On the afternoon of Saturday, April 16th, Marla Ruzicka sat in her
unarmored Mercedes, talking on the phone with her friend Colin
McMahon, a reporter in the Baghdad bureau of the Chicago
Tribune. She'd had a "great" round of meetings in the Green
Zone, she told McMahon, and was just leaving the fortified compound
in the hopes of squeezing in one last meeting before the end of the
day. The Green Zone, which sits on the west bank of the Tigris
River, used to be the heart of Saddam's empire, and now houses the
U.S. Embassy, the Iraqi Parliament and other offices of the new
Iraqi government. Outside of the Green Zone, in Baghdad itself, the
security situation changes hourly. A route that was safe at noon
could be unsafe at 1 p.m. A neighborhood that was peaceful at dawn
could be in flames by lunchtime.
A petite, blond, twenty-eight-year-old humanitarian-aid worker
from Northern California, Ruzicka knew the volatility of Baghdad as
well as anyone. She was virtually the only American aid worker in
the Iraqi capital. She was the founder of a small nongovernmental
organization called CIVIC -- the Campaign for Innocent Victims in
Conflict -- which assisted families whose lives had been ripped
apart in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Passionate and driven,
Ruzicka worked seven days a week, eighteen hours a day, driving
around the city with her Iraqi colleague Faiz Ali Salim. The two
spent most of their days compiling data on the number of civilian
casualties in Iraq, which Ruzicka then used to lobby American
officials to compensate the victims' families, often arranging for
wounded children to be evacuated in order to receive medical
treatment in the United States. It was revolutionary work --
virtually no other aid group or worker has negotiated with the U.S.
government on behalf of civilians injured in American military
actions -- but it was exhausting. Ruzicka, who had begun to
demonstrate some of the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress
disorder, was preparing to leave Baghdad the next day for a
vacation in Thailand and then a long rest back in the United
States. Leaving was difficult. "This place continues to break my
heart," she wrote to a friend in London earlier in the month. "Need
to get out of here -- but hard!"
Now, talking on the phone with McMahon, Ruzicka sounded upbeat.
In the past few days, she had obtained a document that was her holy
grail: a detailed report showing that the U.S. military keeps its
own civilian-casualty records, something the Pentagon has
Ruzicka's methodology, on behalf of Iraq's war victims, often
involved a lot of cajoling of high-level brass at Camp Victory, the
military headquarters near the Baghdad International Airport. To
get there, she had to drive on the notorious airport road, one of
the most dangerous thoroughfares in the world. It is a frequent
site of suicide bombings, ambushes and other insurgent attacks.
It's also an efficient route, connecting central Baghdad to points
The airport road is banked on both sides by housing complexes,
heavily populated by people with military training and access to
weapons. Ironically, it was once the most secure road in Iraq, as
Saddam's particular brand of paranoia forced him to place guards at
every overpass and exit. Today, it is the key military and
contractors' supply route, which makes it one of the most
high-value targets in Iraq, despite several U.S. military
checkpoints. There are rules for driving on the airport road, the
most important one being: Never get stuck behind a U.S. convoy,
which is a suicide bomber's prime target. But this can be
difficult, as security contractors, who drive in convoys of armored
SUVs, fly down the highway at 90 mph. McMahon assumed Ruzicka was
meeting with some Iraqi victims in Baghdad. But he never asked
where she was going, and Ruzicka didn't offer any information. "I
think it'll be fine," she told him breezily at the end of their
brief phone call. Then she hung up. McMahon went back to work.
The Tribune office was at the Al Hamra hotel, where
Ruzicka lived. The Hamra is the major journalist hangout in Baghdad
and has an otherworldliness about it that gives some people a false
sense of safety. A white, two-tower complex, it has a sweeping
outdoor patio and a beautiful pool: long, cerulean blue and clean.
On warm nights, journalists ranging from the most senior
correspondents of Time to the lowliest stringer can be
found doing laps in the pool, or having drinks or dinner on the
patio. Every so often, a few tracer bullets from an AK-47 fly
overhead like miniature bottle rockets, with clean, arcing
trajectories, a piercing reminder of the danger and chaos so close
Marla Ruzicka was planning to host a party at the Hamra that
night. Her all-night bacchanals of salsa dancing and heavy drinking
were famous among the overworked, underexcited journalists in
Baghdad. The party she'd planned for the night of April 16th
promised to be "totally Marla," as one of her friends told me. The
patio would be full, the music would be pumping. Several people
might hook up, quite a few would jump in the pool and a lot might
pass out -- the first one being Marla herself.
