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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 Afghanistan

Marla Ruzicka leads a demonstration outside of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Suzanne Plunkett/AP Photo

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.

The first time I met Marla – like a lot of people, I never knew her last name until after she died – was in Baghdad in April 2004. It was a warm night, and I was having drinks with some friends on the patio of the Hamra, when all of a sudden a pretty girl dressed in hip-huggers and a gauzy shirt bopped up and started massaging the shoulders of one of the men at my table.

Hellooo,” she said, in a slow California drawl.

A few men rolled their eyes discreetly. “That’s Marla,” one of them said in my ear, a hint of condescension in his voice.

Just five-foot-three and weighing no more than 100 pounds, Marla looked only a few years out of college and completely out of place in a war zone. But she also seemed thoroughly comfortable in the Hamra scene, as if it were her home, which it had been for the better part of two years. While we drank, Marla pounded the shoulders of a British reporter with tiny little fists, gradually making her way around the table until she’d given shoulder rubs to every guy in the room. “OK, bye!” she said, and flitted away.

She talked in surf-girl lingo – she called everyone, even the most austere U.S. officials, “dude.” She giggled. “When she was happy, she clapped and did a little jump,” recalls her best friend, Catherine Philp, a reporter for the London Times. She was girlish – she used to dot her i’s with little hearts – and a little outlandish: She stood up in the middle of one press conference and told the stern U.S. general giving the briefing that he looked as if he “needed a hug.” Quil Lawrence, a reporter for BBC Radio, once described her as a “love bomb.”

In the days and weeks after Ruzicka’s and her colleague Faiz Ali Salim’s death, virtually every reporter who’d met Ruzicka wrote a story about her – making her death headline news on four continents. In Washington, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, a key ally, honored her on the floor of the U.S. Senate, calling her “as close to a living saint as they come.” Six hundred people attended her funeral at the St. Mary’s Catholic Church in the tiny community of Lakeport, California, about three hours north of San Francisco. There were memorial services in New York, Washington, Baghdad, Kabul, San Francisco and cities across the country.

Ruzicka is perhaps the most famous American aid worker to die in any conflict of the past ten or twenty years. Though a novice in life – she had less than four years of professional humanitarian experience – her death resonated far beyond the tightly knit group of war junkies and policymakers who knew her. She stands as a youthful representative of a certain kind of not-yet-lost American idealism, and darkly symbolic of what has gone so tragically wrong in Iraq. And yet trying to understand her is complicated by the fact that so much of her complex, and often deeply compartmentalized life remains a mystery to even those who knew her best. “It was almost like trying to get to know somebody at a performance,” notes Chris Hondros, a Getty Images photographer who knew Ruzicka in both Iraq and Afghanistan. “She always seemed to be playing the role of Marla.”

There is a certain banality to being killed in a suicide bombing; it’s like being blind-sided. But there is nothing banal about choosing, against the advice of virtually everyone, to work in one of the most dangerous places in the world. It’s a risk. It’s also heroic. And, it’s an escape.

About two weeks after Marla’s death, I am at a waterfront cafe in Ruzicka’s home-town of Lakeport, having lunch with her parents, Cliff and Nancy. A quiet resort town located in between the vineyards of Sonoma and Mendocino counties, Lakeport has only 5,000 people and the “best air quality in California,” according to the local chamber of commerce.

“This is Marla’s favorite restaurant,” says Nancy Ruzicka, a middle-aged woman with a chin-length black bob. She still talks of her daughter in the present tense, while her husband stares off at the lake. A quiet, balding, bespectacled man, he is a few years older than his wife and dressed in a tweed sport coat and blue shirt. Marla was the youngest of Cliff’s six children – he has four kids from a previous marriage and two with Nancy. “I’d always tell her, ‘Marla, exercise good judgment,'” he says. “I would always tell her that, up until the day she died when she was in Iraq. But that’s about all I could tell her.”

For the past week or two, Nancy, a former flight attendant, has been jetting back and forth between California and the East Coast, where she’s attended a variety of memorial services for Marla. “We had 500 people at our house,” she tells me brightly, referring to Marla’s funeral, April 23rd. Despite her crushing grief, Nancy is relentlessly cheerful. Cliff, by contrast, has the demeanor of a man in total shock. “I was worried about her safety in Iraq, but I didn’t expect her to die,” he says. “I thought she was invincible. She thought she was invincible.”

Marla Ann Ruzicka was born on December 31st, 1976, six minutes after her twin brother, Mark. She was a tiny baby, weighing only three pounds, but she made up for it in sheer will. “I used to call her my little blond hurricane,” says her godmother, Eileen McGuire. The Ruzicka twins swam, surfed, wake-boarded, water-skied and participated in other sports. But Marla was particularly excited by risk: taking flying leaps into mountain lakes, or teetering on the railing of the Golden Gate Bridge.

“We used to walk across the bridge as kids; man, I hated that,” remembers Mark Ruzicka. “But Marla, she loved it – she’d play like she was gonna jump off. Just totally fearless.”

Mark Ruzicka is a laid-back twenty-eight-year-old with a head of curly blond hair and a slow surfer’s drawl. I meet him after lunch on the deck of the Ruzickas’ tidy blue town house. Nancy was a bit reluctant to let me see the place, claiming it was messy, but the house is spotless. There is not a picture or photograph on the wall, and everything is white. “Mom likes things to be perfect,” Mark says, with a slightly derisive tone.

Though seemingly a happy family, there was always instability in the Ruzicka household, starting with Cliff, who was a heavy drinker until the kids were three. By the early 1980s, Cliff had cleaned up and, with Nancy as a partner, devoted himself to their business of developing real-estate projects for the rapidly expanding local population. Mark recalls that his parents were always working. That left care of the kids to McGuire or other baby sitters.

