The Girl Who Tried to Save The World

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One group Ruzicka was not impressing was Global Exchange, which had given her money to conduct her survey and was waiting for the results. Medea Benjamin says, "We didn't really know what she was doing." Benjamin claims that she sent Ruzicka roughly $20,000 to pay Afghan surveyors and cover other expenses (a claim Ruzicka's friends are skeptical of, given that Ruzicka was always broke), but when the data arrived, in a FedEx package from Kabul, it was weeks overdue and also a mess. "It was a bunch of pieces of paper and some photos, and nothing you could call a comprehensive survey," says Benjamin.

On Benjamin's beckoning, Ruzicka returned to San Francisco in early May, depressed, moody and overall "not in a good space," according to Benjamin. Markedly thinner than she'd been in San Francisco, she told her family it was because of the Afghan food – Ruzicka, a vegetarian, said it was "full of grease." But Machingura thought something was wrong. "I remember asking her, 'What's up with you?' And she was like, 'Am I really that thin?' And I said, 'You're Ally McBeal thin.'"

"I could tell she felt like she didn't really belong in San Francisco anymore," says Jennifer Abrahamson, who saw Ruzicka shortly after they had both returned from Kabul. She seemed to be having a hard time settling back into ordinary American life, frequently saying how much she wanted to go back to Afghanistan. Drink in hand, Ruzicka told Abrahamson that night that she wanted to start her own organization that could put pressure on the American government to take responsibility for the civilians they hurt in the war. "I thought, 'Yeah, right, Marla...'" she says.

In the fall of 2002, Ruzicka went to Washington, D.C., where she found a natural ally in Sen. Patrick Leahy, a longtime proponent of assisting war victims. "She was like one of those mini-tornados, a dust devil," Leahy recalls. But she wasn't a zealot, he adds. "It's not like this woman was fixed on saving the world. She was fixed on saving individuals. There's a big difference."

Ruzicka teamed up with Leahy's aide on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Tim Rieser, who, like everyone who met her, was baffled at first. "She had no place to live, no organization, no money, and she lost her cell phone every fifteen minutes," he says. "But there was something special about her." She was the first person Rieser had met in Washington who'd been to Afghanistan and could provide hard facts about civilian casualties. "She'd actually seen what we'd only read about, namely U.S. bombs dropped in the wrong place, which had wiped out whole communities. Marla gave us on-the-ground information about these people and told us that nothing was being done to help them."

While the Pentagon has a somewhat arbitrary policy of compensating civilians, it is by no mean institutionalized. Ruzicka thought it should be, and during the next several months, she and Rieser met with officials at both the State and Defense departments, hammering out a plan. They came up with a program to provide medical care, home rebuilding, micro-loans and other forms of assistance, which is channeled through USAID. It was the first time the U.S. government had taken responsibility to help those they had specifically harmed. "It never would have happened without Marla," says Rieser.

Through her experiences in Afghanistan, Ruzicka's politics, and views toward the war, had changed. Once a dedicated peace activist, she'd decided that war was terrible but in some cases inevitable, even justified. It was a conscious split between her and her mentors at Global Exchange, and her embrace of the people Medea Benjamin calls "the realists" signified a major shift not just in Ruzicka's political philosophy but in her life as well. For about the past ten years, Benjamin had been both a mentor and a mother to Ruzicka. But now, the two clashed on their views regarding the upcoming war with Iraq, something that became more apparent when Ruzicka joined Benjamin on a fact-finding tour in Baghdad just prior to the war. "She was working with people in D.C. who were saying the war is going to happen, let's help the people who will be hurt," says Benjamin. "I thought it was a mistake to think like that before civilians were even killed." Medea urged Ruzicka to return to the activist fold and come back to San Francisco to "join us with all her energy and all her incredible enthusiasm to do whatever we could to stop the war."

Instead, Ruzicka returned to Washington and watched the war unfold on TV. Then, just after the fall of Saddam, she packed her bags and moved to Baghdad.

"Just a little bit about me," Ruzicka e-mailed a contact in Washington in August 2003. "I love life. I can be silly. I don't sleep – trying to learn more. I like to do a million things at once. CIVIC is my life."

By now, Ruzicka had been working in Baghdad for several months. It was a city abuzz with the postwar rush of aid workers, journalists and reconstruction experts – similar in many ways to what Kabul had been like in 2002. Iraq was exciting, exhilarating. And it was heart-breaking. Rather than hundreds of casualties, as Ruzicka had found in Afghanistan, there were thousands in Iraq. But because the U.S. military didn't release civilian casualty records, no one knew how many people had been hurt in the war. As she'd done in Afghanistan, Ruzicka dedicated herself to finding out, going door-to-door throughout Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq, with her colleague Faiz Ali Salim.

