The senseless death of the woman who fought George Bush

By Patrick Cockburn in Sulaymaniyah and Andrew Buncombe in Washington

19 April 2005


She looked like she should be surfing on a beach in California but Marla Ruzicka was drawn instead to Iraq and her self-appointed task of helping the civilian victims of George Bush's war. She was 28 years old and had been a peace activist since a young age. She went to Baghdad as the head of her own charity, determined to find out how many Iraqis had been killed or injured by US forces and get compensation for survivors.

At the weekend, the dedication that had taken Marla from her home in San Francisco to the war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq, led to her death.

On Saturday afternoon, as she and her driver were on the road leading from Baghdad to the city's airport, a suicide bomber attacked a passing convoy of security contractors. Marla's car was caught in the blast and engulfed in flames. A US Army medic who tried to help her said she was briefly conscious and was able to speak. "I'm alive," she had told him. She died along with an unnamed French national and an Iraqi.

The question everyone always asked about Marla was from where did she get all of her energy. She was constantly on the move: chattering, smiling, rushing to a hospital, dashing to a meeting, cajoling journalists, pestering diplomats, taking notes from a woman whose relatives had been killed, crossing time zones, entering people's lives.

Her drive - and probably the boundless energy - came from a deep desire to help ordinary people whose lives had been shattered in President Bush's so-called war on terror.

In the environment of the world's war zones, where cynicism and idealism often overlap, Marla was something of a one-woman wonder.

In the aftermath of the war in Afghanistan, she travelled to Kabul with the intention of trying to help Afghan civilians. If sometimes she appeared a little naive, it was to her advantage.

It was quite simple, she believed. If the US had been responsible for causing suffering, surely it could try and help those people who needed it?

To that aim, she established a non-governmental group Civic - Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict - and raised funds. Controversially, the US and Britain refuse to gather statistics on the numbers of dead or injured in the conflict.

In Washington, she turned to the likes of Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont and asked him to help fund her programme - something she was able to persuade him to do. The senator confirmed yesterday that Marla was behind the appropriation of almost $20m in aid to Afghanistan and Iraq.

"She was the one that persuaded us to do it," Mr Leahy said. "Here's someone who, at 28 years old, did more than most people do in a lifetime."

While Marla proved to be adept at negotiating the bureaucracy of Washington and persuading its politicians to help - she once pressed the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, about civilian casualties - it was on the ground, working with people, that she was probably most at home. It was also where she knew she was doing most good.

If Marla was dedicated, she was probably also less concerned than she might have been about her safety. While the airport road on which she was travelling is a road that all journalists, aid workers and officials in Iraq must, at some point, travel on, the young woman believed she was somehow protected from the horror of Iraq's violence because of her work.

On Saturday afternoon, it appears she was travelling to visit an injured three-month-old Iraqi girl when the bomber struck, also killing Marla's driver, 43-year-old Faiz Ali Salim.

April Pedersen, a colleague, said: "It seems she fell right back into her old work - identifying and helping victims. At the moment, we are just trying to get through the next few days but we are all committed to ensuring the work that Marla did is going to continue."

Marla was raised in Lakeport, California, the youngest of six. Her father, Clifford, a civil engineer, recalled how his daughter had led a school protest against the 1991 Gulf War and was suspended.

When she was a student at Long Island University she travelled to countries such as Cuba, Guatemala and Israel. "She had a lot of purpose in her life, so it was kind of natural that she would go into places like these," Mr Ruzicka said. He said he was proud she had been "a lady with a tremendously open heart and warm feelings toward the people who've been in conflict".

Some may question why Marla's death has received such extensive coverage, given that tens of thousands of civilians have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. She, for one would certainly had preferred that those victims and the people she was trying to help were the front page story. Yet, in the world in which she worked Marla was undoubtedly exceptional. She recognised the most effective way for her to get things done was not simply to campaign as a peace activist but to focus on humanitarian efforts. Her overwhelming focus was always the victims.

Officials were organising the return of Marla's body to the US last night. A funeral service has been scheduled to take place at St Mary's Church in Lakeport on Saturday morning.