Human Rights Watch mourns the death of Marla Ruzicka, a tireless human rights activist working to provide compensation for civilian victims of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The 28-year-old Ruzicka, founder of the non-governmental Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), was killed by a suicide bomber while traveling on the Baghdad Airport road on Saturday.
Ruzicka’s colleague, Faiz Ali Salim, 43, also died in the explosion. Five others were injured in the attack, which seemed aimed at a security convoy driving ahead of Ruzicka’s car. Human Rights Watch extended its condolence to the families of Ruzicka and Salim.
Ruzicka had worked extensively in Iraq and in Afghanistan to document the exact number of civilians killed or injured by U.S. forces, and helped victims receive compensation from the U.S. government.
During her last trip to Iraq, Ruzicka managed to obtain information from the U.S. military about the number of civilians killed during hostilities after the end of major combat operations. The information she received related only to a brief period in the Baghdad area, but was important in establishing that the U.S. did in fact record civilian injuries. She was trying to get the U.S. government to publicly release these statistics about all areas of Iraq.
“Everyone who met Marla was struck by her incredible effervescence and commitment,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “She was courageous and relentless in pursuit of accurate information about civilians caught up in war and her desire to provide some compensation to relieve their suffering. Her personal warmth and
dedication made her a formidable advocate for her cause.”
Ruzicka and her colleagues at CIVIC (nearly all local volunteers) worked to identify victims individually, gathering detailed information about the circumstances of their injury, their personal lives, and the impact of the war on them. This information was widely viewed as some of the most accurate data about the condition of civilians and helped put a human face on their suffering. Its reliability made it possible for many civilian victims to receive compensation.
Ruzicka began her work on behalf of civilian victims in Afghanistan in December 2001. As a result of her efforts in precisely identifying injured civilians, the U.S. Senate appropriated 2.5 million dollars to assist Afghans injured by U.S. action, a sum that has now grown to 7.5 million.
With the beginning of the war in Iraq, she expanded her own campaign there, and successfully lobbied the U.S. government to set aside 10 million dollars to compensate Iraqi victims.
Ruzicka was famous for her generosity in helping newly arrived journalists and aid workers unfamiliar with Iraq and Afghanistan. Her close association with Afghan and Iraqi aid workers and her tremendous respect for them established a standard for other foreigners working in those countries to follow. While she was well-known for eschewing personal comfort in pursuit of her work, she was even better known for organizing social gatherings that brought together local activists, journalists, aid workers, and government and military officials.
Ruzicka was scheduled to leave Iraq within a week. Ruzicka, who had decreased her time in Iraq due to security concerns, had traveled to Nepal in December 2004 to investigate the civil war raging there and to assess the possibility of expanding her work there.
“Marla’s passion for her cause was obvious and infectious, but it was the accuracy of her data and the veracity of her information that made it possible for many others to rely on it,” Roth said. “Human Rights Watch staff who worked closely with her in the conflict zones in Afghanistan, Iraq, and in the halls of Washington were all impressed by her. She was an inspiration to us all.”
In an essay she wrote just a few days before her death, Ruzicka explained the significance of her work providing detailed information about the deaths of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan: “A number is important not only to quantify the cost of the war, but to me each number is also a story of someone whose hopes, dreams and potential will never be realized, and who left behind a family.”