this young activist who made a name for herself working for Global Exchange, the US organization that sent field workers to Afghanistan to count civilian casualties.

After the Iraq war, she moved her push for an accurate count of civilian casualties to Baghdad. At a time when the International Committee of the Red Cross and United Nations were leaving Iraq, Marla started the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict. Through that, she helped Iraqi families navigate the process of claiming compensation from the US military for injuries and deaths.

When she died Marla was traveling to visit some of the many Iraqi families she was working to help. Lately, she had been attempting to aid the relatives of a toddler whose parents were killed after the mini-bus they were traveling in was hit by what was believed to be an American rocket. The baby was thrown out of a window to save her life.

It's still unclear exactly how Marla and her driver, Faiz, were killed. But early reports indicate that they were traveling on the dangerous route between Baghdad and the airport when a suicide car bomber tried to attack a military convoy. Faiz was an Iraqi Airways pilot, who at one time worked as an interpreter for Monitor correspondents in Iraq.

I was always amazed at how composed Marla remained amid the violence and confusion of Iraq. One of my favorite memories of her was when I was sitting in the middle of the Palestine Hotel lobby in Baghdad, surrounded by a confusing swirl of soldiers, officials, and reporters. Fear swept over me. What was I doing here? I had come as a freelancer, with no experience covering a war. Just as I was quietly freaking out, Marla appeared in the dusty, harried scene. She was the picture of calm in a perfect French braid and long blue dress. She was like a breeze blowing through, so tranquil, so clean.

Later in the fall of 2003 when I moved here and was despairing of my sputtering freelance work she would always say, "Jill, good for you. You're working so hard. I'm so proud of you." She was the eternal supportive cheerleader. One night she slipped a note in my hotel mailbox. It was a small essay of encouragement and praise from out of the blue, scribbled in black ink on a scrap of notebook paper.

I found out that Marla had died several hours after she didn't show up for a party that she planned at the Hamra, a hotel occupied mostly by foreign journalists. I was tired and wasn't going to go. My friend Scott went and called me about 11 p.m. He said no one had heard from Marla since about 2 o'clock that afternoon. The other journalists and I all feared a kidnapping. I went over to the Hamra lobby and asked at the reception desk if they knew Marla's driver's family. They said his brother had just called because they were worried they hadn't seen him. A bad sign.

Then we got a call from the US military saying a woman fitting her description had been in an accident, but that she was in the military hospital and in good condition. We were relieved. In Baghdad's strange logic, we all thanked God it was a car accident and not a kidnapping. Then we received another call. It was the military again. This time they said the woman was dead on arrival.

The only thing we can say now is at least she died doing what she wanted, doing what she really, really believed in. If she were still here, she'd be most worried now about her driver's family and who will take care of all the other Iraqi families she was working with.

She would point out, this happens to Iraqis every day and no one notices or even cares. There are no newspaper articles or investigations into what happens to them. For most of them, there was only Marla.

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