This week marks the eighteenth anniversary of the tragic passing of our founder, Marla Ruzicka. Remembering her bravery and compassion as well as honoring her legacy is even more special as Center for Civilians in Conflict turns 20 years old later this year.
In 2003, Marla’s determination to address the needs of civilians living in armed conflict situations led her to found the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) which later became Center for Civilians in Conflict.
As the US invaded Iraq in March 2003, Marla traveled to Baghdad to continue bringing attention to the plight of civilians in Iraq and to the fact that civilian casualties were not being recorded by the US military at the time.
Marla urged the US to recognize the dignity and rights of civilians by offering compensation for the families of victims affected by the war.
Ruzicka and CIVIC’s staff, which were nearly all local volunteers, worked to identify victims individually, went door to door gathering detailed information about the circumstances of their injury, their personal lives, and the impact of the war on them.
“This information was widely viewed as some of the most accurate data about the condition of civilians and helped put a human face on their suffering. Its reliability made it possible for many civilian victims to receive compensation,” writes Human Rights Watch in a tribute to Marla following her death.
Marla was killed on April 16, 2005, when a suicide car bomber, driving next to her vehicle on the road between Baghdad and the international airport, detonated his bomb. Marla’s vehicle was not the target, yet she and her Iraqi colleague Faiz Ali Salim were killed. She was 28 years old. Faiz was 43.
Today and everyday, CIVIC’s staff, friends, and supporters continue to carry on her work and vision.
We strongly believe that civilians in conflict must be protected. Under no circumstances should they be targeted and they must never be viewed as collateral damage.
A few days before her death, Marla sought to explain the significance of her work and why documenting civilian harm could make her difference in realizing the impact war and conflict have on innocent families and individuals: “A number is important not only to quantify the cost of the war, but to me each number is also a story of someone whose hopes, dreams and potential will never be realized, and who left behind a family.”
“A number is important not only to quantify the cost of the war, but to me each number is also a story of someone whose hopes, dreams and potential will never be realized, and who left behind a family.”
Marla had a bubbly and approachable personality. She made friends wherever she went. One of her friends and journalist, Rachel Levin, once wrote that Marla “made the war zones bearable and was perhaps one of the most selfless and fearless women I have known.” Her death shocked all who knew her. Today, a few of them have joined us in remembering Marla.
This is how they remember Marla:
Jennifer Abrahamson, Author of Sweet Relief: The Marla Ruzicka Story
“There will be lots of tributes about Marla’s larger-than-life compassion, energy, tenacity, fearlessness, and of course, her legendary effervescence and scrappy charm. Her breathtaking contributions to policies and programs that protect the lives, rights and dignity of ordinary people caught in the crosshairs of war. They are all true. She was a superwoman. As extraordinary as she was, Marla would also want this generation of humanitarians and human rights champions to know that she was not superhuman. Her limitless humanity was grounded in the fact that she was incredibly human.
Marla laughed, and loved and of course, always enjoyed throwing a good party. But she also battled personal demons and insecurities that could at times be crippling. Despite this, or maybe because of this, she persevered. No matter what she was struggling with internally, she stayed focused, pushing those with power and influence to do better for humankind. But not everyone took her seriously at first.
I am embarrassed to say, I initially also had my doubts. We had our first conversation on a brittle wintry day in Kabul in March 2002. I was a young spokeswoman for the World Food Program greeting reporters arriving for a press briefing inside the fortified UN compound. I was the new kid in town and was relieved when Marla bounced up beside me, wearing her fur-lined Afghan vest and a toothy smile. She gave journalists hand-written flyers and a good amount of flattery as they filed in. She said ‘dude!’ a lot and pealed with raspy giggles as she urged them to attend her own press briefing, on civilian casualties, that she was hosting at whichever media house she was crashing at that week. We chatted. I learned she grew up on the same lake where I spent my summers as a child, a small, remote town in rural California. I didn’t know what to make of her, but like almost everyone who met her, soon fell under her spell personally. I had no idea how groundbreaking she would soon become.
In the summer of 2002, Marla and I both found ourselves back in San Francisco. I joined her at the Baobab, a trendy West African restaurant and bar in the Mission District. She was holding a fundraiser for anyone who would listen. She brandished large photos printed of the women and children and men who had lost homes and limbs and loved ones in Afghanistan. She told their stories. The crowd was transfixed and deeply moved. She pocketed a few dollars to help her continue her one-woman campaign, and then of course, we made friends at the bar and took a spin on the dance floor. From the outside, it looked like she didn’t have a care in the world.
