Iraq. Afghanistan. The names conjure up images of bombs, burkas and – blondes?
Up until April 2005, the war-torn countries had their very own blonde heroine, 28-year-old Marla Ruzicka, who traveled door to door collecting stories and securing aid for the victims and families of U.S. air strikes.
The 5-foot 3-inch California girl first journeyed to Afghanistan six weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, and just before her 25th birthday, with the San Francisco based human-rights group Global Exchange.
Almost four years later, on April 16, 2005, she died on a Baghdad road from a suicide car bomb.
“Young, blonde, relentlessly buoyant and sometimes giggly, she stood out among the tired, cynical hacks and aid workers that usually populate war zones,” wrote Simon Robinson, who crossed paths with Ruzicka in both Kabul and Baghdad and wrote an article for Time magazine about her after her death.
A recently published biography of Ruzicka’s life, Sweet Relief, gives insight into the world of a daring, successful and incredibly driven young woman who took it upon herself to personally tally the number of civilian casualties in the war-torn countries of Iraq and Afghanistan, something even the U.S. military did not do.
“Marla was a one-woman phenomenon . she showed that just one person can make an amazing difference,” said Sarah Holewinski, executive director of the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict. Ruzicka founded the organization in 2003 and it continues to thrive as the only group to focus solely on war victims.
“At first, she [Ruzicka] was an anti-war activist, but then she went to Afghanistan and saw the hospitals and children with limbs missing and shrapnel in their eyes.and decided it wasn’t about the war anymore, but rather what happens after the war has already begun,” Holewinski said.
Ruzicka’s attitude of confidence, idealism, naivet? and savvy, as she is described by her many friends and peers, made the difference between wanting change and making it happen. In her too short of a life, she proved that just because she didn’t look the part, didn’t mean she couldn’t accomplish big things.make that really big things.
Aside from founding her own human rights group, she also worked on U.S. policy with the help of Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. Together, said Holewinski, they secured $14 million to Afghanistan and at least $38 million to Iraq.
In order to gather reports of victims and families of casualties to bring back to Washington, Ruzicka had to travel outside of the Green Zone, the area in Baghdad secured by the U.S. military.
“You couldn’t talk to Iraqis in the Green Zone,” said Sam Zarifi, Ruzicka’s friend and the director of Asia research at Human Rights Watch.
“When she spoke with Iraqis or Afghans, she managed to win their trust, despite being an unlikely creature in their midst. They could tell she was very sincere. She went in and told people she would get help and she did,” he said.
Ruzicka’s interest in humanitarian work blossomed early in her small town of Lakeport, Calif.
In eighth grade, while other kids played Nintendo and watched the Cosby show, “Marla, a budding activist,” wrote Janet Reitman in Rolling Stone, “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.”
At age 17 she began her association with Global Exchange and then moved on to college at Long Island University as a participant in the school’s Friend’s World program.
School took Ruzicka everywhere from Costa Rica to Zimbabwe, where she met her soon-to-be husband, Phillip Machingura. “A move,” Reitman wrote, “many people in Ruzicka’s life insist was a green-card marriage.”
Machingura denies this, and additional reports claim the two separated, but remained close and never divorced.
Zarifi remembers a conversation with the young activist about ‘Why men suck.’
“Because I was married I was like an older brother,” Zarifi said of his relationship with Ruzicka. “She was prone, like many people her age, to loneliness. She wanted a relationship, but either had no luck, or bad judgment.”
Heartache and romance troubles – she was human after all.
In fact, Ruzicka’s humanity revealed itself in more than just matters of the heart; the humanitarian activist was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and anorexia.
Despite her illnesses, Ruzicka continued to thrive and find success with the help of therapy, medication and support from her friends and family.
“The thing about Marla was that you always got the full effect,” her friend Colin McMahon, foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, wrote in an e-mail interview.
“She did not hold back. Happy, sad, excited, angry, generous or spiteful, she let it all out. And I loved that in her. She was charming and entertaining and infuriating,” he wrote.
Apart from her role as a dedicated humanitarian aid, Ruzicka also dedicated herself to the social scene, as the main entertainer for the weary journalists and human rights workers.
“She would rent a house for a day, arrange food and drink and then fire off e-mails to friends and colleagues inviting us to a celebration that sometimes ended with a display of her enviable salsa-dancing skills,” Robinson wrote.
To get an idea of how many people the young woman touched in her short life, Reitman reported 600 mourners in attendance at her funeral in Lakeport, Calif.; memorial services in New York, Washington, Baghdad, Kabul and San Francisco; and Leahy calling her, “as close to a living saint as they come,” on the Senate floor.
“Typically, there was a pattern when people responded to Marla,” Zarifi said. “The first reaction is surprise, at this young girl calling everyone ‘dude’ and giving everyone hugs. Next, was dismissal due to whatever; her age, gender, the way she talked to people.and finally, came recognition and incredible respect.”
Despite her passing, respect and recognition of Ruzicka and her work continues to grow through her organization, as does the pain and suffering she worked so hard to resolve.
Holewinski urges college students to read the book, check out the CIVIC Web site and get involved. “Just getting the word out, hosting parties, vigils, set up a panel,” she said listing many ways to volunteer.
And while she cannot speak for her late friend and fellow activist, she believes Ruzicka would impart the following advice to those struggling to find a path in life: “Figure out what you’re passionate about and go and do it. No holds barred.”