by CARLES BURRESS & TANYA SCHEVITZ (SF CHRONICLE)
A car bomb attack near Baghdad has killed a well-known activist from Northern California who entered war zones to record civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan and secure aid for those caught in the cross fire.
Marla Ruzicka, 28, founder of CIVIC (Campaign for Innocent Victims of Conflict) died with her driver on the Baghdad Airport road Saturday when a suicide bomber attacked a convoy of security contractors that was passing next to her vehicle, according to her family and news reports quoting U.S. Embassy officials in Iraq.
The target of the attack apparently was not Ruzicka's vehicle, said her mother, Nancy Ruzicka, who received the account from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
She was killed while traveling "to visit an Iraqi child injured by a bomb, part of her daily work of identifying and supporting innocent victims of this war," said CIVIC representative April Pedersen in a statement on the group's Web site.
Given the U.S. military's policy of not accounting for civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq, Ruzicka's work played a key role in drawing attention to the human tragedy of the war and giving the world a well- researched accounting of the cost in innocent lives.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, she worked 15-hour days going out to scenes of civilian carnage and painstakingly documenting the toll. She also struggled to obtain relief for the families of the victims.
The day before she was killed, Ruzicka left a message for her parents on their cell phone to let them know she was OK after 18 people were killed by a car bomb in Baghdad.
"She said, 'Mom and Dad, I love you. I'm safe,' " said Nancy Ruzicka. "The next day, she wasn't."
Ruzicka was supposed to come home April 4, but "she just kept finding work she wanted to do," her mother said.
Among those calling the distraught family Sunday was U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
"I just feel terrible," Leahy told The Chronicle in a telephone interview from his home outside Washington, D.C. "I told her father that most people in a lifetime would never accomplish what she has. She was only 28."
Ruzicka, in an irrepressible one-woman campaign, got Leahy's office involved in winning congressional approval of civilian aid worth $10 million in Afghanistan and $20 million in Iraq, said Leahy aide Tim Rieser.
"Marla was really the inspiration behind these programs," Rieser said. "On the surface, she doesn't seem like someone whom people in Congress would pay attention to -- vivacious, scatterbrained, losing her cell phone every 15 minutes, living out of a suitcase, having no money.
"Then you listen to her, and you realize she's the only one doing it. She's out there getting the data. She was doing something that really needed to be done but was so dangerous many people wouldn't do it."
Her death stunned the activist community in the Bay Area and beyond.
"Marla seemed to have one speed -- all-ahead-full," Kevin Danaher and Medea Benjamin, co-founders of San Francisco's Global Exchange, said in a memorial statement Sunday responding to what they called "the utter shock of losing this bright, shining light whose work focused on trying to bring some compassion into the middle of a war zone."
Ruzicka, at a very young age, showed concern for others, her mother said. During a trip to Mexico, Nancy Ruzicka said, "she wanted to spend all of her money buying Chiclets from the poor children to help them out."
Her parents learned from neighbors just how creative their daughter had become in raising money to help the disadvantaged.
"When they moved, they said, 'We are going to miss Marla coming to sell us rocks,' " Nancy Ruzicka said. "She was raising funds by selling rocks."
It was at Global Exchange, a human rights advocacy group, that Ruzicka began her activist career while still in high school.
A dozen years ago, recalled Global Exchange board member Tony Newman, "a 15-year-old blond-haired girl walked into our office and starting grabbing armfuls of our research -- leaflets, brochures, books. I had never seen anyone go in so hungry for material. She said she was going to take them back to her high school to share with others."
Newman soon found himself going to Lakeport to speak about the U.S. embargo of Cuba, a talk organized by the energetic Ruzicka, also a basketball star at Clear Lake High School.
She later saw suffering firsthand in the Middle East, Zimbabwe and Nicaragua through her work with Global Exchange and as a college student at Long Island University's Friends World program.
On a trip to Afghanistan with Global Exchange, Ruzicka "was so moved by the plight of the civilian victims that she dedicated the rest of her too- short life to helping innocent victims of war," Danaher and Benjamin said.
As she got older, her approach evolved from direct action to pragmatic cooperation. Her mother recalled an early episode when President Bush visited Sacramento during the California energy crisis.
"She mooned the president," her mother said. "The back of her underpants said, 'Public Power Now.' When she turned back around, the president looked her in the face -- he was only about a foot away -- and said, 'Cute.' "
Her parents are both Republican but have always supported their daughter and her work, they said Sunday.
"We're proud of her accomplishments," said her mother, a part-time travel agent who helped arrange discount plane tickets for her daughter. "We're going to miss her so much. She was a loving person, and she spread that love around the world in her concern for others."
Her father, Clifford Ruzicka, who runs a Lakeport civil engineering firm, is trying to help CIVIC continue the work his daughter began.
"She was doing humanitarian work," he said. "It's the plan to keep that organization viable."
Any donations in his daughter's memory are requested to go to CIVIC at P. O. Box 1189, Lakeport, CA 95453, he said.
"She was constantly meeting with families and constantly meeting with the military," said Chris Allbritton, a freelance journalist in Iraq. "She was incredibly high energy, incredibly big heart, and she really cared."
Chronicle reporter Rob Collier, who has seen Ruzicka's work abroad, described her as charming and driven, "making friends of journalists, military officers, aid workers and government officials."
Michael Shellenberger, a Bay Area friend of Ruzicka for 10 years, said, "She was trying to get a precedent set where militaries pay for civilian victims. I think there's something historic about that."
A funeral service was held at 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Mary's Church in Lakeport. A memorial service is being planned later in Washington, D.C. Chronicle staff writers Matthew B. Stannard and Cecilia Vega contributed to this report.E-mail the writers at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Noted activist for war victims killed in car bomb attack
Californian Marla Ruzicka championed humanitarian aid in Iraq
Charles Burress, Tanya Schevitz, Chronicle Staff Writers
Monday, April 18, 2005