A legacy that puts so many to shame


The Independent

19 April 2005

Perhaps the most eloquent tribute to Marla Ruzicka, the American aid worker who died in a car bomb in Iraq on Saturday, came from Senator Patrick Leahy. The Democrat Senator from Vermont told Ms Ruzicka's grieving parents their daughter had accomplished more in her 28 years than most people do in a lifetime. This might seem a bold claim considering most people had probably not heard of Ms Ruzicka until news of her death was released this weekend. But looking back at her work in recent years makes it difficult to find fault with Senator Leahy's verdict.

Ms Ruzicka's motivation was to put a human face on the victims of US military interventions around the world since the 9/11 terror attacks. She worked in Afghanistan in 2002 and was in Iraq when the invasion began. It was at this time that she founded the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (Civic). This organisation is dedicated to doing what the US military - and the British for that matter - have persistently failed to do in Iraq: record the number of civilians who have been killed. This has been a painstaking process. Iraqi hospitals keep a hand-written book of the dead - but they are badly over-stretched and their records are in disarray. Ms Ruzicka had to conduct door-to-door surveys of Iraqi homes to determine the number of civilian casualties. This is what she was doing shortly before she was killed.

This act of creating a record of the dead was a valuable moral service in itself. Scrupulous records are kept - quite rightly - of the US and UK military casualties. But the refusal by the British and American governments to count the number of civilians who have died in Iraq is evidence of a repugnant double standard. Private monitoring groups suggest that around 10,000 civilians have died (although some suggest a figure 10 times this). But there is no way of knowing for sure. It is only thanks to organisations such as Civic that we have even these vague estimates.

But Ms Ruzicka did more than just record. She used that information to help Iraqis who had suffered as a result of the invasion. She was instrumental in securing a $10m fund in last year's aid bill, passed by the US Congress to help Iraqis whose businesses had been bombed by mistake. It was her ability to put names and faces to the innocent victims of America's invasion that persuaded senators and congressmen to make those funds available. These funds were to be distributed with help from Civic.

Ms Ruzicka recognised that the failure to compensate the very people who were supposedly being liberated was morally unacceptable. And she did something about it - at the cost, as it turns out, of her life. Ms Ruzicka's legacy should put many politicians in America, and in our own country, to shame.