But Ruzicka was restless in San Francisco, particularly after September 11th, 2001. Six weeks after the war in Afghanistan was launched, she accepted Medea Benjamin's invitation to visit Afghan refugee camps in Peshawar, Pakistan. Benjamin describes it as a highly emotional experience. One little girl, Benjamin recalls, told them that her mother had died in a U.S. air strike, and her father was now mute, leaving her in charge of her brothers and sisters: "We were all devastated, crying. Marla was horrified by what had happened to this girl."
When Benjamin returned to San Francisco, Ruzicka stayed. "She said, 'I want to go in.' And we said, 'Great, get us some stories of civilian victims,'" says Benjamin. A few days later, as the Taliban fell, Ruzicka hitched a ride over the border to Afghanistan with a group of journalists. She was twenty-four.
For the rest of her life, Marla Ruzicka would refer to Afghanistan as "my favorite place on the planet." It's a common sentiment among those who've worked there. "There's never been a place like Afghanistan. It's a land apart," says Jon Swain, a veteran correspondent for the London Sunday Times. In November 2001, Afghanistan was a country utterly devastated by war. What Marla Ruzicka saw there would change her life.
Swain met Ruzicka in a Jalalabad guest-house just before Thanksgiving. "I couldn't believe she was even twenty-four," he says.
"Hi!" she said, buoyantly striding up to the middle-aged war correspondent. "You look tired. Do you need a massage?"
Within minutes, a dumbstruck Swain was on the floor of his room with Ruzicka pounding his back. He looked up to see virtually all of the Afghan men peering into the room with their faces pressed against the glass door. "They must have thought, 'What do these Westerners get up to?'" Swain says. "'They've just met, and a few minutes later he's getting a massage?'"
During the next few days, Swain took Ruzicka around Jalalabad, where they examined the collateral damage of the U.S. bombing campaign. At a Jalalabad hospital that was receiving many of the wounded from Tora Bora, Ruzicka saw scores of civilians, many of them children, whose limbs had been blown off by U.S. cluster bombs.
After a short trip back to San Francisco, Ruzicka returned to Afghanistan, moved by her experiences in Jalalabad to find out exactly how many civilians had been hurt in the war. She arrived just before Christmas; dressed in a dusty old coat, she made her way to the Mustafa Hotel, the central staging ground for the grizzled, largely allmale crowd of Western journalists in Afghanistan. The Taliban had fallen, and Kabul had begun to enjoy what would later become a full-scale post-apocalyptic renaissance. Armed with a backpack, a few thousand dollars (most of it borrowed from friends and family in San Francisco) and a vague mission to help work on "human rights" issues pertaining to Afghanistan's civilian victims, Ruzicka was the most untraditional aid worker anyone had ever seen.
To begin with, "she looked about sixteen," remembers Pamela Constable, a reporter for the Washington Post. She also acted that way, padding around the Mustafa in pajamas with little cartoon animals on them. She giggled and fawned over the awe-struck men who hung all over her, and, given that she had almost no money, often went room to room at the Mustafa, offering back rubs in exchange for a meal or a place on someone's floor.
Aid workers are a serious, sometimes overearnest bunch, who usually arrive in war zones armed with degrees from top universities, hefty expense accounts and heavy-duty SUVs. Ruzicka didn't even have a satellite phone or flak jacket. Jennifer Abrahamson, who worked as a spokeswoman for the U.N. World Food Program, met her in March 2002. "You couldn't miss her," says Abrahamson, who is now a writer in New York. "She had this enormous Pakistani jacket on, and her hair was all over the place." The next time Abrahamson saw Ruzicka was a few weeks later; she was handing out fliers advertising her upcoming "prom" party. Ruzicka had by then become Kabul's social director and party planner. The press corps dubbed Ruzicka "Bubbles."
In ad-hoc, postwar Afghanistan, Ruzicka had found a perfect mission: No one, including the U.S. military, was counting the number of civilian casualties. It was too time-consuming, often dangerous and, from the military's perspective, unnecessary. Working with a few Afghan colleagues, Ruzicka went from village to village, and hospital to hospital, interviewing witnesses. She was at times so overwhelmed by their tragedies, she'd empty her pockets to help them. But over time, she honed her technique so effectively that the press started following her. On one memorable occasion, in April 2002, Ruzicka assembled a group of Afghans – "mostly Pashtun tribesmen, some bandaged and limping," one journalist later wrote – at the gates of the U.S. Embassy, and, with the media in tow, demanded compensation for them. Ruzicka's demonstration was written up in papers around the world, including the New York Times.
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