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Marla Ruzicka: 26-Year-Old Doing 'The Right Humanitarian Thing'
Published on Tuesday, December 30, 2003 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Marla Ruzicka: 26-Year-Old Doing 'The Right Humanitarian Thing'
by Jane Ganahl
 

Marla Ruzicka's life is driven by numbers. The numbers of Iraqi civilians dead, the numbers of the wounded. How many of their homes have been destroyed?


Injured Iraqis confer with Marla Ruzicka in Baghdad. She and dozens of volunteers fanned out across Iraq to gauge the extent of civilian deaths and injuries as a result of the war.
As founder of CIVIC (Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict), Ruzicka works 15-hour days in the thick of the war zone, going door to door to assess the harm done to innocent Iraqis caught in the line of fire. Ruzicka then uses that information to lobby the U.S. government for assistance.

"I decided not to take a position on the war but to try to do the right humanitarian thing,'' the 26-year-old said during a recent trip to San Francisco, before Saddam Hussein was captured. "No one can heal the wounds that have been inflicted; you just have to recognize that people have been harmed."

According to CIVIC, which enlisted volunteers to fan out across Iraq to survey the impacts of the war, approximately 2,082 Iraqi civilians are dead, 4, 083 are wounded, and 1,657 structures (homes or businesses) had been damaged or destroyed at the time of her visit.

While the Defense Department keeps official records of U.S. troops killed and wounded (440 and 2,470 as of Dec. 1), no one has stepped forward to do the same for Iraqi civilians but Ruzicka, the self-appointed watchdog of civilians harmed in recent Middle East conflicts.

She admits that getting accurate numbers is extremely difficult. Each hospital keeps a handwritten book of the dead, she says, but their records are in disarray. In addition, some burial sites are not marked, and Hussein's soldiers often dressed as civilians.

"The point was always less about finding an exact number than getting a sense of the devastation," she said. "From the day the statue fell until just recently, we've had 160 people going door to door, finding out what we could. At one point, we had 17,000 pieces of paper from our survey. It was a logistical nightmare, but it had to be done."

A onetime protégée of one of the world's most visible activists, Global Exchange's Medea Benjamin, Ruzicka was set on this course after 9/11 when she went to Afghanistan on a campaign to help those in the line of fire between U. S. troops and suspected Taliban strongholds.

An unofficial survey she undertook in Afghanistan confirmed 824 dead. Returning to the United States, she lobbied Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to insert language in an appropriations bill that would provide $3.75 million to help victims.

In July, the money started trickling in to the devastated country.

Leahy, who in 1989 established the Leahy War Victims Fund, a $10 million annual appropriation used to provide medical, rehabilitation and related assistance to civilian victims of war, thinks highly of the young activist.

"Marla is an exceptionally determined, energetic and brave young woman who has traveled to the front lines to focus attention on an issue that too often gets ignored," he said. "Civilians bear the brunt of the suffering in wars today, but there is no policy to help them. Marla and her organization have helped put a human face on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq by identifying the victims and their needs, and by lobbying for assistance."

"I've helped Marla navigate the system," added Leahy aide Tim Reiser. "We've been working on this issue for years, but it's a delicate one. Asking for assistance for victims is like asking the Pentagon to admit they made mistakes. Fortunately, their offices in Iraq see the advantage of helping. They're seeing the anger and resentment that happens when bad things happen to the wrong people."

Reiser says he's noticed a change in Ruzicka in the last two years since they started working together.


Marla Ruzicka counts the dead civilians in Iraq. Chronicle photo by Lea Suzuki
Hearing this, Ruzicka laughed. "It's true - just two years ago I was dragged out of the World Affairs Council when President Bush was speaking. It was his first trip to California, and I'd bought a ticket to hear him speak. I made my sarong-type skirt into a banner, and when he started his address, I unfurled it and jumped on a table and started shouting, 'Stop the rate caps now!' The cops grabbed me and took me out.

"These days, I'd rather have a meeting with President Bush than yell at him."

This has meant cozying up to a military she had formerly excoriated. "I'm constantly hitting them up for help, and I have learned that for the most part, they are anxious to help," she said. "The Marines have nicknamed me Cluster Bomb Girl because I would hear of places where they had gone off, and I would ask them to help me clear the area."

It was between her post-war sojourns to Afghanistan and Iraq that Ruzicka split amicably from Global Exchange to start her own organization, CIVIC (www.civicworldwide.org). Though there is the ongoing worry over money, Ruzicka is getting better at finding grants, and she was given a boost when ABC's "Nightline" aired a piece on her work in Iraq.

Right now, she's doing far better than ever, though, as word of her work expands. She has been given a loaner office and apartment in Washington, D.C., where she is spending more and more time on Capitol Hill, and is soon going to be able to afford an office assistant.

"We are done with the phase of counting," she said. "Our goal was never to get every name, but to draw attention to the dire need there. Now, we would like to transition into providing services, getting help for people who need it, and implementing what has taken place in Leahy's work."

Would she ever consider doing something a little ... safer?

"To have a job where you can make things better for people? That's a blessing," she said. "Why would I do anything else?"

©2003 San Francisco Chronicle

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