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Iraq: Activist Marla Ruzicka Remembered For Work In Afghanistan, Iraq

Slain humanitarian activist Marla Ruzicka Human rights groups, aid workers and war correspondents around the world are paying tribute to the courage of a young American activist who was killed by a suicide bomber in Baghdad Saturday. Marla Ruzicka worked tirelessly in Afghanistan and Iraq to document cases in which innocent civilians were killed during combat involving U.S. forces. In an effort to get the U.S. government to compensate the families of civilian war victims, Ruzicka founded a nongovernmental group called CIVIC -- "Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict." Her efforts convinced the U.S. Congress to allocate some 17 million dollars in direct aid to civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Prague, 19 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Marla Ruzicka is being remembered in a hail of tributes this week by journalists and aid workers who encountered her in Afghanistan and Iraq during the past four years.

The 28-year-old native Californian was killed Saturday by a suicide bomber as she was traveling in Baghdad to visit an Iraqi child who had been injured by a bomb. The suicide attack also killed Faiz Ali Salim, the Iraq country director for CIVIC.

Human Rights Watch credits Ruzicka with proving that the U.S. military has been keeping data on civilian deaths in Iraq --even though the Pentagon had denied the existence of such statistics.
Human Rights Watch credits Ruzicka with proving that the U.S. military has been keeping data on civilian deaths in Iraq --even though the Pentagon had denied the existence of such statistics.

Steve Crawshaw, director of the London office of Human Rights Watch, says, "During her last trip to Iraq, she managed to obtain information from the U.S. military about the number of civilians who had been killed during the hostilities after the end of the major combat operations. This information that she received related only to a brief period in the Baghdad area. But it was very important in establishing that the U.S. did, in fact, record civilian injuries. She was trying to get the U.S. government to publicly release these statistics about all the areas of Iraq."

Crawshaw says Ruzicka's field work in Afghanistan -- which confirmed the deaths of more than 800 civilians as a result of U.S. airstrikes -- was crucial in getting the U.S. government to release millions of dollars in compensation payments.

"She began her work on behalf of civilian victims in Afghanistan in December 2001. And as a result of her efforts in very precisely identifying injured civilians, the U.S. Senate allocated 2.5 million dollars to assist Afghans injured by U.S. actions. And that sum has now grown in the meantime. It's now more than 7 million dollars on that work," says Crawshaw.

Crawshaw also credits Ruzicka for helping to convince the U.S. government to set aside 10 million dollars to compensate civilian Iraqi victims.

"It was extraordinary achievements, really, what she was doing throughout these conflicts -- working with tireless energy throughout, which I think impressed all the people who came into contact with her," Crawshaw says.

RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel met Ruzicka when she arrived in Kabul in 2001. Recknagel says that for anyone meeting Ruzicka for the first time, her optimism and youthful idealism belied what would later prove to be a pragmatic ability to mobilize large amounts of U.S. government assistance.

"In conflicts, ordinary citizens see and fear occupying armies. And sometimes their homes and lives are destroyed by fighting. Marla tried to help those civilians. In doing that, she showed the gentle side of her country. She was an American civilian who cared enough about other ordinary people to come thousands of miles to help them, and who successfully lobbied the U.S. Congress for money to directly help them too," says Recknagel.

One difficult aspect of Ruzicka's work was that with little initial funding, she rarely had money to pay for office or living space. "Washington Post" correspondent Pamela Constable recalls that in order to make ends meet, she slept many nights on the couches of journalists or aid workers in Kabul and Baghdad.

RFE/RL correspondent Peyman Pejman also got to know Ruzicka when she occupied a spare room in his Baghdad quarters for a month in the summer of 2003.

Pejman says he saw firsthand how U.S. military officials either refused to cooperate or could not help Ruzicka in her quest to determine the extent of civilian casualties in Iraq. Pejman says those difficulties ultimately showed Ruzicka's gift for diplomacy.

"On the one hand, she was trying to get the cooperation of the U.S. forces to document some of the casualties. And on the other hand, it was a difficult task because Washington had said from the beginning that it was not going to count any of the Iraqi casualties -- whether military or civilian," says Pejman.

Pejman says he once asked her about the challenges of maintaining rapport with U.S. military officials.

"She basically said, 'This is a very apolitical job. It doesn't matter whether you like the war or don't like the war, or whether you agree with the invasion or not. The issue here is that civilians should not be harmed in any conflict.' She said it was her job to document specific cases of death and injuries to Iraqis so that the U.S. and other governments can be held accountable," Pejman says.

Amongst all the tributes to Ruzicka since her death, it is her own quotes, published on the website of the nongovernmental group she founded, that best describe the work she had committed her life to.

Those quotes say: "No one can heal the wounds that have been inflicted [by war]. You just have to recognize that people have been harmed. Victims of violence, terrorism and war -- we want them not to be forgotten. We want a process that accounts for them. We want governments -- international, the United States, the United Nations -- to have structures in place for assistance."