It was after eight o'clock when McMahon, still working, saw his
colleague James Janega at the Tribune's office at the
Hamra. Janega had been down on the patio, waiting for the party.
"It's pretty boring, just about ten guys sitting around by the
pool," he told McMahon. Marla, he added, hadn't shown up yet.
"She's not here yet?" Ruzicka would never be late to one of her
own parties. In the next few hours, there would be frantic phone
calls to sources and friends all over Baghdad, but no one had heard
from Ruzicka. "The worst fear was that she'd been kidnapped," says
McMahon. He imagined the pretty aid worker pleading for her life in
front of insurgent cameras.
What happened to Marla Ruzicka was no less tragic but far more
mundane. At approximately three o'clock in the afternoon, Ruzicka
and Faiz were heading east on the airport road, toward Baghdad.
Also on the road were a U.S. military convoy and a convoy of
private security contractors. From a nearby on-ramp, a suicide
bomber merged into the traffic, most likely gunning for the
military convoy, which he missed. Instead, he detonated beside his
next best choice, the security convoy. Behind them was a
The first time I met Marla -- like a lot of people, I never knew
her last name until after she died -- was in Baghdad in April 2004.
It was a warm night, and I was having drinks with some friends on
the patio of the Hamra, when all of a sudden a pretty girl dressed
in hip-huggers and a gauzy shirt bopped up and started massaging
the shoulders of one of the men at my table.
"Hellooo," she said, in a slow California drawl.
A few men rolled their eyes discreetly. "That's Marla," one of
them said in my ear, a hint of condescension in his voice.
Just five-foot-three and weighing no more than 100 pounds, Marla
looked only a few years out of college and completely out of place
in a war zone. But she also seemed thoroughly comfortable in the
Hamra scene, as if it were her home, which it had been for the
better part of two years. While we drank, Marla pounded the
shoulders of a British reporter with tiny little fists, gradually
making her way around the table until she'd given shoulder rubs to
every guy in the room. "OK, bye!" she said, and flitted away.
She talked in surf-girl lingo -- she called everyone, even the
most austere U.S. officials, "dude." She giggled. "When she was
happy, she clapped and did a little jump," recalls her best friend,
Catherine Philp, a reporter for the London Times. She was
girlish -- she used to dot her i's with little hearts --
and a little outlandish: She stood up in the middle of one press
conference and told the stern U.S. general giving the briefing that
he looked as if he "needed a hug." Quil Lawrence, a reporter for
BBC Radio, once described her as a "love bomb."
In the days and weeks after Ruzicka's and her colleague Faiz Ali
Salim's death, virtually every reporter who'd met Ruzicka wrote a
story about her -- making her death headline news on four
continents. In Washington, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, a key ally,
honored her on the floor of the U.S. Senate, calling her "as close
to a living saint as they come." Six hundred people attended her
funeral at the St. Mary's Catholic Church in the tiny community of
Lakeport, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
There were memorial services in New York, Washington, Baghdad,
Kabul, San Francisco and cities across the country.
Ruzicka is perhaps the most famous American aid worker to die in
any conflict of the past ten or twenty years. Though a novice in
life -- she had less than four years of professional humanitarian
experience -- her death resonated far beyond the tightly knit group
of war junkies and policymakers who knew her. She stands as a
youthful representative of a certain kind of not-yet-lost American
idealism, and darkly symbolic of what has gone so tragically wrong
in Iraq. And yet trying to understand her is complicated by the
fact that so much of her complex, and often deeply
compartmentalized life remains a mystery to even those who knew her
best. "It was almost like trying to get to know somebody at a
performance," notes Chris Hondros, a Getty Images photographer who
knew Ruzicka in both Iraq and Afghanistan. "She always seemed to be
playing the role of Marla."
There is a certain banality to being killed in a suicide
bombing; it's like being blind-sided. But there is nothing banal
about choosing, against the advice of virtually everyone, to work
in one of the most dangerous places in the world. It's a risk. It's
also heroic. And, it's an escape.
About two weeks after Marla's death, I am at a waterfront cafe
in Ruzicka's hometown of Lakeport, having lunch with her parents,
Cliff and Nancy. A quiet resort town located in between the
vineyards of Sonoma and Mendocino counties, Lakeport has only 5,000
people and the "best air quality in California," according to the
local chamber of commerce.
