Our Heart and Conscience

Even now, I have a hard time believing that she’s gone. Marla Ruzicka died Saturday, April 16 when a suicide car bomber blew up his car next to hers in an apparent attack on a nearby civilian convoy on Airport Road in Baghdad. She was 28.

Getty photographer Chris Hondros, Marla Ruzicka and me in Baghdad last summer
Getty photographer Chris Hondros, Marla Ruzicka and me in Baghdad last summer

BAGHDAD — Even now, I have a hard time believing that she’s gone.

Marla Ruzicka died Saturday, April 16 when a suicide car bomber blew up his car next to hers in an apparent attack on a nearby civilian convoy on Airport Road in Baghdad. She was 28.

Marla was a friend of mine here in Baghdad. She was a matchmaker, a social hub and the heart of our journo-tribe, both here and in Afghanistan, although she wasn’t a journalist. She was known and loved — sometimes through gritted teeth, admittedly — by the majority of Baghdad, it seems. Everyone knew Marla.

That’s because Marla made it her business to be known. She was tireless and ubiquitous in her work, which was to get compensation for Iraqi victims of war from the U.S. military. She confronted, cajoled, flirted with and — more often than not — convinced generals, diplomats and politicians that Iraqi civilians were worthy of remembrance and that the U.S. had a responsibility to the families of those killed or injured by American munitions.

It was hard work. Every day, she was out, with her driver/translator and country coördinator Faiz Ali Salim, meeting families and diplomats, generals and journalists, working everyone to help these families. She had a hurricane energy to her and a radiant goodness that could knock you down and leave your head spinning. I often imagined the first contact she had with Iraqi families who needed help, and how bewildered they must have been by this pretty, loud and enormously kind American woman who swooped into their lives in a black abaya and face-splitting grin. Bewildered at first, yes, but quickly grateful, and as much in love and in awe of her as any of us who knew her for more than a short time. While she leaves behind a group of friends among the westerners here in Baghdad, she leaves behind a huge extended family of Iraqis who took her in. I saw it myself last summer when I was thinking of pitching a feature on her to New York magazine. I went with her to the home of a family who had lost a daughter in a U.S. bombing. The men hovered around for her protection and gazed at her adoringly. The women of the family swept her up in warm embraces, almost causing her to disappear in the flurry of abayas. The children sat at her feet or played with her blonde hair. Then, the old matriarch told her about how the paperwork was going and asked her about a lawyer in Jordan who was trying to convince the family to take him on as their attorney.

I don’t know what happened with their case because the story never panned out. She was leaving Baghdad and I got busy and with other things. Now I wish I’d pushed harder so that more people might have known about her when she was doing her work instead of the current rush of newspaper epitaphs.

Because what Marla was doing was important and necessary. The night before she died, at one of her thrown-together parties, she said she was staying in Baghdad longer than she had originally planned because she was close to establishing that the military kept records on civilian deaths in Iraq, despite military statements that such records don’t exist. She had personally verified about 2,000 casualties through painstaking casework, although she knew these were just the tip of the iceberg. Through the strength of her personality, she persuaded U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy to push $17.5 million in compensation funds through Congress.

For journalists here, she was our little sister, our masseuse at parties and sometimes our project. For all her energy and good work, she was troubled, telling me over dinner one night about her anxieties and battles with depression. Her mood roller-coasted between mania and tears, and we often felt protective, but also sometimes impatient. Marla, go home; it’s so hard on you — and us, I remember thinking selfishly. I felt this was not the place for DIY therapy, for saving oneself by helping others.

But I think now I was wrong. She helped so many and she was so loved. She died doing exactly what she was born to do, and thousands are grateful to her. Thousands were saved by her. And what have we, the journalists who took her in, done? Compared to the beautiful, sad pixie, most of us are dwarves.

She was so many things to so many people, but for the journalists who knew and loved her she was, ultimately, our heart and our conscience.

We realized something was wrong Saturday when she missed her own party that was to mark the social “coming out” of the Hamra Hotel pool. Some photographers, including Scott Nelson, who is donating any sales of his photos of her to a fund for her families, and me sat around cracking jokes and talking about our friend.

“Every war needs a Marla,” Scott said, referring to her zest for life, compassion, sense of fun and passion for helping people.

“Every war has a Marla,” I said. “It’s Marla.”

Two hours later, we found out she was dead.

Any donations are requested to go to her organization CIVIC at P. O. Box 1189, Lakeport, CA 95453.

Rumsfeld comes to Iraq… Again

Rumsfeld comes to Baghdad to warn against corruption and cronyism, but his real agenda sends the irony meter off the charts.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s “visit to Baghdad”:http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/12/international/middleeast/12cnd-rumsfeld.html today to talk about cronyism and corruption was really about American concerns

that Iraq could fall prey to political purges motivated by religion, ethnicity, tribal or political affiliations that could upset the careful balance being built.

Right. What Rummy is _really_ warning against is radical de-Ba’athification, “which is in the air these days”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/000868.php. (Click that link, please?)
Despite American proconsul L. Paul Bremer’s orders in May 2003 to dissolve the Ba’ath Party and sweep them into the dustbin of history, America now finds itself in need of many of those guys it threw out in the street two years ago. Former Ba’athists fill top leadership spots in the new Iraqi Army and in the Interior Ministry, among other positions. Education and Health ministries are full of ex-Ba’athists.
In other words, the United States, which spent billions of dollars and lost more than 1,500 soldiers to topple Saddam’s Ba’athist regime, is now warning the new regime headed by religious Shi’ite Ibrahim al-Jafari not to get rid of all of the Ba’athists.
Ironic, no?
It’s actually not a bad idea to keep some of the old guard around, as long as they’re loyal and don’t have blood on their hands. But the Shi’ites are circling and the guys who were party members before the war are getting nervous. So is the Defense Department, which doesn’t want to have to start over — again — two years after the war with a whole new cast of characters in the Iraqi chain of command to train.