But Marla’s heart and mind were never far from the Afghan families, and later the Iraqi families. As we parted ways on the street out front, she blurted, “I think I’m gonna go to D.C. and start my own organization.’ She was 25 years old. I laughed and said something along the lines of Right, oh sure you are. Good luck with that!
The rest is history. I was awe-struck by how wrong I had been, at what she had accomplished in Washington and Iraq over the next couple of years. In the last months of Marla’s life, she and I began collaborating on her memoir. She saw it as a tool to raise awareness and maybe even funds for CIVIC. While finishing the book a year after she was killed, I realized that her life story is the ultimate advocacy blueprint. She was exceptionally human, just like all of us.
Marla would want today’s rising human rights defenders and campaigners and leaders to know that if she could do it, so can they. Step outside of the boundaries of conformity, get uncomfortable, learn, pivot. Just don’t give up. Even when you’re not taken seriously. Even when you know the fight will be hard.
Marla would be so proud of all the CIVIC has become. She would have thrown an enormous party when the Department of Defense set up an office dedicated to civilian casualties of US warfare; she had once told me that her dream was just that. But the next day, she’d get out of bed, and start all over again.”
Dion Nissembaum, Middle East Correspondent for the Wall Street Journal
“I met Marla in California before she went to Afghanistan and Iraq. I was working there as a journalist and met her through a mutual friend when she was working as a local activist.
By chance, I ran into her in Baghdad in 2003 at the Hamra Hotel shortly after the fall of the city to US forces. The Hamra was a small hotel that was just becoming a new refuge for unembedded journalists to live and work. At the time, Marla was couch surfing and staying with various journalist friends at the hotel. Things were still quite chaotic, with looting taking place across the city, but the Hamra became a gathering spot for journalists and aid workers. The Hamra offered spartan food and services, but it also had a pool that became a gathering spot. I remember Marla organizing an impromptu salsa night at the pool while I was there, which brought an unusual and unexpected bit of levity to the hotel and helped create a sense of community for us. It was a tense and grim time, because that was when a ‘Boston Globe’ reporter, [Elizabeth Neuffer], and her Iraqi colleague, were killed.
Marla was a unique soul who showed that one determined person can make a long-lasting difference. She managed to win over cynical politicians and warm the hearts of the most pessimistic policymakers.”
Marc Garlasco, Military Advisor at PAX Protection of Civilians
“I met Marla on May 5, 2003 while in Basrah where I was investigating civilian casualties for Human Rights Watch during that Iraq war. I wrote in my diary that night: “I met Marla tonight – an energetic and very positively focused 26yr old who has started her own NGO. She calls it “CIVIC” and works to get people what they need. She went to Afghanistan last year on her own and got a $10K grant this year to work in Iraq. People like her amaze me with their desire and drive. Looks like I’m working for her now – LOL – she has plans…”
It took Marla’s plans some two decades to be realized but I’ve seen it happen firsthand. I was there when the organization was just her couch surfing to get by and I have seen it grow into a force. I work almost every day with CIVIC, and I’m also a donor as I’m on the Board of the Countess Moira Charitable Foundation. I see the deep respect militaries and policy makers have for the team at CIVIC. Marla’s dream of the US military having a unified policy on civilian harm is finally becoming a reality twenty years after she started as the United States implements the Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan. The plan owes much of its content and success to the tenacious team at CIVIC that has helped advise the Pentagon and advocate for change. When implemented the plan will save lives and provide ways to respond to the harm that happens in war. The concept of mitigating and responding to civilian harm – something Marla initiated – is even starting to see acceptance at the UN, NATO, and with other militaries.
Looking back, it’s not hard to believe that energetic woman I met so many years ago started this movement to recognize and respond to civilians in conflict. She had an energy you couldn’t help but be enthralled by. Before Marla there wasn’t even a thought that militaries have responsibility for the harm they cause. Now it is an expectation. I know she would be proud of how CIVIC has grown and turned her dream into a reality. Looking forward I’m sure she would say, “good,” take a deep breath and say, “there’s more work to do.” I know CIVIC will rise to the challenge because Marla built a foundation that continues to grow in the service of others. Marla Ruzika was a force to be reckoned with and we are all better for her short, bright time on Earth.”
If you, too, met Marla or are a friend of hers and want to share a memory of her, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo of Marla with grandmother and grandchild in Iraq is courtesty of J.B. Russell.