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Victims' Champion Is Killed in Iraq

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 18, 2005; Page A13

BAGHDAD, April 17 -- In a one-woman battle for the victims of war, 28-year-old Marla Ruzicka won over Congress and the U.S. military, persuading the United States to free a precedent-setting $20 million for civilians it injured by mistake in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Ruzicka was killed Saturday on Baghdad's most dangerous road when a suicide bomber aiming for a U.S. convoy pulled up alongside her and detonated his explosives.

Marla Ruzicka, an American, posed Friday in Baghdad with an Iraqi family that was helped by her organization to aid war victims. (Scott Nelson -- World Picture News Via AP)

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The blast also killed Ruzicka's longtime Iraqi aide and driver, Faiz Ali Salim, 43, as they drove the road to a U.S. military base by the airport, where foreigners travel for flights out of the country and where Iraqis go to ask for help from the American forces.

A security guard for the convoy was also killed. His identity had not been released by authorities.

"The ride is not pleasant. Military convoys passing every moment. Faiz and I hold our breath," Ruzicka wrote on June 25, 2004, in her online journal. "Such convoys in that area are the target of rockets and fire from the resistance. It would be nice if there was a more secure location for Iraqis to seek compensation."

"What she wanted to do was eminently sensible," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who pushed through the compensation package after Ruzicka proposed it, said by telephone from the United States. "Unfortunately, things that are eminently sensible sometimes get lost in bureaucracy without a champion. She was a champion I would follow anywhere."

Two years ago, she founded a Washington-based organization called Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict.

"It's rare anybody in a lifetime can accomplish what she did, and she did it in just a couple years," Leahy said.

Ruzicka came from the isolated, hilly town of Lakeport, Calif. What started out as anti-war fervor during college took her to Washington, then to Afghanistan and Iraq.

"The amazing thing is she came here as an anti-war activist, really," said Tim Rieser, an aide to Leahy who worked closely with Ruzicka on compensating Afghan and Iraq families. But she "quickly saw that wasn't the way to accomplish what she felt strongest about, which was to help innocent people who were wounded -- to get Congress, get the U.S. military to do that."

"In that sense, she accomplished what frankly nobody has ever accomplished," Rieser said. "Programs were created for Afghanistan and for Iraq to provide assistance to victims of U.S. military mistakes."

Ruzicka could get Bianca Jagger to a party in Kabul, win millions in public and private funds for war victims and change the way the United States handled war, colleagues said.

Blonde, with hair variously in dreadlocks or extensions, Ruzicka could "talk, smile and bust her way into all the meetings she needed -- with Afghans, Iraqis, U.S. military and U.S. Embassy people," said Quil Lawrence, a journalist who had met her in Kabul.

In Iraq, Ruzicka donned a neck-to-ankle black abaya, hiding her status as a foreigner to guard against being kidnapped, and met with families of Iraqis who had been killed in the war. Salim, a pilot with Iraqi Airways, was won over enough to drive her for two years and to keep her project going when Iraq became too dangerous for her to work.

On the day of the U.S. handover of sovereignty to Iraq, Salim wrote of a typical scene for Ruzicka in Baghdad: dealing with danger with black robes flapping. "The day of the handover Marla and I were annoyed because they would not let us over the July 14th Bridge that connects Baghdad with the Green Zone. So I dropped Marla off in her abaya and watched her jump over the concrete blocks to cross the bridge on foot. I knew she would find a ride. So two minutes later I called her and she was in a car."

Salim's friends begged him for two years to stop working with Americans, saying it was too dangerous, one colleague said Saturday, accompanying Salim's brother to track down his body. Salim is survived by his wife and a 2-month-old daughter.

This time Ruzicka stayed in Baghdad longer than she had planned because she believed she had found the key to establishing that the U.S. military kept records of its civilian victims, despite its official statements otherwise, colleagues said.

On Friday, a day before she died, two car bombs killed 18 people in the neighborhood where Ruzicka was staying with foreign journalists. The explosions also knocked out water to some in the neighborhood. Ruzicka led journalists to her hotel room -- borrowed from another journalist -- so they could shower.

On the way, she passed a wedding party gathering outside the hotel. "A sign of normal life!" Ruzicka said. She stopped and gave the women in the wedding party a kiss on each cheek. Apprehensive at the sign of Americans at first, the women were beaming in delight by the time she left.

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