"This is Marla's favorite restaurant," says Nancy Ruzicka, a
middle-aged woman with a chin-length black bob. She still talks of
her daughter in the present tense, while her husband stares off at
the lake. A quiet, balding, bespectacled man, he is a few years
older than his wife and dressed in a tweed sport coat and blue
shirt. Marla was the youngest of Cliff's six children -- he has
four kids from a previous marriage and two with Nancy. "I'd always
tell her, 'Marla, exercise good judgment,' " he says. "I would
always tell her that, up until the day she died when she was in
Iraq. But that's about all I could tell her."
For the past week or two, Nancy, a former flight attendant, has
been jetting back and forth between California and the East Coast,
where she's attended a variety of memorial services for Marla. "We
had 500 people at our house," she tells me brightly, referring to
Marla's funeral, April 23rd. Despite her crushing grief, Nancy is
relentlessly cheerful. Cliff, by contrast, has the demeanor of a
man in total shock. "I was worried about her safety in Iraq, but I
didn't expect her to die," he says. "I thought she was invincible.
She thought she was invincible."
Marla Ann Ruzicka was born on December 31st, 1976, six minutes
after her twin brother, Mark. She was a tiny baby, weighing only
three pounds, but she made up for it in sheer will. "I used to call
her my little blond hurricane," says her godmother, Eileen McGuire.
The Ruzicka twins swam, surfed, wake-boarded, water-skied and
participated in other sports. But Marla was particularly excited by
risk: taking flying leaps into mountain lakes, or teetering on the
railing of the Golden Gate Bridge.
"We used to walk across the bridge as kids; man, I hated that,"
remembers Mark Ruzicka. "But Marla, she loved it -- she'd play like
she was gonna jump off. Just totally fearless."
Mark Ruzicka is a laid-back twenty-eight-year-old with a head of
curly blond hair and a slow surfer's drawl. I meet him after lunch
on the deck of the Ruzickas' tidy blue town house. Nancy was a bit
reluctant to let me see the place, claiming it was messy, but the
house is spotless. There is not a picture or photograph on the
wall, and everything is white. "Mom likes things to be perfect,"
Mark says, with a slightly derisive tone.
Though seemingly a happy family, there was always instability in
the Ruzicka household, starting with Cliff, who was a heavy drinker
until the kids were three. By the early 1980s, Cliff had cleaned up
and, with Nancy as a partner, devoted himself to their business of
developing real-estate projects for the rapidly expanding local
population. Mark recalls that his parents were always working. That
left care of the kids to McGuire or other baby sitters.
"We were always going back and forth between different people's
houses," says Mark, who has struggled with alcoholism and
depression for years. "I used to be scared to stay at someone
else's house, but Marla didn't mind." Marla, in fact, seemed happy
anywhere. "We took care of each other, me and Marla. We were really
Some might say too free: When Marla and Mark were eight or nine,
Nancy would pack them off on the bus and send them alone to the San
Francisco airport to visit relatives. "Everybody at the airport
would say, 'You can't get on this plane, you're only little kids,'
" says Mark. "But Marla would make friends with the pilots, like
'Where's my wings?' " he recalls. "She'd be up there in the
cockpit, just digging the whole thing."
This ability to rise above chaos was something that marked Marla
all through her life, as did her natural leadership. Though never a
brilliant student, she was a gifted conversationalist, with a knack
for getting people to agree to her demands. As a teenager, she
volunteered to lead hikers up a nearby peak, Mt. Konocti, whose
summit was sacred to local Indian tribes and off-limits to tour
groups. Marla persuaded the owners to let her come. "If someone
told Marla she couldn't do something, she'd say, 'But we need to be
able to do it,' " says Mark. "She always got what she wanted."
When she was in eighth grade, Marla, a budding activist, rallied
her friends at Terrace Middle School to stage a walkout in protest
of the Persian Gulf War. The entire school ended up walking out,
which landed Marla in the principal's office and on the local news.
I ask the Ruzickas, both Republicans, how they reacted to their
daughter's nonconformity. They say only that they were concerned.
"[But] there wasn't any holding Marla back," says Cliff. "You
couldn't have told her, 'Marla, you can't do that.' That would have
At seventeen, Marla began frequenting the San Francisco
headquarters of Global Exchange, an international human-rights
organization co-founded by Bay Area activist Medea Benjamin. Global
Exchange has a dubious reputation as an adventure travel group for
wealthy lefties, leading "Reality Tours" through Third World and
war-ravaged countries. Ruzicka was fascinated -- she had found a
community vastly different from conservative Lakeport. Soon, she
was spending weekends and vacations in San Francisco, volunteering
at Global Exchange and crashing at the home of Benjamin and her
husband, Kevin Danaher, who became Ruzicka's surrogate parents --
hippie alternatives to Cliff and Nancy. Benjamin remembers Ruzicka
as a "spongelike" teenager, with a passion for human rights and an
innate ability to hustle anyone. "She wanted to go on every trip,
and for as close to free as possible," says Benjamin. Pleased with
Ruzicka's work, Benjamin complied.
