PHILADELPHIA - When I first saw her sitting by the swimming pool at the Al-Hamra Hotel in June, I thought, "What is this blonde sprite doing in Baghdad?"
Our paths crossed only briefly. Not until this week did I learn of the incredible things that Marla Ruzicka accomplished - before she was killed by a car bomb last weekend at age 28.
The daughter of California Republicans, she devoted the last few years to helping innocent civilian victims of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. She was a one-woman human rights dynamo whose death has produced an amazing outpouring of tributes from journalists and officials who knew her. She was able to focus attention on a subject many would rather ignore.
Civilian casualties are an inconvenient stain on the storyline of Iraq liberation. The Iraqi wedding party bombed by mistake; the small girl shot dead by U.S. fire aimed next door; the family killed by nervous American soldiers at a checkpoint - all are often dismissed as unavoidable collateral damage. U.S. officials don't give out any official figures on such deaths.
That leads to rampant speculation about numbers. In October, the London-based medical publication The Lancet contended there were 100,000 civilian deaths as a consequence of the Iraq invasion; this figure seems an exaggeration. Iraqbodycount.net suggested just under 17,000 as of late 2004, based on deaths reported in the news media. There is no question that many thousands have died.
Iraqis can apply to the U.S. military for compensation, but the process is often arbitrary. If the death is deemed to be "combat-related," no payment is made. Marla Ruzicka made it her mission to compile data on civilian casualties and seek aid for the victims. She started in Kabul, on a shoestring, charming journalists, military commanders and embassy officials into helping with the project, then seeking Afghan victims and bringing them to U.S. attention.
After the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, she moved to Iraq, starting the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, or CIVIC.
With her courageous Iraqi aide, Faiz Ali Salem, who died alongside her, she organized Iraqi volunteers to survey civilian casualties. She traveled without guards, protected only by a black abaya (traditional gown), venturing where few foreigners dared go.
Her work was so impressive it persuaded Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont to champion her idea of creating a civic assistance program for Afghan and Iraqi civilian victims. This is the first program of its kind; about $10 million has gone to each country, and another $10 million was allocated for Iraq last week. The funds can be used for medical treatment, rebuilding damaged homes, business loans and other forms of aid.
"The program never would have happened without Marla's initiative," I was told by Tim Reiser, an aide to Senator Leahy who worked closely with Ms. Ruzicka. "Marla helped us learn about the victims' needs on the ground, which is one reason her loss is so devastating."
Ms. Ruzicka understood that helping civilian victims is not just the right thing to do, but also is militarily essential. I have sat in Baghdad mosques and heard Iraqis rage to their imams about "collateral damage" from U.S. fire - relatives killed and neighborhoods shattered. These are the emotions that will make young men think about attacking U.S. soldiers - until U.S. troops are drawn down.
On the day she died, she was on her way to help some Iraqis who had lost family members. The suicide bomber was aiming at a nearby U.S. convoy, but her car was caught in the blast.
"I have never met ... someone so young who gave so much of herself to so many people, and who made such a difference doing it," Mr. Leahy said in tribute. He will move to rename the victims' aid program in her honor. Would that her death could jolt the Pentagon into revealing those civilian death numbers - and getting the numbers down.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.