Humanitarian-aid work is a passion, not a career path. Ruzicka approached the work with an almost manic dedication. Unable to sleep, she'd be up at dawn and awake at 3 or 4 A.M. Her Day-Timer was filled with "to do" lists, hundreds of contact names and fund-raising goals – as well as personal buck-up notes, some almost Bridget Jones-like in content (she kept a running tally of the number of cigarettes she smoked per day). Still on a shoestring budget, she bounced from friend to friend, many of whom she'd met in Afghanistan, crashing on their couches at the Hamra or in their spare rooms. Pamela Hess, a reporter for UPI who'd met Ruzicka in Kabul in 2002, bumped into her while swimming in the Hamra pool. "She'd gone from anti-war, almost radical, to a woman who could deal with the U.S. military as a partner in her work," she says. "I was impressed at how much she had matured in the intervening year."

On August 19th, 2003, the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad was hit in a massive suicide attack, signifying a dramatic shift in the war. Westerners – even those occupying positions of neutrality – were now targets. By the end of the year, most of the Western aid workers in Iraq had pulled out. Ruzicka decided to stay. In the breezy, upbeat notes she'd post to CIVIC's Web site, she would often begin with a chronicle of Iraq's escalating danger but conclude with detailed accounts of the week's work with victims. "Their tragedies are my responsibilities," she wrote.

But by April 2004, Iraq had become increasingly dangerous for Americans. As the mortar attacks and suicide bombs grew in frequency, those who remained rarely left their fortified compounds. Ruzicka was warned, most likely by an Iraqi friend, to get out of Iraq for a while. Reluctantly, she agreed, posting a note to her Web site on April 8th declaring her decision to return to Washington "and try to make a home ... sort of." But a few weeks later she was back in Iraq. "I didn't want the hard work we'd put into motion to stall," she wrote in her journal. During the next two months, she jetted in and out of Baghdad, ignoring warnings that the situation had become too risky. "Just think of all the work you will be able to do when the situation is better because you were not killed by a bomb," one friend urged.

Wars have a unique capacity to take you away from yourself. There is something extremely voyeuristic about witnessing other people's suffering. Ruzicka had a talent for compartmentalizing the tragedies she witnessed, but gradually that compartmentalization began to wear thin. In her journal, she confessed, "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."

In letters to friends, Ruzicka frequently confessed to profound loneliness: "In all of this traveling, I admit I've felt a little off-base." Her marriage to Machingura was now just a friendship. Her romantic life was sporadic, at best. "There was kind of an instant big-brother thing that happened," says Quil Lawrence, who is in his mid-thirties. Another friend says, "She got involved with the wrong guys – bad guys, older guys." A third friend, in Washington, D.C., says, "I knew there was a man in London, a much older man, who broke her heart, and it was very, very painful for her. She never really wanted to talk about it."

By late spring, Ruzicka's behavior was becoming more and more manic. Still working at a frantic pace, she seemed off-kilter, "a little random," says her friend Catherine Philp. It was more than just sadness. Swimming, which had once given Ruzicka such solace, had become a two-hour-per-day obsession. She'd often drink until she was sloppy, and then pass out, waking up to "eat everything in the fridge," as one friend recalls.

Ruzicka had always had a questionable relationship with food. Her high school coaches frequently worried that she wasn't eating enough protein. By her early twenties, Ruzicka had gotten even more restrictive; meticulously wiping the grease from her food, or drinking protein shakes as a meal.

But now, Ruzicka's teeth had turned gray. Mark Ruzicka, who saw his sister in the late spring of 2004, knew that something was going on. "I would hug her, and she just felt so unhealthy," he says. Marla, usually preternaturally confident, seemed overwhelmed with problems. "I think it was all the traveling, and not having a boyfriend, and just the shit she was doing. She just didn't know how to handle these feelings," he says.

In the summer of 2004, Marla returned to Lakeport and received treatment for anorexia. She was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder – a condition she shares with her twin brother – and was prescribed lithium. In letters to friends, Ruzicka worried about losing the manic energy that had allowed her to accomplish so much. "Ironically, her admission of her bipolar disorder made her much more human, and much more appealing to me as a person," says her friend Colin Soloway, who saw Ruzicka in Washington, D.C. "She was [always] a lot of fun, but she could be somewhat exhausting. No one can be that 'on' or happy all the time."

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