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In Memory of Marla Ruzicka

MVPJ Steering Committee Member Craig Wiesner, and MVPJ webmaster Derrick Kikuchi, and David Mineau (spouse of Diana Gibson) were part of an interfaith delegation in Afghanistan in 2002 where we met and worked with Marla Ruzicka. We share in the grief of her family, friends, and the world over her death. We also celebrate her life and her life's work. The following is a story written by Craig Wiesner about the memorial service that took place on May 3rd in San Francisco. On that same evening, a total of 20 memorial services were held in her honor across the country.

Amazing - By Craig Wiesner

The “Gospel of Marla” was celebrated last night, as hundreds gathered at the San Francisco Womens Building to remember a young lady who touched their lives and made each person she met feel “amazing!”

Marla Ruzicka, 28, was killed by a car bomb in Iraq two weeks ago while racing towards Baghdad Airport to help a young boy in need of medical care. Ruzicka, founder of the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Combat (CIVIC), had cancelled her plans to fly home a week earlier.

She was determined to arrange for the boy’s transport to the United States before she left. “I wish she’d had just a little less determination and all of us had just a bit more,” San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin said.

Her charismatic approach to life and evangelistic fervor made spending time with her akin to “joining a new religion,” Peskin said.

Dozens of Bay Area political leaders, activists, friends and family members spoke about Ruzicka’s “manic” life and her passion for righting wrongs.

Despite her lithe frame and short stature, Ruzicka was considered a courageous giant. “She’ll always be 500 feet tall and the measuring stick for how we all fight the battles,” SF Public Defender Jeff Adachi said.

Disregarding the dangers of working in a war zone, Ruzicka overcame any fears and would “parachute into” dangerous situations and “show people how to live righteously,” one activist said.

The evening also offered glimpses into Ruzicka’s less public side. “She was the apple of my eye,” Ruzicka’s father Cliff tearfully said.

Ruzicka’s parents, solidly Republican and outsiders to the activist scene, were comforted throughout the gathering by one of the peace movement’s most recognizable leaders. “If you worked with Marla, please raise your hands,” Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Global Exchange and Code Pink, told the crowd. Hundreds of hands were raised. “All of these people’s lives were touched by your daughter, and she became who she was because of you,” Benjamin told Ruzicka’s parents.

Introduced as “the love of her life,” Phillip Machingura who had first met Ruzicka in Zimbabwe, said that there were three phases to what he called “Marla-ization.” First, she would make you believe that “You are Amazing!” Next, she would tell you that “The whole world thinks you’re great.” Finally, she would ask “How are you going to use your greatness for humanity?”

Having been “Marla-ized,” Ruzicka’s friends and family have promised to carry on her work.

It will be a daunting task.

Ruzicka had spent the last three years gathering people’s stories from remote villages in Afghanistan and the battlefields of Iraq. She carried those stories to Washington D.C. where she successfully lobbied for funding for war victims.

In 2003, Senator Patrick Leahy added $20 million to an appropriations bill specifically earmarked for non-combatant victims of U.S. military actions. After Ruzicka’s death, Congress passed a victim relief bill in her name, adding another $10 million dollars of funding.

Ruzicka’s twin brother, Mark, told the crowd that allocating the funds wasn’t good enough. “You’ve got to make sure they actually spend it on the victims,” he said.

Distrust of the current administration and anger over the war were evident in many of the speeches throughout the evening. Those feelings were voiced by a folksinger “Mokai’s” song “Criminal Behavior – You Can’t Fool Me.” As the crowd sang along and clapped, Ruzicka’s mother smiled and tapped her foot along with the beat. Though she may not have agreed with all of her daughter’s positions, and the sentiments of the peace movement, she told the crowd that she was “proud of Marla’s passion” and the young lady she had become.

The formal part of the evening closed with a special film of Ruzicka in Iraq in 2003. It showed Ruzicka bouncing Iraqi children on her knee, passionately arguing her point with an American journalist, playfully rubbing an Iraqi man’s bald spot, and running across the Iraqi desert, away from the camera.

The music playing during this last scene was the sad and spiritual song “Lost Unto This World,” by EmmyLou Harris.

I was once some mother's darlin'
Some daddy's little girl
More precious than the ruby
More cherished than the pearl
My heart was full of mercy
And my forehead full of curl
Now I am nothing and am lost unto this world

Ruzicka’s friends would not allow the service to end on that sad note. Remembering how she was always up for a party, and loved to dance, the evening ended with Salsa music and dancing.

One friend said that no matter what anyone told her, because of Ruzicka’s spirit and the promises of many to carry on her work, “No one can ever tell me that Marla is dead, because she is not,” she said, as long as people care about the innocent victims of war, the Gospel of Marla will live on.


