For Marla, No Sacrifice Too Great

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

April 21, 2005

She was born with a passion to help somebody, and she never wavered." Clifford Ruzicka

There was always a tendency to stereotype Marla Ruzicka. People couldn't seem to help themselves. She was young. And she had the blond hair and fresh-faced California-girl look that is widely viewed as an American ideal. On that score she was great cheerleader material. No reason, at first glance, to take her too seriously.

Or even at second glance, for that matter. Because, face it, she did like to party.

So if you were into stereotyping, you might see her, even admire her, and still miss the fact that in her short life she gave us a stunning example of what it means to function full time, and with all one's energy, at the highest level of humanity.

With a cellphone (that she had a tendency to misplace), a backpack and an apparent genius for working with very different types of individuals and organizations, she would head off to the most dangerous spots on the globe, determined to bring aid and comfort to the afflicted, wherever she found them. This meant, of course, that her constituency was impossibly large. The world is filled with people who have nowhere to turn.

"I think going to Afghanistan and seeing the innocent victims of the war had a particular impact on her," said Medea Benjamin, a close friend of Ms. Ruzicka's who traveled with her to Afghanistan, and later to Iraq. "We were all stunned when we actually saw the widows that had no way to feed their families because their husbands had been killed when a bomb fell on their neighborhood by mistake. Or a little boy who picked up a cluster bomb and had his arm blown off, and nobody was helping him get a prosthetic limb. Or people whose homes had been destroyed and were living in the cold, literally just living outside."

That trip, and subsequent trips to Iraq, inspired Ms. Ruzicka's last big campaign. She would try to do what her government had refused to do. She began personally gathering as much information as possible, often going from door to door in the war zones, sometimes covered by an abaya and a hijab, in an effort to document the destruction and the suffering.

Her goal was twofold: First, to secure compensation for the relatives of innocent victims who were killed, and for the many thousands of noncombatants who have been wounded or displaced. And, second, to get the U.S. government to establish an office or agency, perhaps within the State Department, to collect data and report on the civilian casualties of war.

For an individual with so few obvious resources - she established a tiny organization called the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (Civic) and had very little money - Ms. Ruzicka's reach was tremendous. She worked tirelessly over the past three years with the office of Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, to get millions of dollars in compensation for civilian victims in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tim Rieser, an aide to the senator, said: "She came here as a very sort of na´ve antiwar protestor, really, and became someone who was extraordinarily effective at putting politics aside - not trying to cast blame, but rather working with everyone from U.S. military officers to the Congress and others on how to actually help people. She was out there doing something that all of us knew was really needed, but that was too dangerous for most people to want to do, or be willing to do."

Ms. Ruzicka, 28, was killed on Saturday in the chaos of Iraq. She and an Iraqi colleague, Faiz Ali Salim, were trapped in their car on the airport road in Baghdad when a suicide bomber attacked a convoy that was passing nearby. Ms. Ruzicka's vehicle was engulfed in flames. She and Mr. Salim burned to death.

I interviewed many people who were grief-stricken but anxious to share memories of Ms. Ruzicka. None were as eloquent as her dad, Clifford, a civil engineer from Lakeport, Calif. When I asked if he and his wife, Nancy, both rock-solid Republicans, had been surprised by their daughter's intense commitment to humanitarian causes, he said: "No. She's been like that all her life.

"She had this calling and she pursued it with vigor. She didn't do it for political gain or monetary gain. She did it out of love. I think her legacy will be to forever change the attitude of the U.S. government and the U.S. military on how they deal with collateral damage."