On Saturday 28-year-old Marla Ruzicka was killed in a car bombing. She was the founder of the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict. Since the launch of the so-called war on terror, Marla spent most of her time in Iraq and Afghanistan documenting and recording the casualties of war. [includes rush transcript]
Memorial services are planned for this weekend to remember the life of 28 year-old humanitarian aid worker and activist, Marla Ruzicka. She was killed in Iraq last week by a car bomb on one of Baghdad’s most notorious roads. Her longtime Iraqi partner, Faiz Ali Salim, also died in the blast. Ruzicka was the founder of a group called Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, or CIVIC. Since the launch of the so-called war on terror, Marla spent most of her time in Iraq and Afghanistan documenting and recording the casualties of war. The day after the fall of Baghdad, she began a door-to-door investigation of civilian casualties in Iraq and formed survey teams to fan-out across the country and gather first-hand accounts from Iraqis. She continued going into Iraq even after most international aid organizations and relief agencies had pulled out. Marla took her first report to Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont who in turn sponsored unprecedented legislation to provide millions of dollars to Iraqi civilians wounded by US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The road Marla and Faiz were killed on is the same one Iraqis have to travel on to speak with US forces and to apply for compensation. In her online journal, Marla wrote last year "The ride is not pleasant. Military convoys passing every moment. Faiz and I hold our breath. Such convoys in that area are the target of rockets and fire from the resistance. It would be nice if there was a more secure location for Iraqis to seek compensation." Marla was fond of saying that numbers do count, despite the Pentagon’s claim it does not keep records of civilians killed by US forces. As Tommy Franks–the former head of US Central Command–famously said "we don’t do body counts." The week before she died, Marla may have been on the verge of proving that statement false.
She had reportedly obtained information from the U.S. military about the number of civilians killed or injured during the violence after Bush declared the end of major combat operations. She was trying to get the U.S. government to publicly release these statistics about all areas of Iraq. A memorial service will be held for Marla on Saturday in her hometown of Lakeport, California. This week she was remembered on the floor of the Senate by, among others, Sen. Patrick Leahy.
- Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi blogger and architect. His blog "Raed in the Middle" is at raedinthemiddle.blogspot.com. He worked as the director of Iraq Survey with Marla Ruzicka to collect personal information of thousands of wounded Iraqi civilians. He joins us on the line from Amman.
- Tim Rieser, aide to Democratic Senator to Patrick Leahy of Vermont. He worked closely with Marla Ruzicka to help set up a special fund in last year’s foreign aid bill to help compensate the civilian victims of the US invasion.
- Kathleen Aguilera, good friend of Marla Ruzicka as well as Campaign Director of her NGO, Campaign for Innocent Victims In Conflict.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by Leahy’s long-time aide, Tim Rieser, in Washington, D.C. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Tim.
TIM RIESER: Thank you. Welcome.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you talk about Marla Ruzicka and her effect on the legislation?
TIM RIESER: Marla came to us three years ago. She walked into my office. She had been in Afghanistan, and I really didn’t know what to think of Marla. She had been, right after the fall of the Taliban, in the middle of bombs exploding all around her, visiting families of Afghans who had lost members of their families as a result of bombs that landed in the wrong place or which were injured or killed from U.S. military mistakes, and she came to us, and said we should do something about this. We hear about these cases, but nobody ever does anything to help these people, and Senator Leahy, who had often expressed concerns about civilian victims of war and had, in fact, created a program years ago to help civilians in war, was the obvious person for her to come to, and really, that was the beginning of a relationship that lasted right to the last day of her death. I talked with Marla either by phone or through email every day for three years. And what she did for us was make it possible to hear about what was happening and to learn the facts of individual cases, and give us — give Senator Leahy what he needed to be able to then establish, in the case of Afghanistan, a program to help civilians who had either lost loved ones or had their homes destroyed or otherwise suffered losses now up to about $10 million for programs for Afghan civilian casualties, and then again in Iraq, where Marla went just the day or two after Saddam’s statue fell, and for the next two years, really risked her life every day that she was there visiting people, showing that Americans did care about what had happened to them, and again, giving us the information that we needed to be able to establish a program to assist those people. Really, the first time that I’m aware of, ever, that the United States government has in a formal way provided assistance, whether in the form of medical care or rehabilitation for someone who lost an arm or a leg or for a woman who lost her husband a loan to start a business or repairing a home that was destroyed by a bomb that missed its target. Nothing like this had ever been done before, and we could not possibly have done it had it not been for Marla out there risking her life and getting the information to us.
