News & Politics

Marla: Mission Continued

Humanitarian Marla Ruzicka had one goal: to lessen the suffering of innocent people caught in the crossfire of war.
Marla Ruzicka, Dec. 31, 1976 - April 16, 2005

It's been one year since a suicide car bomber killed Marla Ruzicka and her colleague Faiz Ali Salim as they were driving along the Baghdad airport road. The date is marked on my calendar. Funny how these scribbled reminders can affect you. You think it's not a big deal -- just a date on the calendar -- and then the day rolls around and you are visited anew by the gravity of the loss.

Marla, of course, has not been forgotten. All year, she's been popping up, making her presence felt in different ways. She was posthumously given a Bridge of Peace award from Global Village Foundation; a fellowship was endowed in her name at Brown University; she even has her own Wikipedia entry, a fact she might have found hilarious. Recently I opened a new collection of photographs called "Unembedded," and there on the title page was a dedication to Marla and Faiz.

"Unembedded" is the visual chronicle of a world with which Marla was intimately familiar: wartime Iraq. There are photos of a father holding the hand of his dying child, bereaved women praying at a mosque, children playing in the street in front of an American tank. There are also scenes of people sharing a meal, dancing at a wedding, swimming in the Euphrates river. Even in a ruined country, people get on with their lives.

A doctor quoted in "Unembedded" says, "War wounds are always multiple wounds." Iraq's war wounds have multiplied in the year since Marla died. The occupation continues, the country still lacks an established government, and civilians are being injured and killed in greater numbers than ever. Abductions are common, mass graves have been unearthed, Iraqi journalists and politicans have been assassinated. Dozens of bodies showing signs of torture are found almost daily on the streets of Baghdad. U.S. troops are still dying, getting maimed, coming home irrevocably damaged. Reconstruction efforts are hampered by the inability to provide security for workers ... the grim litany goes on and on.

I am hard-pressed to find any glimmers of hope in this picture. Yet none of it, I suspect, would have deterred Marla. She had one goal: to lessen suffering. She did this doggedly, radiantly, personally. In an op-ed she wrote shortly before she died, she explained the importance of counting the dead and injured civilians: "A number is important not only to quantify the cost of the war, but to me, each number is also a story of someone whose hopes, dreams and potential will never be realized, and who left behind a family."

This was not just empty rhetoric. Marla wanted to humanize the rising numbers of war, to give each victim back their name and face and record their story. She knew that people are moved, not by abstractions, but by the stories of real people. If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough, said photojournalist Robert Capa. Marla's pictures were all close-ups.

After her death, Marla's family and friends resolved to continue her work -- a task they have undertaken with a passion and tenaciousness that would have made Marla proud. They have turned CIVIC (Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict), the NGO Marla singlehandedly founded in 2003, into a functioning organization with a board of directors and two full-time staffers: Associate Director Marla Bertagnolli (known as Marla B), and Executive Director Sarah Holewinski, who made her first trip to Iraq in March.

I spoke with Holewinski by telephone not long after she returned. Her experience in Iraq, she said, was both exhilarating and exhausting. "Humanitarian work is not what it was when Marla started CIVIC," she told me. "There are places in Iraq I cannot go and meet with the families, because they would be targets and I would be targeted. But there's also this sense of hope and optimism, because there are so many people who want to help."

Holewinski, like Marla, is dedicated to keeping the faces of civilian casualties front and center in the hopes of making it impossible for us to ignore the human consequences of our country's actions in Iraq. On CIVIC's website you can read about some of these people; 13-year-old Marwa, for instance, who was badly injured when a coalition shell struck her home in 2003, killing her mother. CIVIC arranged to have her flown to Los Angeles for reconstructive surgery at UCLA, which agreed to cover the costs. There are accounts of other Iraqis, too, whose stories have less hopeful outcomes.

"The stories make the difference for us," said Holewinski. "We're in this work because we understand that every one of those numbers -- no matter what you believe, whether the casualty count is 30,000 or 100,000 -- every one is a life. People come to this work because they get those stories and that makes sense to them."