Ruzicka fell in love with Cuba, whose culture was built around
two things she most valued: socialism and having a good time. "She
was really in her element there: the music, the salsa, the
mojitos," says Benjamin. She read Che Guevara and tried to learn
Spanish -- though languages were never Ruzicka's forte. When it
came time for college, Ruzicka insisted on finding a school where
she could travel abroad, ultimately choosing Long Island
University's Friends World program. "She had all these posters of
Che and Global Exchange," says Erin Gertz, her freshman-year
roommate. "On my side of the room, I had cute little animals."
During the next four years, Ruzicka studied in Costa Rica,
Kenya, Israel and Palestine, and Zimbabwe, where she became
interested in the plight of AIDS victims. After graduating from LIU
in the spring of 1999, Ruzicka intended to return to Zimbabwe,
where she'd met, and fallen in love with, a musician named Phillip
Machingura. The two had met on Ruzicka's twenty-second birthday, in
December 1998, and had been inseparable. "My relationship with
Marla was full of off-the-wall things that I wouldn't do alone --
like hitchhiking to Mozambique," Machingura says today.
But instead of going to Africa, Ruzicka went back to San
Francisco, where she briefly worked for the Rainforest Alliance,
and then returned to Global Exchange. Machingura soon joined her in
California, and the couple got married -- a move many people in
Ruzicka's life insist was a green-card marriage. Machingura denies
this. "We had a relationship, we wanted to be together, and the
reality was, if we didn't [get married], I'd be going back," he
says. "So I basically left my world to be with Marla."
But Ruzicka was restless in San Francisco, particularly after
September 11th, 2001. Six weeks after the war in Afghanistan was
launched, she accepted Medea Benjamin's invitation to visit Afghan
refugee camps in Peshawar, Pakistan. Benjamin describes it as a
highly emotional experience. One little girl, Benjamin recalls,
told them that her mother had died in a U.S. air strike, and her
father was now mute, leaving her in charge of her brothers and
sisters: "We were all devastated, crying. Marla was horrified by
what had happened to this girl."
When Benjamin returned to San Francisco, Ruzicka stayed. "She
said, 'I want to go in.' And we said, 'Great, get us some stories
of civilian victims,' " says Benjamin. A few days later, as the
Taliban fell, Ruzicka hitched a ride over the border to Afghanistan
with a group of journalists. She was twenty-four.
For the rest of her life, Marla Ruzicka would refer to
Afghanistan as "my favorite place on the planet." It's a common
sentiment among those who've worked there. "There's never been a
place like Afghanistan. It's a land apart," says Jon Swain, a
veteran correspondent for the London Sunday Times. In
November 2001, Afghanistan was a country utterly devastated by war.
What Marla Ruzicka saw there would change her life.
Swain met Ruzicka in a Jalalabad guesthouse just before
Thanksgiving. "I couldn't believe she was even twenty-four," he
"Hi!" she said, buoyantly striding up to the middle-aged war
correspondent. "You look tired. Do you need a massage?"
Within minutes, a dumbstruck Swain was on the floor of his room
with Ruzicka pounding his back. He looked up to see virtually all
of the Afghan men peering into the room with their faces pressed
against the glass door. "They must have thought, 'What do these
Westerners get up to?' " Swain says. " 'They've just met, and a few
minutes later he's getting a massage?' "
During the next few days, Swain took Ruzicka around Jalalabad,
where they examined the collateral damage of the U.S. bombing
campaign. At a Jalalabad hospital that was receiving many of the
wounded from Tora Bora, Ruzicka saw scores of civilians, many of
them children, whose limbs had been blown off by U.S. cluster
After a short trip back to San Francisco, Ruzicka returned to
Afghanistan, moved by her experiences in Jalalabad to find out
exactly how many civilians had been hurt in the war. She arrived
just before Christmas; dressed in a dusty old coat, she made her
way to the Mustafa Hotel, the central staging ground for the
grizzled, largely all-male crowd of Western journalists in
Afghanistan. The Taliban had fallen, and Kabul had begun to enjoy
what would later become a full-scale post-apocalyptic renaissance.
Armed with a backpack, a few thousand dollars (most of it borrowed
from friends and family in San Francisco) and a vague mission to
help work on "human rights" issues pertaining to Afghanistan's
civilian victims, Ruzicka was the most untraditional aid worker
anyone had ever seen.