Original Story from 4/18/05

by Craig Wiesner, Reach and, 4/18/2005

They had come to the American compound in Kabul trying to find someone who would help them. Some had lost homes. Others had lost arms, legs, eyes, husbands, wives, children, mothers, and fathers. They weren’t asking for much. They wanted someone to listen to their stories, to document their loss, and they wanted a little help to survive. They were all non-combatants, innocent victims, collateral damage of U.S. bombs and bullets. U.S. officials said we had no policies or money to help those who had inadvertently suffered at our hands. Even if we did, someone needed to formally document the evidence. Who would count the dead and wounded and chronicle their losses? Marla Ruzicka would and did.

Marla was killed by a car bomb near Baghdad this weekend, doing the job she started in the rubble of Afghanistan over three years ago. She was 28.

The details have not yet been confirmed, but the evidence indicates that the car bomb was intended for a caravan of western contractors, heading towards the Baghdad airport. Marla’s car was near that caravan. She and her translator were killed along with someone guarding the caravan. At least five others were wounded.

I met Marla in Kabul in June of 2002. Working for Global Exchange, she had arranged for hundreds of people who had in some way been harmed by the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan to meet with our interfaith peace delegation. Among our group were two women who had lost loved ones on September 11th.

We gathered outside a Kabul hospital. We said prayers from the Koran, the Torah, the Psalms, and the Gospels. We spoke in many tongues and dialects. We sang songs of mourning and hope.

After the formal service, small groups of Afghans and Americans gathered to more intimately share stories. For those of us who had not suffered any loss but were there to listen, it became a solemn duty to properly record these stories and carry them home.

It was as though the simple act of writing down the names of the dead and a little bit about their lives somehow, in some strange way, helped bring them back to life for the storytellers. “Please, please, let me tell you about my wife,” someone would say. “Make sure you write it all down and tell people.” We did.

For many of us, telling those stories became something we did in our spare time, for church groups, in schools, and at local libraries. For Marla, it became a life mission.

In now humble honesty, my first impression of Marla was not very favorable. She seemed very scattered, a bit flighty, somewhat brash, and way too young to be doing such an important and dangerous job.

She was short and thin and virtually disappeared inside the scarves she wore when traveling the streets of Kabul, like a wisp of smoke barely keeping the garment afloat.

Once she started talking, rapidly recounting the tales of how she and her volunteers had talked their way into villages, past armed teenage thugs working for warlords, to collect and report on victims’ stories, that impression changed. Daring, bold, fearless, powerful, compassionate and crazy were the new words that came to mind for describing Marla.

Through Marla’s efforts, our group got to meet incredible people in Afghanistan whose stories we carried home and told as often as we could.

All too often when telling such stories one leaves listeners in a state of hopelessness, grieving the damage but without any clear call to action.

When people asked us what they could do for positive change, we told them to write to Congress and the Bush administration, urging them to change our policies and help the non-combatant victims of war.

We said people should encourage our government to make money available to help these victims, compensate them for their losses, pay for their medical and psychological care, and provide shelter for the widows and orphans.

Senator Patrick Leahy, moved by stories Marla helped bring to light, in 2002 added millions of dollars to an appropriations bill which eventually passed Congress. The Pentagon immediately said they would not provide any resources to help collect victims’ stories and distribute funding. Administration policy continued to emphasize that no true counts of civilian deaths should be recorded.

With funding from Congress to compensate people who'd lost loved ones, and bring assistance to those who needed it, if no one else would take the lead, Marla was ready.

In 2003 she flew to Iraq. There, she did what she was so good at, trudging into the rubble and ruin of war to seek out and help the victims. She also founded an organization called the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict. Fund-raising for that organization, though, was not her strong suit.

According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, Marla was trying to help an Iraqi teenaged orphan who needed surgery get to the United States. Short of funds, a Newsweek reporter had promised to loan Marla $300 to help pay for the boy's x-rays. She was working on getting him a visa so he could fly to Oakland for treatment.

Though she was supposed to have returned home on April 4th, reasons to stay kept coming up. More people needed help. More stories needed to be told. It seemed Marla was always rushing off to do one more thing, help one more person.

Marla made a mad dash through her own too-short life but through her efforts created lasting stories of people who much of the world would rather forget. Because of Marla, their stories will not be forgotten. Nor will she.

Who will count the dead and document the rest of the stories that need to be told? Marla’s parents, who live in Lakeside, California, hope to help keep her organization alive and are asking for donations in Marla’s memory to be given to the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict.

Below are links to stories about Marla:

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