She was doing something the US war machine said was beyond its power

Patrick Cockburn

The Independent

19 April 2005

Marla Ruzicka, who tried to find out how many Iraqis had been killed or injured by US forces and get compensation for survivors, was herself killed as she drove to Baghdad airport on Saturday.

Her vehicle was travelling on this highly dangerous road when a suicide bomber drove his car into a civilian convoy of which she was part. She was killed instantly in the explosion along with an unnamed French national and an Iraqi.

Ms Ruzicka, 27, born in California, founded the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, in 2003 to lobby for financial compensation for the thousands of civilian casualties in Iraq. She helped frightened and bewildered Iraqis, wounded or otherwise damaged by US actions, to extract small sums of money essential for their survival from the military bureaucracy.

Last year she successfully lobbied the US Senate for $10 million to meet such claims. US Senator Patrick Leahy said it was Ms Ruzicka's idea to make this fund part of last year's foreign aid bill to help Iraqis whose businesses had been destroyed by mistake or hit by US fire.

'She was constantly calling us up to say (lawmakers were) moving too slowly,' Senator Leahy said. 'Just from the force of her personality, we decided to take a chance on it.'

Ms Ruzicka was very thin, pretty and looked even younger than she was with large eyes and striking long blond hair, which she covered with a long black robe when she left the Hamra Hotel in the Jadriyah district of the capital where she lived.

She e-mailed me three weeks ago saying that she was returning to Baghdad for a week or so though she admitted that all her friends had advised her not to go. She said there was something she wanted to do there and added that she would be very careful. I sent a message saying that I understood how difficult it was for her to keep out of Baghdad given the work she was doing there. But I added that she should keep in mind that the situation had got a great deal worse than when she was last there a few months before. In fact she seems to have stayed on much longer than she had originally intended. I first met Marla Ruzicka in the Hamra about eighteen months ago. As I walked from my room to the coffee shop every morning I would see a blond head moving swiftly through the water of the swimming pool as she swam length after length.

I always found it extraordinary that this slight figure was trying to do something which the great American war machine claimed was beyond its power: Count the number of Iraqi civilians accidentally killed by American fire power. She was also trying to make sure that a tiny proportion of the billions being spent by the US on Iraq went to those who had seen their family's only bread winner killed or their small shop destroyed.

In an essay she wrote for Human Rights Watch in New York shortly before she died she explained why she thought it important to know the number of Iraqi casualties. She wrote: 'A number is important not only to quantify the cost of 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.'

Much of her time was spent in the Green Zone, the heavily fortified enclave where the US administration was based, cultivating US officers who decided who would receive compensation. On good days she would receive a sympathetic hearing, but on others she would tell me with frustration that some official prepared to slice through the bureaucratic maze had been posted back to the US. She had campaigned for Afghan civilians in 2002 and had managed to persuade the Senate to provide a paltry $2.5 million for Afghans who suffered losses in US military operations.

She opposed the US war in Iraq. She was in Baghdad when it began with a women's anti-war group called Code Pink. But after the war she told me that it was all very well to be against it but she felt she had to do something practical to mitigate the suffering it had caused. She was upset that some other anti-war activists disapproved of her cultivation of the US military.

Physically intrepid, despite the obvious dangers of a lone American woman visiting some of the more dangerous parts of Baghdad, she would suffer periods of depression and self-doubt - particularly when she was lobbying for money in Washington. It also became obvious soon after I met her that she had almost no money herself, even while trying to extract millions of dollars from the US Senate. Of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have strutted through Iraq in the last two years - soldiers, bureaucrats, journalists and businessmen - she always seemed to me the most admirable.