Marla Ruzicka: “Bubbles of Kabul”

April 28th, 2005 - by admin

Rory Carroll / The Guardian – 2005-04-28 23:05:20,2763,1463729,00.html

(April 20, 2005) โ€” It was Christmas in Kabul and she walked into the Mustafa hotel looking like a rumpled doll. Blonde hair streaked out from a black headscarf and dust shrouded a beaten-up coat. She dumped her backpack on the floor and beamed around a lobby filled with the smell of tobacco and stewed mutton and the stares of Afghan guards and western reporters, all male. “Hi! I’m Marla!”

It was an exclamation more than a statement. This was indeed Marla, a 25-year-old Californian with no satellite phone, very little cash, a shoestring organisation and an impossible mission, but any anxieties she may have felt were concealed by a toothy grin. It was December 2001.

She had come, she said, to document civilian casualties of the recently concluded US-led campaign to oust the Taliban. She not only wanted to find them โ€” difficult enough amid lawless chaos โ€” she wanted Washington to compensate them, to take responsibility for mistakes in its post-September 11 offensive.

It was easy, at first, to patronise and belittle, and many reporters did. She gushed and fawned and giggled. Everything seemed either cool or awesome. She complained about broken nails, wondered whether the market on Chicken Street sold conditioner and asked about parties. Planet Marla was located in a parallel, ditzy universe.

After rising at 4am one morning, the hotel dark and slumbering, I was taken aback to see Bubbles, as she had been nicknamed, waiting in the corridor. “Thanks for letting me come.”

I hadn’t mentioned the trip, nor invited her, but she wedged between a colleague and me for the ride to Qalaye Niazi, a village recently attacked by American bombers on the grounds it harboured fugitive members of the Taliban and al-Qaida. The Pentagon had claimed a clean hit with no collateral damage, but amid the debris were bloodied children’s shoes, the scalp of a woman with braided grey hair, and wedding decorations. Survivors said dozens of men, women and children had died. Marla wrote it all down, asked lots of questions and returned to Kabul silent and thoughtful.

Last Saturday, almost three and a half years later, a journey which started in the Afghan winter ended on a balmy spring afternoon in Baghdad. A suicide car bomber attacked a convoy of SUVs on the airport road. Marla Ruzicka and her colleague Faiz Al Salaam, 43, were separate from the convoy but their ordinary car took the force of the blast, killing them both.

Indefatigable to the End,
Marla’s Last Words Were: ‘I’m Alive’

She had summoned the foreign press corps to a party that night at the Hamra hotel and her failure to show was our first inkling that something was wrong. The next morning the deaths were confirmed. Marla suffered burns to 90% of her body. A medic who treated her at the scene reported her last words: “I’m alive.”

Her friends, a global community since she befriended pretty much everyone she met, are stunned. There is a hush around the Hamra hotel, low-voiced huddles swapping Marla stories. The best is one that relates how she came to be taken seriously, touched countless lives and changed US policy.

Tributes have flowed. “Everyone who met Marla was struck by her incredible effervescence and commitment,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “She was courageous and relentless in pursuit of accurate information about civilians caught up in war.”

Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said it was Marla’s idea to put a special fund in last year’s foreign aid bill to compensate Iraqis whose businesses had been bombed by mistake. “Just from the force of her personality, we decided to take a chance on it.”

Leahy said $10 million was added to the foreign aid bill last year and another $10 million had been set aside for next year. A memorial will be held in Washington this week and the senator will pay tribute from the Senate floor. “I said to her father this morning: ‘A lot of people spend their whole lives and do not begin to accomplish what she’s done.'”

‘Bubbles of Kabul’
It is not difficult to reconcile Bubbles of Kabul with the human rights heroine whose face has filled newspapers and television screens during the past few days. Marla did not change. The lobbying grew more polished and sophisticated but she was as bubbly at the beginning as the end. What changed was that powerful people took notice.

She was born in Lakeport, near San Francisco, with her twin brother Mark the youngest of six children of Clifford and Nancy Ruzicka, middle-class Republicans. She was suspended for leading a school protest against the first Gulf war and as a student at Long Island University visited Cuba, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Israel, including Palestinian areas. Police carted her away when she whipped off a sarong with a protest slogan at a speech by George Bush, then governor of Texas.