JUAN GONZALEZ: How unusual is it for an individual citizen to come to a United States Senator’s office and appeal to get involved in a foreign conflict like this and have such an enormous impact?
TIM RIESER: Never. I don’t know if it’s ever happened before. Marla was unique. She gave more of herself to more people than anyone I ever expect to meet, and took more risks just to help people than anyone I expect to meet. But she also learned that just protesting or being an activist in a political sense was not enough, that really, if she wanted to do something for these people, she had to find ways to work with people who could help her, and that meant the Congress, it meant the U.S. military, it meant anyone who in some way — journalists who could publicize what was happening. She was interested in one thing, and that was helping people, who had been hurt, and I don’t know of anyone in my 20 years in the Congress working for Senator Leahy who has ever done anything like that and done it so effectively as Marla.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined on the phone in addition to Tim Rieser, the aide of Senator Leahy, Raed Jarrar, who is an Iraqi blogger, one of the most well-known, an architect. His blog "Raed in the Middle" is at RaedInTheMiddle.blogspot.com. He works as director of the Iraq Survey with Marla Ruzicka to collect personal information on thousands of wounded Iraqi civilians. Joining us on the phone from Amman. Your thoughts on Marla Ruzicka. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Raed.
RAED JARRAR: Thank you, Amy. I think very sad with one of my friends here in Jordan and my Iraqi friends and all of the people that knew Marla from the time of Iraq, when we heard about her death, but none of us was really surprised because of the very bad situation inside Iraq at the moment.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break and then come back, as we talk about Marla Ruzicka, remember her, young activist in Iraq, working to count the number of Iraqi dead and help Iraqi civilians. We’re talking to Tim Rieser, who is a top aide to Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy. We’re also on the line with Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi blogger and architect who worked with Marla.
AMY GOODMAN: We are talking about Marla Ruzicka, who died in Iraq in a suicide car bombing. She died along with her Iraqi partner, who she had worked with for a long time, Faiz Ali Salim, who also died in the blast. Tim Rieser is our guest, top aide to Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy. Raed Jarrar on the line with us from Amman, a top Iraqi blogger. And we also are joined by Kathleen Aguilera, who is the head of CIVIC in this country, that’s Campaign for Innocent Victims In Conflict, which was founded by Marla. Juan.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask Raed Jarrar, in the times that you discussed and worked with Marla on the developing the count of civilian casualties, did you talk with her — I’m sure you must have, about the dangers of her continuing to go back into Iraq, and what did she feel? How did she regard those dangers?
RAED JARRAR: Can you please repeat the question? I didn’t hear it very clearly.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Did you discuss over time with Marla, especially with all the increases in kidnappings of westerners and attacks on westerners, the dangers of her continually going back into Iraq to work on the civilian support?
RAED JARRAR: Yes. Sure. In fact, when I met Marla the first time, it was maybe a week after the fall of Baghdad. And at that time, the situation was way much better than now. The security situation was better, but even at that time, the N.G.O.s that were going to Iraq used to have very complicated security [inaudible]. They didn’t move except in armored cars. And like, they had safety limits. From that time, I used to travel with Marla around the country. We went all over Iraq. We went all over the south of Iraq, all over the north with like a very small taxi car, a regular car, but she didn’t even like think about her security. She never like thought of wearing flak jacket. She just wore like an Iraqi aba’ah, thought she would be like, you know, culturally more sensitive to people there. So I mean, she was like more aware than most of the N.G.O. people in Iraq about how the danger of the security problems in Iraq, because she went and saw all of these places by herself. But she insisted on having herself being exposed mostly to Iraqis, having more private relationship with Iraqi people, because this was one of the messages that she wanted to let Iraqis receive that not all Americans are coming here with guns. Some of them are coming here to make friends and to try to fix what this war do.
