I sat down to breakfast with Ali this morning; it was our first morning alone since arriving. Everyone was out. I made us eggs, like I used to in Nazareth, he made the coffee. We enjoyed the dull singing and news whispers rising from the radio in the background and he began to read part of The Sunday Times. I asked for the inner leaflet to read for myself.
I flattened out the paper, on the page facing me was a picture of a young blonde woman, hands on her hips, looking directly into the camera, half smile, half determination. Behind her, on either side, stood two US soldiers. Below this picture was a smaller one of a car bomb explosion and a medic running. I wasn’t sure how the pictures were related until I read the captions beneath them. I wasn’t sure how the story of this woman would affect me until I read the complete article.
“Heroic Life and Death of my friend Marla” At a first glance I had no idea who had written the article and who it was about. But as I read, I discovered that Jon Swain, a journalist with the Sunday Times in London had written the article in remembrance of his friend Marla. Marla was 28 years old. The same age as me. She began dedicating herself to the innocent victims of war beginning back with the US attack on Afghanistan in 2001. That’s where she met Jon. She was sitting in a hotel in Jalalabad with other volunteers when he walked in, tired and worn down from his day. She bounced up in her animal print jammies and introduced herself then offered him a massage to relax him from his day. Thus a friendship blossomed. “This was the quintessential Ruzicka. She had no guile, just an enormous trust in humanity and an overwhelming desire to give.”
Jon recalls her dedication to the people, women, children and men of Afghanistan and then Iraq, “For in a one-woman campaign she had painstakingly documented the civilian victims of the American military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, something the US military was not prepared to do, and she got congress to contribute millions of dollars in aid to help these unintended causalities.” As Jon writes, Marla’s personality flows over the page. I felt as if she were someone I could have known, and even, deep down, a part of myself.
Over the next 3.5 years Ruzicka danced through our hardened war correspondents’ lives in Afghanistan and Iraq. In this tough, violent, sometimes cynical environment, it was all too easy to be dismissive of her starry-eyed enthusiasm. She seemed so vulnerable that not one of us wanted to tell her for her own protection to pack her rucksack and fly home. But Marla had no intention of leaving and never doubted that she could make a difference.
Marla staged a demonstration outside of the US embassy in Kabul, arriving with a father and daughter, the only two surviving survivors of an attack that left 18 family members dead. On another occasion she grabbed a US army captain and dragged him into a hospital, confronting him with the body of a three year old girl who would die without the proper medical care that had been burned by a US bomb in a civilian area. She convinced him to take the girl and fly her to a military hospital. I am sure the list continues with the kinds of things Marla did and accomplished daily. She became well known in both Afghanistan and Iraq with the local community. She was referred to as Marla Jan, an Afghan term of endearment. She went and collected data house to house, in order to take these figures to congress and get funding for something the US military was responsible for doing.
Marla traveled between the US and Iraq to raise funds, and finally when the war got too dangerous, she headed back to San Francisco. She became restless and felt useless living in the western world, unable to slip back into the western life, and wanted to go back into the field. She felt she was abandoning the Iraqis. So, she raised enough money for the flight and was back in Iraq, sending off emails to raise more money for civilians.
This time she had been in Baghdad for a month, two weeks longer than planned. One the day she was to fly out, she had to take the most dangerous road in the country, the road to the airport. Westerners are known to pay over 5000usd in protection for the drive on that road to the airport out.
Not Ruzicka. She traveled on the cheap, unprotected in a soft skin vehicle, accompanied by Faiz Ali Salim, the country director of Civic — the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict – the organization she had founded in 2003. On Saturday, Faiz was driving Ruzicka himself, so as not to waste money on the hire of a separate driver.
The suicide bomber targeted a security contractors’ convoy as it was passing their car, engulfing it in flames. It was the tragic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. American forces pulled Ruzicka from the wreckage. She was unconscious, her body 90% burns. For a second she woke up to say “I’m alive”, then she died of massive shock. Faiz’s body, reduced to ashes, was not recovered.
Marla’s funeral was attended by over a thousand people. There were eight pall bearers, each from a different time in her life spanning childhood to the present. I found myself crying, tears spilling from my tired eyes. I ran to the bathroom to cry alone for a moment. I recalled the other Marlas in the world, like Rachel Corrie, killed in Gaza, defending a local home. There are other women (and men) out there, giving of themselves wholly to a cause they believe in, a cause that humanity should open their eyes to, but goes about their daily business instead.
This story affected me because of such a great loss to humanity. And other losses similar. But in these losses we can remember what they have accomplished. I could only dream of being so giving and of having such faith in humanity. Marla Ruzicka is a hero. And I am sure that there are other heroes like her out there as well. She did what we cannot do.