Our Heart and Conscience
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.