On behalf of Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based advocacy group that is run by Medea Benjamin, she visited Afghanistan in 2001 to document cases of wounded and bereaved civilians. The US government was not counting them and much of the media and other human rights groups balked at visiting remote, dangerous areas to interview survivors.

Some of us called it Marla’s Mad Mission. After a break, I returned to Kabul in April 2002 and found the wide-eyed wonder of December transformed into a networking queen who knew all the journalists, peacekeepers, aid workers and politicians. She had lured Bianca Jagger to the capital.

Marla would totter around parties in heels and slinky dresses, vodka in hand, making introductions. The socialising bordered on the frenzied and sometimes ended with Marla slumped, but not before the room had been worked for anything useful for an unofficial survey which confirmed 824 dead.

The US embassy loathed Marla, not least for the day she assembled dozens of mostly Pashtun tribesmen, some bandaged and limping, in front of its walls to demand compensation. The stunt received wide coverage. Marla was becoming a media star, popping up on CNN and becoming the subject of a biography. Publicity for the cause, she said, relishing the attention.

Boyfriends came and went, but she often hinted at loneliness. In a recent online journal entry she wrote: “I am young, and new at this and developing ways to cope, but in honesty I have tried red wine a little too much for medicine, deprived myself of sleep and felt extremely inadequate.” The furious energy never abated. Lobbying, travelling, kickboxing and partying were her therapy.

The Birth of CIVIC
After Afghanistan she founded her own NGO, the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (Civic), rented an office in Washington DC and forged ties with congressmen such as Leahy. When Donald Rumsfeld testified at a Senate hearing, she engaged him on his way out and quietly made her case, figuring it would be more effective than protesting.

She was in Baghdad for the March 2003 invasion and mobilised 150 volunteers to visit hospitals and attempt to make the first proper list of people killed or injured by US forces. Their total of more than 2,000 dead formed the basis for subsequent estimates which touched 20,000. For a time, she stayed at the Guardian house before worsening security forced her and the correspondents into the Hamra hotel.

Counting became a means to gain attention and help for casualties who would otherwise be ignored. In an essay sent to Human Rights Watch shortly before she died, Marla wrote: “A number is important not only to quantify the cost of the war, but to me each number is also a story of someone whose hopes, dreams and potential will never be realised, and who left behind a family.”

Some Iraqis were bemused by the blonde who would burst from a black ankle-length abaya, worn to disguise herself as a local, hugging and kissing their children, but she won the respect of families who were given the hope of financial and medical aid.

It would not have been possible without Faiz Al Salaam, a commercial pilot with Iraq Air who had become Marla’s driver, fixer and translator. A witty, urbane man, he recently became a father and hinted at quitting his perilous sideline. Last June, Marla wrote about the airport road in her online journal: “The ride is not pleasant. Military convoys passing every moment. Faiz and I hold our breath.”

The target of Saturday’s attack appears to have been a convoy of civilian contractors who happened to be passing the couple when the bomber struck. Witnesses described the car of Faiz and Marla bursting into flames. A French national also died and six people were injured. Faiz’s relatives identified Marla’s body but have yet to retrieve his corpse, possibly because it was so badly damaged.

Friends had advised Marla against returning to Baghdad. But the 28-year-old said she needed to collect fresh stories for fundraising and so checked back into the Hamra last month, bearing cheese, chocolate and cigars for fellow guests. She knocked on the doors of the few people she did not know. “Hi! I’m Marla!”

Helping the relatives of an infant whose parents were killed when their vehicle was hit by what was believed to be an American rocket became a particular passion. She praised individual US commanders for wanting to do the right thing but complained about bureaucratic obstacles.

Last Friday, Marla left a telephone message to her parents: “Mom and Dad, I love you. I’m OK.” Her mother, Nancy, said they were worried but knew better than to tell their children to do anything. “We were supportive and just reminded her to be careful.”

At a Marla-instigated gathering that same night, her last, she was in her element, taking people aside for chats, raving about the food and promising to quit smoking any minute. To my eyes, she had not aged a day since Kabul but she batted away the remark. Something about the air in Baghdad dried the skin, she said, rubbing her temples. “Once I hit 30 I’m going to get old really quickly.” The thought struck her as funny and she laughed.

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