By Catherine Philp
Nine years ago in the bright Kabul spring, I met a young woman called Marla Ruzicka. She was hard to miss, with her wild blonde hair and animal pyjamas peeking out from the hem of her long kameez.
She was harder still to miss the morning she marched to the gates of the American Embassy with astonished, emboldened Afghan families by her side, to demand compensation and apologies for their loved ones lost in American military action.
The term “civilian casualties” is so commonplace now it is hard to remember a time before when armies spoke coldly of “collateral damage.” The belief that America should help those it hurt in war is now so much a part of counter-insurgency ethos it is hard to recall how revolutionary an act it was that Marla undertook that day.
At the gates of the American Embassy in Kabul, Marla sowed the seeds of the organization that survives to this day, Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC).
Six years ago, on a Sri Lankan shore, I was woken by a call from Baghdad telling me that Marla was dead. She and her Iraqi colleague, Fais, had been killed by a suicide bomber on Baghdad’s lethal airport road. The loss felt incalculable.
As her friends grappled with our grief, we wondered how her work could possibly survive without her unique brand of compassion, drive and near lunacy.
Barely more than a one-woman outfit, CIVIC had powerful friends who had helped it achieve astonishing successes, like compensation by the US military for civilian casualties in Iraq. But it was by no means clear that the mission could survive without the woman who conceived it behind it.
Survive it did. Marla’s dedication had sowed the seeds of her cause so deeply even her death could not dislodge them. The $20 million pledged by Congress during her lifetime to help war victims in Iraq and Afghanistan has swelled today to $166 million and expanded to victims in Pakistan.
The cause she pressed on the US government has been taken up by NATO, which last year approved its first formal compensation policy for Afghan war victims. As part of their training, Afghan soldiers learn about “Making Amends,” a CIVIC-created programme laying out proper and appropriate procedures in the event of civilian casualties.
Pakistan’s government recently came on board too, approving compensation for the victims of drone strikes after a groundbreaking year-long survey of civilian casualties there by CIVIC, much like the one Marla embarked on in Afghanistan nine years ago.
Marla’s greatest strength as an advocate was her unfailing vision. She believed that the impossible could happen, even if it took a little while. Six years after her passing, I can only wonder what she would think of the way her simple revolutionary idea has taken root around the globe. She would giggle, I think, and throw her head back in delight that the world proved itself the compassionate place she always believed it to be.