To begin with, "she looked about sixteen," remembers Pamela
Constable, a reporter for the Washington Post. She also
acted that way, padding around the Mustafa in pajamas with little
cartoon animals on them. She giggled and fawned over the awe-struck
men who hung all over her, and, given that she had almost no money,
often went room to room at the Mustafa, offering back rubs in
exchange for a meal or a place on someone's floor.
Aid workers are a serious, sometimes overearnest bunch, who
usually arrive in war zones armed with degrees from top
universities, hefty expense accounts and heavy-duty SUVs. Ruzicka
didn't even have a satellite phone or flak jacket. Jennifer
Abrahamson, who worked as a spokeswoman for the U.N. World Food
Program, met her in March 2002. "You couldn't miss her," says
Abrahamson, who is now a writer in New York. "She had this enormous
Pakistani jacket on, and her hair was all over the place." The next
time Abrahamson saw Ruzicka was a few weeks later; she was handing
out fliers advertising her upcoming "prom" party. Ruzicka had by
then become Kabul's social director and party planner. The press
corps dubbed Ruzicka "Bubbles."
In ad-hoc, postwar Afghanistan, Ruzicka had found a perfect
mission: No one, including the U.S. military, was counting the
number of civilian casualties. It was too time-consuming, often
dangerous and, from the military's perspective, unnecessary.
Working with a few Afghan colleagues, Ruzicka went from village to
village, and hospital to hospital, interviewing witnesses. She was
at times so overwhelmed by their tragedies, she'd empty her pockets
to help them. But over time, she honed her technique so effectively
that the press started following her. On one memorable occasion, in
April 2002, Ruzicka assembled a group of Afghans -- "mostly Pashtun
tribesmen, some bandaged and limping," one journalist later wrote
-- at the gates of the U.S. Embassy, and, with the media in tow,
demanded compensation for them. Ruzicka's demonstration was written
up in papers around the world, including the New York
One group Ruzicka was not impressing was Global Exchange, which
had given her money to conduct her survey and was waiting for the
results. Medea Benjamin says, "We didn't really know what she was
doing." Benjamin claims that she sent Ruzicka roughly $20,000 to
pay Afghan surveyors and cover other expenses (a claim Ruzicka's
friends are skeptical of, given that Ruzicka was always broke), but
when the data arrived, in a FedEx package from Kabul, it was weeks
overdue and also a mess. "It was a bunch of pieces of paper and
some photos, and nothing you could call a comprehensive survey,"
On Benjamin's beckoning, Ruzicka returned to San Francisco in
early May, depressed, moody and overall "not in a good space,"
according to Benjamin. Markedly thinner than she'd been in San
Francisco, she told her family it was because of the Afghan food --
Ruzicka, a vegetarian, said it was "full of grease." But Machingura
thought something was wrong. "I remember asking her, 'What's up
with you?' And she was like, 'Am I really that thin?' And I said,
'You're Ally McBeal thin.' "
"I could tell she felt like she didn't really belong in San
Francisco anymore," says Jennifer Abrahamson, who saw Ruzicka
shortly after they had both returned from Kabul. She seemed to be
having a hard time settling back into ordinary American life,
frequently saying how much she wanted to go back to Afghanistan.
Drink in hand, Ruzicka told Abrahamson that night that she wanted
to start her own organization that could put pressure on the
American government to take responsibility for the civilians they
hurt in the war. "I thought, 'Yeah, right, Marla...' " she
In the fall of 2002, Ruzicka went to Washington, D.C., where she
found a natural ally in Sen. Patrick Leahy, a longtime proponent of
assisting war victims. "She was like one of those mini-tornados, a
dust devil," Leahy recalls. But she wasn't a zealot, he adds. "It's
not like this woman was fixed on saving the world. She was fixed on
saving individuals. There's a big difference."
Ruzicka teamed up with Leahy's aide on the Senate Appropriations
Committee, Tim Rieser, who, like everyone who met her, was baffled
at first. "She had no place to live, no organization, no money, and
she lost her cell phone every fifteen minutes," he says. "But there
was something special about her." She was the first person Rieser
had met in Washington who'd been to Afghanistan and could provide
hard facts about civilian casualties. "She'd actually seen what
we'd only read about, namely U.S. bombs dropped in the wrong place,
which had wiped out whole communities. Marla gave us on-the-ground
information about these people and told us that nothing was being
done to help them."
