Marla Ruzicka - Bubbles of Kabul Print E-mail

Marla Ruzicka - Bubbles of Kabul

Blonde and giggly, Marla Ruzicka was at first easy to dismiss. Yet,
single-handedly, the idealistic aid worker secured millions of
dollars' worth of compensation from America for the victims of its
wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. After her death in a bomb attack in
Baghdad last weekend, Rory Carroll mourns his friend

Wednesday April 20, 2005
The Guardian

It was Christmas in Kabul and she walked into the Mustafa hotel
looking like a rumpled doll. Blonde hair streaked out from a black
headscarf and dust shrouded a beaten-up coat. She dumped her backpack
on the floor and beamed around a lobby filled with the smell of
tobacco and stewed mutton and the stares of Afghan guards and western
reporters, all male. "Hi! I'm Marla!"
It was an exclamation more than a statement. This was indeed Marla, a
25-year-old Californian with no satellite phone, very little cash, a
shoestring organisation and an impossible mission, but any anxieties
she may have felt were concealed by a toothy grin. It was December
2001.

She had come, she said, to document civilian casualties of the
recently concluded US-led campaign to oust the Taliban. She not only
wanted to find them - difficult enough amid lawless chaos - she wanted
Washington to compensate them, to take responsibility for mistakes in
its post-September 11 offensive.

It was easy, at first, to patronise and belittle, and many reporters
did. She gushed and fawned and giggled. Everything seemed either cool
or awesome. She complained about broken nails, wondered whether the
market on Chicken Street sold conditioner and asked about parties.
Planet Marla was located in a parallel, ditzy universe.

After rising at 4am one morning, the hotel dark and slumbering, I was
taken aback to see Bubbles, as she had been nicknamed, waiting in the
corridor. "Thanks for letting me come." I hadn't mentioned the trip,
nor invited her, but she wedged between a colleague and me for the
ride to Qalaye Niazi, a village recently attacked by American bombers
on the grounds it harboured fugitive members of the Taliban and
al-Qaida. The Pentagon had claimed a clean hit with no collateral
damage, but amid the debris were bloodied children's shoes, the scalp
of a woman with braided grey hair, and wedding decorations. Survivors
said dozens of men, women and children had died. Marla wrote it all
down, asked lots of questions and returned to Kabul silent and
thoughtful.

Last Saturday, almost three and a half years later, a journey which
started in the Afghan winter ended on a balmy spring afternoon in
Baghdad. A suicide car bomber attacked a convoy of SUVs on the airport
road. Marla Ruzicka and her colleague Faiz Al Salaam, 43, were
separate from the convoy but their ordinary car took the force of the
blast, killing them both.

She had summoned the foreign press corps to a party that night at the
Hamra hotel and her failure to show was our first inkling that
something was wrong. The next morning the deaths were confirmed. Marla
suffered burns to 90% of her body. A medic who treated her at the
scene reported her last words: "I'm alive."

Her friends, a global community since she befriended pretty much
everyone she met, are stunned. There is a hush around the Hamra hotel,
low-voiced huddles swapping Marla stories. The best is one that
relates how she came to be taken seriously, touched countless lives
and changed US policy.

Tributes have flowed. "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."

Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said it was Marla's idea to
put a special fund in last year's foreign aid bill to compensate
Iraqis whose businesses had been bombed by mistake. "Just from the
force of her personality, we decided to take a chance on it." Leahy
said $10m was added to the foreign aid bill last year and another $10m
had been set aside for next year. A memorial will be held in
Washington this week and the senator will pay tribute from the Senate
floor. "I said to her father this morning: 'A lot of people spend
their whole lives and do not begin to accomplish what she's done.'"

It is not difficult to reconcile Bubbles of Kabul with the human
rights heroine whose face has filled newspapers and television screens
during the past few days. Marla did not change. The lobbying grew more
polished and sophisticated but she was as bubbly at the beginning as
the end. What changed was that powerful people took notice.

She was born in Lakeport, near San Francisco, with her twin brother
Mark the youngest of six children of Clifford and Nancy Ruzicka,
middle-class Republicans. She was suspended for leading a school
protest against the first Gulf war and as a student at Long Island
University visited Cuba, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Israel, including
Palestinian areas. Police carted her away when she whipped off a
sarong with a protest slogan at a speech by George Bush, then governor
of Texas.