Notification problem solved

Hello everyone, and sorry for the mass emailing. I think I’ve fixed the notification problem, but, as you see, things look a bit _different_ at the moment.

Hello everyone, and sorry for the mass emailing. I think I’ve fixed the notification problem, but, as you see, things look a bit _different_ at the moment. That’s because I was forced to completely reinstall “MoveableType”:http://www.moveabletype.org and use default templates. I should be back to the style you know and (hopefully) love in a little while.
A bit about the new notification features. Now, when I post something, the notifications will go out automatically. You will receive an email with links to a page that will allow you to manage your subscription(s). You can choose to have just the new entries sent to you, the comments only, or both.
You can also now subscribe to individual entries and their comments, so if you’re in an engaging conversation, subscribe to a single entry and you’ll get an email whenever someone pipes up.
Again, you can change your options on your subscriptions management page. You can even opt-out and remove yourself now. So no need to send me an email to me to take care of that for you. Decentralization is grand, no?
If you’re not subscribed to B2I at all, you can subscribe using the “Subscribe” (duh) field to the right.
I hope you like the new features, and please let me know what you think!

The Road Ahead

It’s been a heady — and bumpy — two months for Iraq, which finally got a new president and prime minister last week when Jalal Talabani, a Kurd and Ibrahim al-Jafari, a religious Shi’ite, accepted their respective positions. But serious challenges remain as to how to bring Sunnis into the political process and how to deal with the Ba’ath Party’s legacy.

Enough with the Pope already! Back to Iraq.
It’s been a heady — and bumpy — two months for Iraq, which finally got a new president and prime minister last week when Jalal Talabani, a Kurd and Ibrahim al-Jafari, a religious Shi’ite, accepted their respective positions. But serious challenges remain as to how to bring Sunnis into the political process and how to deal with the Ba’ath Party’s legacy.
At stake is not just whether Iraqi lawmakers can stick to the ambitious deadline of Aug. 15 for a new constitution and two elections by the end of the year. Just as important is what role and how much influence Sunni Arabs will have in the parliament and the new Iraq: Will they be trusted to hold real positions of power, or will they be relegated to largely symbolic posts?

Continue reading “The Road Ahead”

Thoughts on John Paul II

There are thousands of Catholics in Iraq, and the death of Pope is affecting them deeply. Already feeling under siege and driven from their native land, the death of a man who tried to bridge the differences all the Abrahamic faiths is yet another blow to be endured.

BAGHADAD—I have nothing really to add about the death of the Pope. I’m not Catholic. But I do think he did much to modernize the institutions of the papacy, worked tirelessly for the poor and proved you didn’t need armored battalions to battle Communism. However, I disagreed strongly with his positions on abortion, birth control, homosexuality, whether priests can marry and the role of women in the church. However, as I said: I’m not Catholic, so the latter two are not big on my list of concerns.

But there are thousands of Catholics in Iraq, and the death of Pope is affecting them deeply. Already feeling under siege and driven from their native land, the death of a man who tried to bridge the differences of the Abrahamic faiths is yet another blow to be endured.

Today, the mass at St. Joseph for the Syriac Church in Baghdad will be for the Pope, as masses all over the world will be. (The Syriac Catholic church observes eastern rites, and they conduct their mass in Syriac and Arabic, but follow the teachings of Rome, having returned to the fold in 1781. Other Catholics loyal to Rome in Iraq include Roman Catholics and Chaldean-Assyrians.)

I spoke with Father Pious Qasha, the priest at St. Joseph’s, yesterday about the Pope, as he is one of the few Iraqi clergymen to have met the pontiff several times. (The first time was in 1978.)

“He was one of the greatest Popes to come to the Church,” the priest said as he served tea and sweets in his small office. A black and white television was tuned to CNN and he glanced at it as he spoke every few seconds. “He suffered under the Nazis, and he struggled with Communists in Russia and wars between Israel and the Arabs. Also, he was against the war in Iraq.”

This point alone endeared him to thousands of Iraqis—of all religions.

“The most beautiful thing that he did in his life,” Father Qasha continued, “is in each country he visited, whether it was Christian or otherwise, was to kiss the land. It was a sign of love and respect, and he showed love and respect for Islam when he kissed the Holy Qur’an.” (I would link to something about this, but most of the things on Google are from Christians calling john Paul II a sellout or a whore for doing so. I think it was a powerful gesture towards respect for all faiths.)

Father Qasha didn’t want to speculate on the future of the Church in Iraq following the death of John Paul II, because when I spoke with him the Pope was still alive. But Christians of all creeds are leaving because of increased persecution by Muslims angry over the occupation who view the Christians as co-religionists.

But Christians do have allies among Muslims here in Iraq. Two of my staff, both fairly typical Shi’ites, spent two hours last night telling me how sorry they were the Pope was dead, and that they revered him for his piety and respected him for his work in the world. The word “brother” was often used to refer to him. And in my time here in Iraq, I have come across many Muslims who look at Christians as their older brothers, who respect them, who like them and want to protect them. That two Iraqi Muslims, who have suffered wars, sanctions and other ills partly at the hands of a largely Christian superpower, can look beyond all that and still take time to offer consolations to me, a non-Catholic… Well, despite the harm done here in name of God, by Islamic jihadis and—in a different way—Christian soldiers, I think my friends’ concern says a great deal about the appeal of John Paul II, and the role of faith in beating back the darkness of complete barbarity.