AMY GOODMAN: Kathleen Aguilera, can you tell us about reaction here, and what this means to you, the death of Marla Ruzicka?
KATHLEEN AGUILERA: Sure. You know, when I met Marla, like most people, I was really impressed with the accomplishments of a woman so young, having set up the surveys in Afghanistan and Iraq and lobbied in D.C quite successfully. But you know, her real passion was in the individual case studies and the one-on-one with the people, going there to hold them in her arms and to help children in hospitals and women who had lost their homes and their entire families while they were out at market as their home was bombed, things like this. And she followed up with them. And people remembered her, and she was a shining light, and she was unstoppable. There was nobody that could stop her from going into danger and letting these people know that we, as Americans, cared. And the sessions were like therapy, because oftentimes people said to her that they know that we suffered loss in the World Trade Center, and they understand what that’s like, and they know that it’s not us, just like that wasn’t them. She basically represented the rest of us who care over here and want to help, but are either too busy or too scared or for whatever reason are unable to go to Iraq and hold the people ourselves, and it’s that sharing that is very important, and it will be missed. And, Marla was not just a saint, but she was a full person. She worked hard constantly and she also played hard, and when she was home, she rollerbladed to meetings in D.C., and she danced at fundraisers. And that’s how she will be remembered here and abroad as this, you know, the life of the party, and a humanitarian hero.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Did you discuss much with her what initially got her involved in these efforts, and what motivated her to want to dedicate her life this way?
KATHLEEN AGUILERA: She did. She has always been this way. She said she felt it in her since she was a little girl. Her mother told me that she was already getting in trouble as early as high school for protesting student rights on campus and began doing work with Global Exchange at an early age and wanting to know how she could go abroad and help. And when we brainstormed CIVIC early on, she wanted to take it worldwide. It was not going to stop in Iraq. She wanted to go wherever there is conflict, and civilian casualties that were a result. And go to show that we care and try to get money to help.
AMY GOODMAN: Kathleen Aguilera, I want to thank you for being with us, a good friend of Marla Ruzicka, as well as campaign director of her N.G.O., CIVIC, the Campaign for Innocent Victims In Conflict. Raed Jarrar, thank you for being with us from Amman, Jordan. Final comment from Tim Rieser, who worked with Marla Ruzicka to help set up a special fund in the Foreign Aid Bill to help compensate civilian victims of the U.S. invasion. Tim Rieser.
TIM RIESER: I think that the reason that those of us who knew Marla so well feel her loss so deeply and why we will miss her so much is that, as was said, that she was doing something that we all recognize was really important and needed to be done, but she was the one who was risking her life to do it, and so in a sense she was not just helping the victims of those wars, but she was also helping us. And I think that we now have a responsibility to try to continue what she started, and we now see that there really is a need to do a better job of keeping track of civilian casualties, so that we can do a better job of helping people who, as a result of our own mistakes, have suffered, innocent people, and that is what I think Senator Leahy wants to do in the future. That’s what we as a country have to do, and it’s because of Marla’s work that I think we now see the importance of it.
AMY GOODMAN: Tim Rieser, since we have you in the studio on a different issue, we wanted to ask, as you’re an aide to Vermont Senator, Patrick Leahy, your response to this latest news that his colleague in the Senate, long-time Vermont Senator, Jim Jeffords is stepping down, will not be running again. Your thoughts on this now, the discussion of Bernie Sanders possibly running, possibly the governor, Republican, Douglas, and who knows what will happen with Dr. Dean, head of the D.N.C. right now from Vermont.
TIM RIESER: Well, I can’t predict what’s going to happen next, but I think that we’re all going to miss Senator Jeffords. He was really a Vermonter in every sense. And he represented that streak of independence that Vermonters are known for, and he did it in a way that just defied political labels. Vermonters of all types thought the world of him, and he is someone who represented the state, I think, in the best of the traditions of Vermont, and he’s going to be missed. He really is. And I hope that whoever succeeds him can do so as well as he did for all Vermonters.
AMY GOODMAN: Tim Rieser, I want to thank you very much for being with us, top aide to Senator Patrick Leahy on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Also on May 3, there is going to be a national vigil for Marla Ruzicka, as well as Faiz and victims of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can get more information at the website civicworldwide.org.