While the Pentagon has a somewhat arbitrary policy of
compensating civilians, it is by no mean institutionalized. Ruzicka
thought it should be, and during the next several months, she and
Rieser met with officials at both the State and Defense
departments, hammering out a plan. They came up with a program to
provide medical care, home rebuilding, micro-loans and other forms
of assistance, which is channeled through USAID. It was the first
time the U.S. government had taken responsibility to help those
they had specifically harmed. "It never would have happened without
Marla," says Rieser.
Through her experiences in Afghanistan, Ruzicka's politics, and
views toward the war, had changed. Once a dedicated peace activist,
she'd decided that war was terrible but in some cases inevitable,
even justified. It was a conscious split between her and her
mentors at Global Exchange, and her embrace of the people Medea
Benjamin calls "the realists" signified a major shift not just in
Ruzicka's political philosophy but in her life as well. For about
the past ten years, Benjamin had been both a mentor and a mother to
Ruzicka. But now, the two clashed on their views regarding the
upcoming war with Iraq, something that became more apparent when
Ruzicka joined Benjamin on a fact-finding tour in Baghdad just
prior to the war. "She was working with people in D.C. who were
saying the war is going to happen, let's help the people who will
be hurt," says Benjamin. "I thought it was a mistake to think like
that before civilians were even killed." Medea urged Ruzicka to
return to the activist fold and come back to San Francisco to "join
us with all her energy and all her incredible enthusiasm to do
whatever we could to stop the war."
Instead, Ruzicka returned to Washington and watched the war
unfold on TV. Then, just after the fall of Saddam, she packed her
bags and moved to Baghdad.
Just a little bit about me," Ruzicka e-mailed a contact in
Washington in August 2003. "I love life. I can be silly. I don't
sleep -- trying to learn more. I like to do a million things at
once. CIVIC is my life."
By now, Ruzicka had been working in Baghdad for several months.
It was a city abuzz with the postwar rush of aid workers,
journalists and reconstruction experts -- similar in many ways to
what Kabul had been like in 2002. Iraq was exciting, exhilarating.
And it was heartbreaking. Rather than hundreds of casualties, as
Ruzicka had found in Afghanistan, there were thousands in Iraq. But
because the U.S. military didn't release civilian casualty records,
no one knew how many people had been hurt in the war. As she'd done
in Afghanistan, Ruzicka dedicated herself to finding out, going
door-to-door throughout Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq, with her
colleague Faiz Ali Salim.
Humanitarian-aid work is a passion, not a career path. Ruzicka
approached the work with an almost manic dedication. Unable to
sleep, she'd be up at dawn and awake at 3 or 4 a.m. Her Day-Timer
was filled with "to do" lists, hundreds of contact names and
fund-raising goals -- as well as personal buck-up notes, some
almost Bridget Jones-like in content (she kept a running
tally of the number of cigarettes she smoked per day). Still on a
shoestring budget, she bounced from friend to friend, many of whom
she'd met in Afghanistan, crashing on their couches at the Hamra or
in their spare rooms. Pamela Hess, a reporter for UPI who'd met
Ruzicka in Kabul in 2002, bumped into her while swimming in the
Hamra pool. "She'd gone from anti-war, almost radical, to a woman
who could deal with the U.S. military as a partner in her work,"
she says. "I was impressed at how much she had matured in the
On August 19th, 2003, the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad
was hit in a massive suicide attack, signifying a dramatic shift in
the war. Westerners -- even those occupying positions of neutrality
-- were now targets. By the end of the year, most of the Western
aid workers in Iraq had pulled out. Ruzicka decided to stay. In the
breezy, upbeat notes she'd post to CIVIC's Web site, she would
often begin with a chronicle of Iraq's escalating danger but
conclude with detailed accounts of the week's work with victims.
"Their tragedies are my responsibilities," she wrote.
But by April 2004, Iraq had become increasingly dangerous for
Americans. As the mortar attacks and suicide bombs grew in
frequency, those who remained rarely left their fortified
compounds. Ruzicka was warned, most likely by an Iraqi friend, to
get out of Iraq for a while. Reluctantly, she agreed, posting a
note to her Web site on April 8th declaring her decision to return
to Washington "and try to make a home...sort of." But a few weeks
later she was back in Iraq. "I didn't want the hard work we'd put
into motion to stall," she wrote in her journal. During the next
two months, she jetted in and out of Baghdad, ignoring warnings
that the situation had become too risky. "Just think of all the
work you will be able to do when the situation is better because
you were not killed by a bomb," one friend urged.
Wars have a unique capacity to take you away from yourself.
