Sun, Apr 24, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Intrepid Iraq activist Marla Ruzicka remembered

HUMANITARIAN A memorial service was held for an extraordinary young woman activist who had begun a door-to-door investigation of the civilian casualties in Iraq

AP , Baghdad, Iraq

Marla Ruzicka leads a demonstration calling for US compensation to victims of the US-led military campaign in Afghanistan, in 2002.

PHOTO: AP

The 12-year-old orphan remembers Marla Ruzicka as a smiling blonde apparition who gave him a glass of juice and changed his clothes when bullet splinters in his spine made it painful to move, walking virtually impossible.

The American rights activist took up Rakan Hassan's cause, securing a surgeon in the US to perform the operation he needs to recover from the attack that killed his parents. But Ruzicka died before she could complete her mission, cut down by the same relentless violence that has shattered the lives of the many Iraqis she tried to help.

Ruzicka was killed with her Iraqi translator and another foreigner a week ago when a car bomb exploded as they drove in two vehicles along the treacherous road leading to Baghdad's airport. She was to be buried yesterday in her home town of Lakeport, California.

At the time of her death, Ruzicka was in contact with officials from the US Embassy and State Department to arrange Rakan's medical evacuation. Since then, however, his cause has stalled.

Everyone who knew the 28-year-old activist -- from the Iraqi families she helped, to the US Senators and war correspondents she lobbied -- extols Ruzicka's relentless campaign for compensation for the innocent victims of war.

A one-woman human rights movement, Ruzicka was instrumental in securing millions of dollars in aid for distribution in Iraq. She'd been traveling to and from the country since US-led forces invaded in March 2003, often going door-to-door to meet wounded Iraqis and collect the figures for her surveys on the number hurt and killed.

She badgered the military for numbers and Washington for money. She sweet-talked journalists and soldiers alike into helping her out. And everyone got a hug.

Ruzicka refused to accept the official line that the US military does not keep track of civilian casualties, writing in an op-ed piece the week before she was killed that this position "outraged the Arab world and damaged the US claim that its forces go to great lengths to minimize civilian casualties."

An AP survey of deaths in the first 12 months of the occupation found that more than 5,000 Iraqis died violently in just Baghdad and three provinces.

Since then, however, neither US nor Iraqi officials have produced a complete tally. Ruzicka thought she was close to uncovering the figures.

"Recently, I obtained statistics on civilian casualties from a high-ranking US military official. The numbers were for Baghdad only, for a short period, during a relatively quiet time," she wrote in the article published posthumously in USA Today and posted on her Web site.

It wasn't clear if the deaths were caused by US troops or insurgents, she wrote, but it was clear the US military did actually keep track of the civilian dead. A US official told her it was "standard operating procedure for US troops to file a spot report when they shoot a non-combatant," she said.

This last trip to Iraq, Ruzicka investigated the detention of an Iraqi woman, offering to visit the camp near Baghdad International Airport where the woman was held to check on her condition, according to her colleagues from the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), the organization she founded. She was on her way to visit an Iraqi girl injured in a bomb blast when she was killed, CIVIC said.

And she still had Rakan to save: the slight youth now lying motionless on a bed borrowed from neighbors.

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