The tragedy of Marla Ruzicka, 28, goes well beyond the horrific way her young and passionate life ended, in a car bomb Saturday on Baghdad's dangerous airport road, just hours after she left a message on her parents' answering machine in California: "Mom and Dad, I love you. I'm OK."
Like a humanitarian version of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the vivacious blond woman, known to the many Iraqis she helped as an "angel," simply refused to adhere to accepted rules of what Americans and other foreigners could and should do.
She and her shoestring organization, the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, were on a mission: to document how many civilians had been hurt and killed by U.S. forces, to get proper compensation for them and to find other ways to help. She died on her way to visit an injured boy.
Like Mr. Smith in the classic movie, the long-time anti-war activist saw with an innocent's eye the decent thing to do and set out to do it, derided by experts and officials who knew better. In one way, they did. Few take such risks and pay with their lives.
The greater tragedy is that her objective — documenting shattered lives and helping repair them with generosity and compassion — would be good U.S. policy. Yes, the civilian casualty numbers likely would be used against the United States. But, more important, her approach would go a long way toward reducing anti-Americanism.
The U.S. did once envision an ambitious rebuilding effort. But the insurgency forced a retreat. U.S. officials and most other foreigners move in armored vehicles, live behind tight security in the Green Zone and have recoiled from the easy contact of the earliest weeks after the main war ended two years ago. Some civilian victims get compensation, but it is more sporadic than thorough.
Iraqis surely are aware that the U.S. carefully counts American deaths and injuries but does not document Iraqi casualties. Ruzicka fearlessly — and naïvely — decided not to beat that same retreat. Her relentless lobbying of the media, diplomats, officials and lawmakers had an impact. It helped win congressional approval of millions of dollars of civilian aid, according to the office of Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. Her statistics and detailed documentation helped other organizations compile unofficial records of Iraqi casualties.
In a piece written for USA TODAY before her death, and printed on the opposite page, Ruzicka spilled out her frustration at the lack of public accounting for the casualties. Quite apart from anything else, she wrote, it was needed "as a reminder of those whose dreams will never be realized."
Ruzicka's death spotlights the damage done by callousness in war. Perhaps the attention her extraordinary life is now getting may prompt a change of policy. And fulfill at least one of her own unrealized dreams.
© 2005 USA Today