There is something extremely voyeuristic about witnessing other
people's suffering. Ruzicka had a talent for compartmentalizing the
tragedies she witnessed, but gradually that compartmentalization
began to wear thin. In her journal, she confessed, "I am young, and
new at this and developing ways to cope, but in honesty I have
tried red wine a little too much for medicine, deprived myself of
sleep and felt extremely inadequate."
In letters to friends, Ruzicka frequently confessed to profound
loneliness: "In all of this traveling, I admit I've felt a little
off-base." Her marriage to Machingura was now just a friendship.
Her romantic life was sporadic, at best. "There was kind of an
instant big-brother thing that happened," says Quil Lawrence, who
is in his mid-thirties. Another friend says, "She got involved with
the wrong guys -- bad guys, older guys." A third friend, in
Washington, D.C., says, "I knew there was a man in London, a much
older man, who broke her heart, and it was very, very painful for
her. She never really wanted to talk about it."
By late spring, Ruzicka's behavior was becoming more and more
manic. Still working at a frantic pace, she seemed off-kilter, "a
little random," says her friend Catherine Philp. It was more than
just sadness. Swimming, which had once given Ruzicka such solace,
had become a two-hour-per-day obsession. She'd often drink until
she was sloppy, and then pass out, waking up to "eat everything in
the fridge," as one friend recalls.
Ruzicka had always had a questionable relationship with food.
Her high school coaches frequently worried that she wasn't eating
enough protein. By her early twenties, Ruzicka had gotten even more
restrictive; meticulously wiping the grease from her food, or
drinking protein shakes as a meal.
But now, Ruzicka's teeth had turned gray. Mark Ruzicka, who saw
his sister in the late spring of 2004, knew that something was
going on. "I would hug her, and she just felt so unhealthy," he
says. Marla, usually preternaturally confident, seemed overwhelmed
with problems. "I think it was all the traveling, and not having a
boyfriend, and just the shit she was doing. She just didn't know
how to handle these feelings," he says.
In the summer of 2004, Marla returned to Lakeport and received
treatment for anorexia. She was also diagnosed with bipolar
disorder -- a condition she shares with her twin brother -- and was
prescribed lithium. In letters to friends, Ruzicka worried about
losing the manic energy that had allowed her to accomplish so much.
"Ironically, her admission of her bipolar disorder made her much
more human, and much more appealing to me as a person," says her
friend Colin Soloway, who saw Ruzicka in Washington, D.C. "She was
[always] a lot of fun, but she could be somewhat exhausting. No one
can be that 'on' or happy all the time."
Ruzicka started the fall sobered, both by her condition and by
Baghdad's obviously worsening security situation. Rather than
returning to Iraq, she spent most of the autumn preparing to move
to New York's East Village, where she found an apartment in
November. "She seemed giddy about it," recalls Philp, who spent a
few days with Ruzicka, shopping in SoHo, eating at restaurants in
the meatpacking district and watching old episodes of Sex and
To many who saw her during that time, Ruzicka appeared to have
turned a corner. She curbed her alcohol intake, went to therapy
several times a week and took a variety of medications that made
her calmer and helped her gain weight. Now occupying a desk at the
Open Society Institute, the George Soros-sponsored foundation that
was funding Ruzicka's work, she spoke frequently of expanding
CIVIC's work to less dangerous conflict zones like Nepal, where she
went on a brief research trip in January 2005. Her story was being
circulated in Hollywood, and a piece on Nightline had
piqued the interest of a New York literary agent. A memoir,
co-written by her friend Jennifer Abrahamson, was under way.
And yet Ruzicka felt badly out of place. "It can get lonely
here," she said of New York in a February 2005 letter to a friend.
She missed the field, the camaraderie she had in Baghdad -- a city
she'd lived in for the better part of two years. And she missed the
And so, despite her many promises to make a home for herself in
New York, Ruzicka began talking more and more about returning to
Baghdad. In March, she got her wish: a $10,000 foundation grant to
look into allegations of human-rights abuse against women who'd
been detained at Abu Ghraib. Elated, she bounced into OSI and
announced to her colleague, Robert von Dienes-Oehm, that she was
"Where? California?" he asked.
"No, Baggers!" she replied. "I'm going to Baggers!"
I want to assure you of my safety," Ruzicka wrote to Aryeh
Neier, the president of the Open Society Institute, in an e-mail
dated April 11th, five days before Ruzicka died. The letter was
hardly truthful. Ruzicka had promised friends that she'd restrict
her movements to the Hamra compound. But she found that difficult
Arriving in Baghdad in late March, she assured Catherine Philp
that the trip would be for only two weeks -- solely for the Abu
Ghraib project. Thrilled to be back in Baghdad, she came laden with
gifts for Philp: French vanilla coffee, Italian cheese, copies of
People and The New Yorker. Spotting one of
Philp's Iraqi drivers, Haider, Ruzicka jumped him and kissed him on
During the next few days, Ruzicka and Salim started their
research into the abuse allegations pertaining to female detainees.