The effectiveness of such stories was behind one of Marla's greatest triumphs. With the support of Sen. Patrick Leahy, Marla successfully lobbied Congress to create a fund for victims of war. Currently $38 million has been allocated to help the families of civilians harmed by U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Marla Ruzicka Iraqi War Victims' Fund, as it was named after her death, is administered through USAID and is unique in its emphasis on income-generating projects; it pays medical bills, rebuilds homes, helps Iraqis start new businesses or rebuild ones that have been destroyed. CIVIC has been instrumental in helping distribute the aid money.

CIVIC follows Marla's pragmatic strategy of steering clear of the antipathy between antiwar activists and the military. It was not her practice to denounce the military but to insistently pressure them to consider the welfare of ordinary citizens in their operations, and to make that a stated policy. She persuaded people whose help she needed that the goal of protecting the lives of the innocent was not partisan, but an objective everyone could share.

"You would think people would be at odds, but they're not," Sarah Holewinski said. "If you focus solely on the human costs of war, then everyone -- the media, the military, government officials, activist organizations -- everyone has a stake in this, everyone wants to do their part."

Someone made a short video portrait of Marla that was shown at one of her memorials. Watching it, I was struck by how frequently she touches people, both friends and total strangers. She kissed, she hugged spontaneously, she reached for people's hands, held their children on her lap. She doled out love unstintingly, and almost universally, people dropped their guard and responded to her.

Raed Jarrar, who went door to door with Marla collecting data on civilian deaths in Iraq, remembered watching her wade into a crowd of Iraqi men, women and children, shaking every hand she could reach, and saying, "Sorry ... sorry... sorry we invaded your country... sorry we killed your people."

"I was sure no one understood what she was saying," Jarrar wrote, "but people knew she was being nice and friendly. It was a nice move to have more personal contact with Iraqis at the time that any foreigner was a big mystery. It was important to tell Iraqis that not all Americans come with guns, some of them come with smiles and hopes to make friends."

Holewinski says the country's communications infrastructure is so deteriorated that some of the Iraqis she met who had known Marla had not heard of her death. "To tell them and see the look on their face -- it's another tragedy for them, and they're devastated," she said. "When they see that CIVIC is carrying on her work, there are so many offers of help, they want to help. They know that this is the American success in Iraq -- helping the families and knowing that we're going to do everything we can."

I asked her how she kept her spirits up in the face of all the suffering she witnessed doing humanitarian work. She admitted she had felt a little dejected on the flight home. "When you go to a war zone it's really easy to come back and think, this is so depressing and it's never going to get better." She paused. "Then, you meet someone like Marla or the Iraqis who really want to help their people, and that one word of encouragement means that you're going to go on, and that exponentially multiplies."

In the memorial he wrote about her on Salon, Phillip Robertson called Marla an "enemy of war," a phrase I cannot get out of my head. New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges used the same phrase in the conclusion of his address to the Rockford College graduating class of 2003: "Friendship -- or, let me say love -- is the most potent enemy of war."

Hedges was heckled throughout his speech and nearly booed offstage, for to suggest during a time of war that love is stronger than brute force, that people should help instead of hate is a radical idea. (It's also the most basic tenet of Christianity, but never mind.) Marla embodied this concept, and so did Margaret Hassan and Tom Fox, to pick two other aid workers killed in Iraq over the course of this war.

After Hassan was abducted and murdered in 2004, Tom Fox wrote in his blog that "the Quran teaches that an innocent person who is killed travels as quickly as does light to the gates of Paradise." Marla left us at the speed of light. But she lives on in so many ways: in the Iraqi War Victims fund for which she fought so hard, in the determination and love of the staff and volunteers of CIVIC, and in the hearts of all the people who were moved by her example to do good. She had a genius for inspiring ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Marla didn't want to save the world, she just hoped to make it "a little bit better." And she has.

CIVIC is holding a "Week of Action" in Marla's honor. To take part or to learn more, visit the website. CIVIC's new project, I Care, also launches today.
Tai Moses is the senior editor of AlterNet.
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