Thursday, April 28th, 2005

How do you change the world?
On one side of the debate, we have B-52 bombers, Abrams tanks, Hellfire missiles, daisy cutters, cluster bombs, F-16 Fighting Falcons, A-10 Warthogs, Apache helicopters, depleted uranium, 130,000 troops, an indifference to civilian casualties and a budget of, oh, $6 billion a month. On the other side, we have — we had — Marla Ruzicka.
The fight goes out of me when I think of the death of this passionate young woman, founder of the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, who took it on herself — with stunning effectiveness — to humanize the “collateral damage” of war to the U.S. Congress and the general public, and to cushion the impact of our brutal occupation of Iraq with her own body.
Sen. Patrick Leahy called her a “whistleblower in foreign policy,” someone who said, “Wait, everybody. Here is what is really happening. You’d better know about this.” She was the driving force, he said after her death, behind the appropriation of some $20 million in aid to Afghanistan and Iraq that he secured.
No small accomplishment for a plucky 28-year-old from Northern California who was “so pretty, blond and lively she could be mistaken for a cheerleader,” as Tai Moses of AlterNet wrote.
She and her associate, Faiz Ali Salim — CIVIC’s director in Iraq and the father of a 2-month-old daughter — were killed on April 16 as they drove the dangerous highway from Baghdad to the airport. A suicide bomber, apparently attempting to strike at a U.S. convoy of security contractors on the highway, pulled alongside them and detonated his explosives, engulfing their car in flames. They were on their way to visit a child who had been injured by a bomb. This is what they did. It was their raison d’etre. It was what CIVIC was all about.
Oh Lord. Words come close to failing me. Here was someone with a sense of purpose so gutsy and selfless it makes the heart clutch. She personified a worldwide sense of horror at high-tech war, at “we don’t do body counts,” but she didn’t shrink from it in despair; she put her body in the war zone, she cradled its victims.
“Thursday was a day of splendor and bliss.” These are Marla’s own words, from an online journal entry (see posted on Oct. 28, 2003. “The magic of Hussein’s smile and the dazzle in Bador’s eyes allowed me to forget the problems of expenses, budgets, and the challenging difficulties that often present themselves when operating in post-war Iraq. . . .
“Bador’s dream is to become a computer technician, but her burns are so severe that she has developed a skin cancer and is now incapable of moving her fingers. Her hand is shrinking and her condition deteriorates every day. Hussein has orthopedic complications and has great difficulty walking.”
This was Marla’s life, shining rays of hope into the lives of children like Hussein and Bador and countless others who had been shattered by a war they had nothing to do with. She was a loving and practical humanitarian. She was also a geopolitical visionary: “My long-term goal,” she told an interviewer (quoted in a eulogy by her friend Peter Bergen), “is to get a desk at the State Department that looks at civilian casualties.”
But you can’t do that, Marla! You’re missing the point. If we look at civilian casualties — if we count them, if we acknowledge them at all — the game is up. She was the national conscience the Bush administration, in its criminal cynicism, has bludgeoned quiet with fear-inducing lies.
My favorite story about her — and the story I find most compelling and personally challenging — is one mentioned by Tai Moses, citing an article the San Francisco Chronicle published about Marla a year and a half ago. In it, she explained that she was known affectionately by the Marines in Baghdad — she made friends with everyone — as “Cluster Bomb Girl,” because she was always on their case to clear up mined areas the Iraqis told her about.
This was a serious woman. Friends and acquaintances described her as vivacious, fun-loving, life of the party, “angelic and sort of goofy,” but at the core she was an utterly purposeful woman, who stood in the fray, who softened bullets, who protected the innocent, who demanded accountability.
London’s The Independent wrote of the aftermath of the suicide bombing: “A U.S. Army medic who tried to help her said she was briefly conscious and was able to speak. ‘I’m alive,’ she had told him. She died along with an unnamed French national and an Iraqi.”
Those were her last words: “I’m alive.”