It was a slow, difficult process. About a week into the research,
Ruzicka confided to Philp that she was getting anxious. "She came
up to my room at the end of a hard day and we stood on the balcony
as the sun was setting and talked about it all. She sensed that
many people were lying to her in their interviews, and she didn't
know whether to trust them."
And so, Ruzicka dropped the project and went off in other, more
familiar directions. She began to go into Baghdad to visit families
she'd helped the previous year and took on new cases as well:
securing compensation for an Iraqi woman who'd lost several family
members and arranging for an injured child to be flown, on U.S.
aircraft, out of Iraq to a hospital in California. "We've got to
fix this country!" she text-messaged McMahon, one of around 150
such messages that he received from Ruzicka during that last
In her personal life, Ruzicka spoke regularly with her doctor in
New York. Still taking medication for the manic-depression, she was
also on a new drug that had been prescribed for her eating
disorder. "She knew she was fucked up. She didn't like being ill,"
says McMahon. "She was seeing one of the military shrinks in the
Green Zone, who was extremely helpful, and she was thrilled that
she'd found him. And she's doing all this while she's trying to
help these families -- to me that was so impressive. It was a daily
struggle, [but] she got up every morning and got out and helped
The Green Zone had by now become so secure that one needed a
special badge to move from one area to the next. Ruzicka hadn't yet
received a DOD badge that would help her move around more freely.
Instead, she'd bluff her way around the checkpoints, sometimes on
foot, sometimes by hitchhiking, charming her way past the security
guards. "She'd say, 'I'm a very nice person,' " McMahon says,
In the first week of April, Ruzicka obtained a detailed U.S.
military civilian casualty report. Her source: a high-ranking U.S.
general in Baghdad. It was perhaps the biggest achievement of
Ruzicka's career. The number -- twenty-nine civilians killed in
Baghdad from February 28th to April 5th -- was small. But what it
meant was tremendous: It was proof, in her eyes, that despite the
Pentagon's denials, the military did, to some degree, keep track of
its actions. Elated, Ruzicka wrote her friend Peter Bergen, a
writer and CNN commentator, in Washington. "Dude!...this is huge."
After gushing about the party she was planning that evening -- "Now
I must go and keep everyone happy" -- Ruzicka ended her note, as
she almost always did: "I am being very safe."
If not quite the truth, this statement was motivated by hope.
After the January 30th elections, the number of attacks decreased
in Baghdad, leading many to believe that the insurgency was on the
wane. But in the last week of Ruzicka's life, the attacks in
Baghdad took a sharp spike upward. On April 15th, there was a
double suicide bombing right in front of the Hamra compound, which
scattered body parts all over the street. "There were a lot of
bodies, a lot of blood, parts of bodies, flaming wreckage,
helicopters overhead, huge holes in the street -- you know, the
whole scene," says McMahon.
Ruzicka spent the day of the 15th with some families she'd
helped in 2004. She also talked with Philp, who was in Sri Lanka.
In an e-mail she sent later that day, she wrote, "Thank you for
being there for me.... You all take such good care of me...."
That night, there was a party at the Washington Post
house. It was a subdued night, coming on the heels of the suicide
bombing that had killed eighteen people. Earlier in the day,
Ruzicka had let several journalists use her room at the Hamra to
take a shower. Now, standing by the pool table with McMahon, the
two discussed the worsening insurgency.
"These people are fucking demonic," said McMahon.
"And can you fucking believe there are people in the USA who
call them 'resistance fighters?' " Ruzicka added.
Then, Ruzicka left the party. "I'll be right back," she promised
McMahon. But she never returned.
In the past month or so, McMahon has wracked his brain trying to
recall more of his last conversation with Ruzicka; probably the
last conversation she had with any friend before she was killed.
But he can't remember a thing. "It was just so typical. She was
calling me to check in and say hello and let me know that she was
going for another interview. She said quickly something like 'Can't
wait for tonight'... but she was going quickly, as if she had a lot
on her mind.
"I remember she did say something about trying for one more
interview," he adds. "The point was things were going pretty well
and she wanted to get this one thing done before the day was ended.
I remember that, because I thought that it was typical -- she'd
keep going until the work was through."
© 2005 Rolling Stone