“We were always going back and forth between different people’s houses,” says Mark, who has struggled with alcoholism and depression for years. “I used to be scared to stay at someone else’s house, but Marla didn’t mind.” Marla, in fact, seemed happy anywhere. “We took care of each other, me and Marla. We were really free.”

Some might say too free: When Marla and Mark were eight or nine, Nancy would pack them off on the bus and send them alone to the San Francisco airport to visit relatives. “Everybody at the airport would say, ‘You can’t get on this plane, you’re only little kids,'” says Mark. “But Marla would make friends with the pilots, like ‘Where’s my wings?'” he recalls. “She’d be up there in the cockpit, just digging the whole thing.”

This ability to rise above chaos was something that marked Marla all through her life, as did her natural leadership. Though never a brilliant student, she was a gifted conversationalist, with a knack for getting people to agree to her demands. As a teenager, she volunteered to lead hikers up a nearby peak, Mt. Konocti, whose summit was sacred to local Indian tribes and off-limits to tour groups. Marla persuaded the owners to let her come. “If someone told Marla she couldn’t do something, she’d say, ‘But we need to be able to do it,'” says Mark. “She always got what she wanted.”

When she was in eighth grade, Marla, a budding activist, rallied her friends at Terrace Middle School to stage a walkout in protest of the Persian Gulf War. The entire school ended up walking out, which landed Marla in the principal’s office and on the local news. I ask the Ruzickas, both Republicans, how they reacted to their daughter’s nonconformity. They say only that they were concerned. “[But] there wasn’t any holding Marla back,” says Cliff. “You couldn’t have told her, ‘Marla, you can’t do that.’ That would have destroyed her.”

At seventeen, Marla began frequenting the San Francisco headquarters of Global Exchange, an international human-rights organization co-founded by Bay Area activist Medea Benjamin. Global Exchange has a dubious reputation as an adventure travel group for wealthy lefties, leading “Reality Tours” through Third World and war-ravaged countries. Ruzicka was fascinated – she had found a community vastly different from conservative Lakeport. Soon, she was spending weekends and vacations in San Francisco, volunteering at Global Exchange and crashing at the home of Benjamin and her husband, Kevin Danaher, who became Ruzicka’s surrogate parents – hippie alternatives to Cliff and Nancy. Benjamin remembers Ruzicka as a “spongelike” teenager, with a passion for human rights and an innate ability to hustle anyone. “She wanted to go on every trip, and for as close to free as possible,” says Benjamin. Pleased with Ruzicka’s work, Benjamin complied.

Ruzicka fell in love with Cuba, whose culture was built around two things she most valued: socialism and having a good time. “She was really in her element there: the music, the salsa, the mojitos,” says Benjamin. She read Che Guevara and tried to learn Spanish – though languages were never Ruzicka’s forte. When it came time for college, Ruzicka insisted on finding a school where she could travel abroad, ultimately choosing Long Island University’s Friends World program. “She had all these posters of Che and Global Exchange,” says Erin Gertz, her freshman-year roommate. “On my side of the room, I had cute little animals.”

During the next four years, Ruzicka studied in Costa Rica, Kenya, Israel and Palestine, and Zimbabwe, where she became interested in the plight of AIDS victims. After graduating from LIU in the spring of 1999, Ruzicka intended to return to Zimbabwe, where she’d met, and fallen in love with, a musician named Phillip Machingura. The two had met on Ruzicka’s twenty-second birthday, in December 1998, and had been inseparable. “My relationship with Marla was full of off-the-wall things that I wouldn’t do alone – like hitchhiking to Mozambique,” Machingura says today.

But instead of going to Africa, Ruzicka went back to San Francisco, where she briefly worked for the Rainforest Alliance, and then returned to Global Exchange. Machingura soon joined her in California, and the couple got married – a move many people in Ruzicka’s life insist was a green-card marriage. Machingura denies this. “We had a relationship, we wanted to be together, and the reality was, if we didn’t [get married], I’d be going back,” he says. “So I basically left my world to be with Marla.”

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.

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.”

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.

Ruzicka spent the day of the 15th with some families she’d helped in 2004. She also talked with Philp, who was in Sri Lanka. In an e-mail she sent later that day, she wrote, “Thank you for being there for me. . . . You all take such good care of me….”

That night, there was a party at the Washington Post house. It was a subdued night, coming on the heels of the suicide bombing that had killed eighteen people. Earlier in the day, Ruzicka had let several journalists use her room at the Hamra to take a shower. Now, standing by the pool table with McMahon, the two discussed the worsening insurgency.

“These people are fucking demonic,” said McMahon.

“And can you fucking believe there are people in the USA who call them ‘resistance fighters?'” Ruzicka added.

Then, Ruzicka left the party. “I’ll be right back,” she promised McMahon. But she never returned.

In the past month or so, McMahon has wracked his brain trying to recall more of his last conversation with Ruzicka; probably the last conversation she had with any friend before she was killed. But he can’t remember a thing. “It was just so typical. She was calling me to check in and say hello and let me know that she was going for another interview. She said quickly something like ‘Can’t wait for tonight’. . . but she was going quickly, as if she had a lot on her mind.

“I remember she did say something about trying for one more interview,” he adds. “The point was things were going pretty well and she wanted to get this one thing done before the day was ended. I remember that, because I thought that it was typical – she’d keep going until the work was through.”

This story is from the June 16th, 2005 issue of Rolling Stone.



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