The Girl Who Tried to Save The World

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Ruzicka started the fall sobered, both by her condition and by Baghdad's obviously worsening security situation. Rather than returning to Iraq, she spent most of the autumn preparing to move to New York's East Village, where she found an apartment in November. "She seemed giddy about it," recalls Philp, who spent a few days with Ruzicka, shopping in SoHo, eating at restaurants in the meatpacking district and watching old episodes of Sex and the City.

To many who saw her during that time, Ruzicka appeared to have turned a corner. She curbed her alcohol intake, went to therapy several times a week and took a variety of medications that made her calmer and helped her gain weight. Now occupying a desk at the Open Society Institute, the George Soros-sponsored foundation that was funding Ruzicka's work, she spoke frequently of expanding CIVIC's work to less dangerous conflict zones like Nepal, where she went on a brief research trip in January 2005. Her story was being circulated in Hollywood, and a piece on Nightline had piqued the interest of a New York literary agent. A memoir, co-written by her friend Jennifer Abrahamson, was under way.

And yet Ruzicka felt badly out of place. "It can get lonely here," she said of New York in a February 2005 letter to a friend. She missed the field, the camaraderie she had in Baghdad – a city she'd lived in for the better part of two years. And she missed the work.

And so, despite her many promises to make a home for herself in New York, Ruzicka began talking more and more about returning to Baghdad. In March, she got her wish: a $10,000 foundation grant to look into allegations of human-rights abuse against women who'd been detained at Abu Ghraib. Elated, she bounced into OSI and announced to her colleague, Robert von Dienes-Oehm, that she was "going home."

"Where? California?" he asked.

"No, Baggers!" she replied. "I'm going to Baggers!"

"I want to assure you of my safety," Ruzicka wrote to Aryeh Neier, the president of the Open Society Institute, in an e-mail dated April 11th, five days before Ruzicka died. The letter was hardly truthful. Ruzicka had promised friends that she'd restrict her movements to the Hamra compound. But she found that difficult to do.

Arriving in Baghdad in late March, she assured Catherine Philp that the trip would be for only two weeks – solely for the Abu Ghraib project. Thrilled to be back in Baghdad, she came laden with gifts for Philp: French vanilla coffee, Italian cheese, copies of People and The New Yorker. Spotting one of Philp's Iraqi drivers, Haider, Ruzicka jumped him and kissed him on both cheeks.

During the next few days, Ruzicka and Salim started their research into the abuse allegations pertaining to female detainees. It was a slow, difficult process. About a week into the research, Ruzicka confided to Philp that she was getting anxious. "She came up to my room at the end of a hard day and we stood on the balcony as the sun was setting and talked about it all. She sensed that many people were lying to her in their interviews, and she didn't know whether to trust them."

And so, Ruzicka dropped the project and went off in other, more familiar directions. She began to go into Baghdad to visit families she'd helped the previous year and took on new cases as well: securing compensation for an Iraqi woman who'd lost several family members and arranging for an injured child to be flown, on U.S. aircraft, out of Iraq to a hospital in California. "We've got to fix this country!" she text-messaged McMahon, one of around 150 such messages that he received from Ruzicka during that last month.

In her personal life, Ruzicka spoke regularly with her doctor in New York. Still taking medication for the manic-depression, she was also on a new drug that had been prescribed for her eating disorder. "She knew she was fucked up. She didn't like being ill," says McMahon. "She was seeing one of the military shrinks in the Green Zone, who was extremely helpful, and she was thrilled that she'd found him. And she's doing all this while she's trying to help these families – to me that was so impressive. It was a daily struggle, [but] she got up every morning and got out and helped these people."

The Green Zone had by now become so secure that one needed a special badge to move from one area to the next. Ruzicka hadn't yet received a DOD badge that would help her move around more freely. Instead, she'd bluff her way around the checkpoints, sometimes on foot, sometimes by hitchhiking, charming her way past the security guards. "She'd say, 'I'm a very nice person,'" McMahon says, laughing.

In the first week of April, Ruzicka obtained a detailed U.S. military civilian casualty report. Her source: a high-ranking U.S. general in Baghdad. It was perhaps the biggest achievement of Ruzicka's career. The number – twenty-nine civilians killed in Baghdad from February 28th to April 5th – was small. But what it meant was tremendous: It was proof, in her eyes, that despite the Pentagon's denials, the military did, to some degree, keep track of its actions. Elated, Ruzicka wrote her friend Peter Bergen, a writer and CNN commentator, in Washington. "Dude! . . . this is huge." After gushing about the party she was planning that evening – "Now I must go and keep everyone happy" – Ruzicka ended her note, as she almost always did: "I am being very safe."

If not quite the truth, this statement was motivated by hope. After the January 30th elections, the number of attacks decreased in Baghdad, leading many to believe that the insurgency was on the wane. But in the last week of Ruzicka's life, the attacks in Baghdad took a sharp spike upward. On April 15th, there was a double suicide bombing right in front of the Hamra compound, which scattered body parts all over the street. "There were a lot of bodies, a lot of blood, parts of bodies, flaming wreckage, helicopters overhead, huge holes in the street – you know, the whole scene," says McMahon.

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