It was an especially bleak moment on a frozen night in Afghanistan, just before Thanksgiving in 2001. An assortment of grizzled correspondents was crammed into a filthy hotel. That week four of our colleagues had been ambushed and killed by gunmen on the highway to Kabul, and we were all in shock. One evening several of us were lingering over coffee in the dining room, too depressed to head back to our rooms to work.
Out of nowhere, a perky blond apparition materialized at the table. She looked about 16, and she was wearing pajamas with cartoon animals under an Afghan robe. She introduced herself as Marla and started chirping about how she had just come from California to work on human rights issues.
Marla Ruzicka, right, with an Iraqi family that had been helped by the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict.
(Scott Nelson -- World Picture News Via Reuters)
We all stared at each other in disbelief. She seemed so young and vulnerable that we were seized with the identical, protective thought: Marla, go home.
But Marla Ruzicka stayed on, working to bring public awareness and official help to the plight of war victims in Afghanistan. Later she moved her one-woman human rights crusade to Iraq, where she was killed Saturday in a suicide bombing at age 28.
In Kabul, she flitted like a cheerful sprite through our hard-bitten war correspondents' world, alighting on our couches for the night and floating off with a backpack in the morning. She never had any money, but she had an amazing knack for organizing parties, procuring hidden vodka and making foreigners in a war-ruined Muslim capital feel at home.
Everyone stationed in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban knew her. The men fell in love with her and the women were reminded of themselves, a decade or two younger. At first, Ruzicka seemed too much of a flower child to be taken seriously. Ivan Watson of National Public Radio recalled her kick-boxing with the Afghan cook in the back yard of his house; another correspondent described her giving everyone back rubs after long days.
I remember her scribbling little thank-you notes and invitations with smiley faces on them, and yet another correspondent recalled that when she was leaving Kabul, Ruzicka came to her house early that morning with a gift and a long goodbye note. Over each letter "i" was a heart instead of a dot.
Ruzicka was far from a simpering sandalista. There was a determined agenda behind her ditsy persona, an earnest sense of purpose that enabled her to charm her way through military checkpoints and wring pledges of aid for war victims from congressional offices. While no one was paying much attention, she began systematically compiling data on casualties and damages that resulted from the U.S.-led attack on Kabul. In the spring of 2002, she led a group of Afghan families to the gates of the heavily guarded American embassy to demand compensation for the victims.
After that, we all viewed her with new respect.
"Marla had no guile. There was a complete lack of cynicism, a total selflessness in what she did," said Catherine Philp, a foreign correspondent for the Times of London and one of Ruzicka's closest friends, speaking from New Delhi. "We live in such a jaded community, and she alone seemed untouched. She was like an angel of life, but an angel with a broken wing. It made her seem so fragile that everyone wanted to help her."
After the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Ruzicka shifted her efforts to Iraq. By then she had founded a Washington-based organization called the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict. She shifted from handwritten notes to a barrage of e-mails to friends, journalists and congressional offices. She was still broke, but by the time she arrived in Iraq, many Kabul correspondents had also shifted to Baghdad, so she found a plethora of couches to crash on.
Her mission was the same: to document the damage done to Iraqi civilians and their homes by the war. Baghdad was a far more dangerous place to work than Kabul, with foreigners exposed to far greater risks from suicide bombings, sniper fire and kidnappings. Major news organizations acquired armored cars and armed guards, and many Western journalists were confined to their homes or hotels much of the time.
Once again, Ruzicka took on the role of hostess and hovering angel for the exhausted and stressed-out Baghdad press corps. Richard Leiby of The Washington Post recalled her throwing a party called "Baghdad Needs Some Love." I saw her only a few times during my brief visits to Iraq, but she forged close friendships with full-time correspondents, and her e-mails mixed breezy, Valley Girl jargon with emotional appeals for her project to document and seek compensation for victims of wartime violence.
"She happily reminded me of many of the Greenpeace kids I worked with in the 1980s . . . a bulldog of energy with absolutely no constituency or power," said William Arkin, a peace activist and military affairs writer who worked with Ruzicka in Iraq. Even hardened generals and policymakers, he wrote in an e-mail to a friend Sunday, were disarmed by a beautiful "spitfire of disorganization" who badgered and begged for their help.
Despite her youth, Ruzicka, a native of Lakeport, Calif., had spent much of the last decade as a volunteer for political causes, visiting Cuba and Israel while attending Long Island University, and later joining Global Exchange, a nonprofit group that promotes concern for world poverty and suffering.
While in Iraq, the diminutive Ruzicka ventured out to places few other foreigners dared go, visiting families who had lost relatives or homes in military or terrorist attacks. She took limited precautions, traveling with a single Iraqi assistant and driver, Faiz Ali Salim, who was also killed Saturday by the suicide bombing on a road near the Baghdad airport. Her only protection was the thin disguise of a traditional black abaya, from which wisps of telltale blond hair constantly strayed.
Peter Baker, a Post reporter, first met her in Afghanistan in 2001. "She looked like a high school girl. I remember thinking she was going to get herself killed," he said.
But over time, she became such a familiar presence in war-torn settings, and exuded such an ethereal quality, that she seemed somehow impervious to the evils of war.
"There are so few truly good souls anywhere, but especially in that part of the world," Baker said. "It never occurred to me to think she would be in danger."
For all her moxie, Ruzicka confided to friends that she endured periods of deep self-doubt and anxiety. Despite her nurturing nature, she sometimes seemed to hint at the realization of her own vulnerability. In one recent e-mail to a journalist friend, she signed off with a casual "good vibes to you," but she also added this darker sentence: "I need angels in my life."