The Girl Who Tried to Save The World

Marla Ruzicka dedicated her life to shining a light on the nameless victims of war, raising millions to help the world's forgotten. But the crusader from California couldn't save herself. The heroic life and final days of an American martyr

Marla Ruzicka leads a demonstration outside of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Suzanne Plunkett/AP Photo
June 16, 2005 12:00 AM ET

On the afternoon of Saturday, April 16th, Marla Ruzicka sat in her unarmored Mercedes, talking on the phone with her friend Colin McMahon, a reporter in the Baghdad bureau of the Chicago Tribune. She'd had a "great" round of meetings in the Green Zone, she told McMahon, and was just leaving the fortified compound in the hopes of squeezing in one last meeting before the end of the day. The Green Zone, which sits on the west bank of the Tigris River, used to be the heart of Saddam's empire, and now houses the U.S. Embassy, the Iraqi Parliament and other offices of the new Iraqi government. Outside of the Green Zone, in Baghdad itself, the security situation changes hourly. A route that was safe at noon could be unsafe at 1 P.M. A neighborhood that was peaceful at dawn could be in flames by lunchtime.

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A petite, blond, twenty-eight-year-old humanitarian-aid worker from Northern California, Ruzicka knew the volatility of Baghdad as well as anyone. She was virtually the only American aid worker in the Iraqi capital. She was the founder of a small nongovernmental organization called CIVIC – the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict – which assisted families whose lives had been ripped apart in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Passionate and driven, Ruzicka worked seven days a week, eighteen hours a day, driving around the city with her Iraqi colleague Faiz Ali Salim. The two spent most of their days compiling data on the number of civilian casualties in Iraq, which Ruzicka then used to lobby American officials to compensate the victims' families, often arranging for wounded children to be evacuated in order to receive medical treatment in the United States. It was revolutionary work – virtually no other aid group or worker has negotiated with the U.S. government on behalf of civilians injured in American military actions – but it was exhausting. Ruzicka, who had begun to demonstrate some of the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, was preparing to leave Baghdad the next day for a vacation in Thailand and then a long rest back in the United States. Leaving was difficult. "This place continues to break my heart," she wrote to a friend in London earlier in the month. "Need to get out of here – but hard!"

Now, talking on the phone with McMahon, Ruzicka sounded upbeat. In the past few days, she had obtained a document that was her holy grail: a detailed report showing that the U.S. military keeps its own civilian-casualty records, something the Pentagon has repeatedly denied.

Ruzicka's methodology, on behalf of Iraq's war victims, often involved a lot of cajoling of high-level brass at Camp Victory, the military headquarters near the Baghdad International Airport. To get there, she had to drive on the notorious airport road, one of the most dangerous thoroughfares in the world. It is a frequent site of suicide bombings, ambushes and other insurgent attacks. It's also an efficient route, connecting central Baghdad to points west.

The airport road is banked on both sides by housing complexes, heavily populated by people with military training and access to weapons. Ironically, it was once the most secure road in Iraq, as Saddam's particular brand of paranoia forced him to place guards at every overpass and exit. Today, it is the key military and contractors' supply route, which makes it one of the most high-value targets in Iraq, despite several U.S. military checkpoints. There are rules for driving on the airport road, the most important one being: Never get stuck behind a U.S. convoy, which is a suicide bomber's prime target. But this can be difficult, as security contractors, who drive in convoys of armored SUVs, fly down the highway at 90 mph.

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McMahon assumed Ruzicka was meeting with some Iraqi victims in Baghdad. But he never asked where she was going, and Ruzicka didn't offer any information. "I think it'll be fine," she told him breezily at the end of their brief phone call. Then she hung up. McMahon went back to work.

The Tribune office was at the Al Hamra hotel, where Ruzicka lived. The Hamra is the major journalist hangout in Baghdad and has an otherworldliness about it that gives some people a false sense of safety. A white, two-tower complex, it has a sweeping outdoor patio and a beautiful pool: long, cerulean blue and clean. On warm nights, journalists ranging from the most senior correspondents of Time to the lowliest stringer can be found doing laps in the pool, or having drinks or dinner on the patio. Every so often, a few tracer bullets from an AK-47 fly overhead like miniature bottle rockets, with clean, arcing trajectories, a piercing reminder of the danger and chaos so close at hand.

Marla Ruzicka was planning to host a party at the Hamra that night. Her all-night bacchanals of salsa dancing and heavy drinking were famous among the overworked, underexcited journalists in Baghdad. The party she'd planned for the night of April 16th promised to be "totally Marla," as one of her friends told me. The patio would be full, the music would be pumping. Several people might hook up, quite a few would jump in the pool and a lot might pass out – the first one being Marla herself.

It was after eight o'clock when McMahon, still working, saw his colleague James Janega at the Tribune's office at the Hamra. Janega had been down on the patio, waiting for the party. "It's pretty boring, just about ten guys sitting around by the pool," he told McMahon. Marla, he added, hadn't shown up yet.

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"She's not here yet?" Ruzicka would never be late to one of her own parties. In the next few hours, there would be frantic phone calls to sources and friends all over Baghdad, but no one had heard from Ruzicka. "The worst fear was that she'd been kidnapped," says McMahon. He imagined the pretty aid worker pleading for her life in front of insurgent cameras.

What happened to Marla Ruzicka was no less tragic but far more mundane. At approximately three o'clock in the afternoon, Ruzicka and Faiz were heading east on the airport road, toward Baghdad. Also on the road were a U.S. military convoy and a convoy of private security contractors. From a nearby on-ramp, a suicide bomber merged into the traffic, most likely gunning for the military convoy, which he missed. Instead, he detonated beside his next best choice, the security convoy. Behind them was a Mercedes.

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