Two years ago, a young activist named Marla Ruzicka sat in a Senate hearing room listening to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld testify about the war in Afghanistan. She had come to Washington to try to urge greater U.S. attention to civilian casualties in that war, and Rumsfeld barely touched on the topic.
Ruzicka, then 25, had already forged a reputation in leftist circles. She once had disrupted a speech on AIDS by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. Another time, she was hauled off by police after she ripped off a sarong -- which inside had a protest statement -- during a speech by then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
Now, she sat wondering: "Should I let him talk or stand up and start screaming at him?"
She kept quiet. When the hearing ended, she rushed up to his table and grabbed his hand and thanked him for testifying. And then she kept talking -- and held his attention -- as he walked out of the Hart Senate Office Building and across the street to his motorcade.
"That was the turning point," Ruzicka said. "I didn't get arrested. I just talked about my issues."
With a shoestring budget, almost no staff and a bundle of energy, Ruzicka has already had more impact on more lives than many seasoned K Street lobbyists.
Last year, she founded a Washington-based organization called Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict. She traveled repeatedly to danger zones in Afghanistan and Iraq to locate people who were killed or injured in the U.S. military campaign, document their travails and then secure compensation for them or their families.
With the help of more than 150 volunteers who went to hospitals and into towns, Ruzicka helped produce the first comprehensive list of people killed or injured in Iraq by U.S. weapons; a name was listed only when a death certificate was obtained or a victim was interviewed. She also acted as an intermediary between the military and families seeking compensation for deaths.
With the assistance of Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), she got language in an appropriations bill that provided $2.5 million to help victims in Afghanistan -- money that has now grown to $7.5 million, said Tim Rieser, a Leahy aide. She also succeeded in getting a $10 million appropriation for Iraqi victims. Rieser said Ruzicka helped focus attention on the problem of collateral victims, and what resulted was a precedent-setting approach that moves beyond the cash payments the military favors. The $10 million is used to rebuild homes and schools, provide medical assistance and make loans.
"Marla is one of those unique people who combines unlimited energy, fearlessness, intellect, a bit of craziness and a determination to help people who have suffered terrible losses half a world away that is rarely matched by someone 27 years old," he said.
Ruzicka, whose parents are Republicans, has long been drawn to the plight of people overseas. She has made four trips to Cuba and earned headlines in 1995 when one of her trips as a high school student ran afoul of Treasury Department rules limiting travel to Cuba. "We had thought that since the adults won't talk, the youth will lead the way," she said.
She received a bachelor's degree from Long Island University's Friends World program, which allowed her to study in Cuba, Palestinian areas, and East and South Africa. "I'm used to being in the field," she said. "I realized that just being in a place, you can make the right contacts and make things happen."
After college, she worked for Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based human rights organization known for its confrontational approach. Through Global Exchange, she ended up in Kabul, Afghanistan, shortly after the Taliban fell. There she began to focus on the plight of war victims.
There were no phones, and she needed to network to draw attention to the problem. So she kept inviting U. N. officials, nongovernmental organization staffers and journalists to her place for parties. This gave her access to policymakers and reporters who could help document the plight of innocent victims.
"I was really changed by my experiences in Afghanistan," Ruzicka said. "It is a luxury for people to say war is bad when they are in San Francisco. You need to make friends with people in the U.S. government in order to get a change in policy. You can't say something is bad unless you come in with ways to fix it."
In Iraq, she learned that military commanders had the freedom -- and often the resources -- to assist victims quickly, so she sought contacts in the military as well as in the occupation administration. This approach has caused tension with some of her old left-wing allies, who she said have accused her of just helping clean up the mess and making it easier for United States to go to war.
Ruzicka's organization operates on an annual budget of about $100,000, funded now in large part by the Open Society Institute, a George Soros organization, with low-cost rental space provided by Human Rights Watch. At first, Ruzicka scrambled for cash from families and friends so she could scrape together $5,000 for living expenses and a plane ticket to Baghdad. In Iraq, she frequently slept on sofas or floors to avoid having to pay for a hotel room.
In the past year, she has alternated spending three weeks in Baghdad and two weeks in Washington, but she said the security situation in Iraq has become so difficult she plans to spend the rest of the year in the United States, focusing on building her organization. She has staff in Iraq and a part-time office manager in Washington who also helps manage her Web site (www.civicworldwide.org). Ruzicka, who has a twin brother who farms in Honduras, said her parents have been very supportive of her dangerous travel, even though they are her political polar opposites. "They have never said to me, 'We don't want you to do this,' " she said.