Saturday, April 15, 2006

Marla Ruzicka - A Blessed Spirit Remembered

Christoph Gluck’s 1762 opera Orfeo ed Euridice (Orpheus and Euridice) retells the story of the quest by the musician Orpheus to reclaim his bride from the realms of the dead. Orpheus’ intense love, captured in his impassioned music, works its charm on the Furies and other Spirits who initially block his entrance to the underworld where he witnesses a balletic interlude known as the “Dance of the Blessed Spirits.”

Marla Ruzicka, charming as well as a dancer, was no less impassioned about her quest: justice for the innocent whose lives had been turned upside down when family members were killed during U.S. bombing raids, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq.

Hardly had the Taliban regime abandoned Kabul and the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance moved in before the irrepressible spirit of Ms. Ruzicka was working its magic on diplomats, war lords, soldiers, the press – any one who would stop and listen, and that was virtually everyone who crossed Marla’s path. The combination of her personality, persistence, and compassionate pragmatism overcame the exhaustion-induced lethargy felt by those who saw mile-high obstacles in trying to recreate a nation. For Marla, their obstacles were actually expansive opportunities to begin the process of reconciliation and rebuilding – not society as a whole but individual lives and families who would then build the communities of the new society.

She was in Baghdad right after the city fell to coalition troops and stayed there through President Bush’s declaration that the “combat phase” of the war had ended. Soon thereafter Marla formed the “Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict” – CIVIC – to fill a significant gap that other organizations concerned with post-war conditions did not address: rebuilding the basic, commonplace economic and social structures that serve as familiar guideposts of “normalcy” in the lives of individuals, families, and local communities – schools to educate, clinics for health care and advice, stores and markets for necessities such as food

Marla envisioned CIVIC as an unbiased collector and validator of information on war’s unintended destructive consequences, information that U.S. field commanders would trust when deciding whether to make or withhold “sympathy payments” to individuals seeking compensation for war-related losses – death, severe injury, destroyed homes. In this role, CIVIC, by assisting war’s innocent victims as they struggle to rebuild some semblance of a normal life, would serve as a bridge between the work of traditional humanitarian relief organizations and the reconstitution of local, self-sustaining civil society.

Her insight was to adduce moral responsibility on those who, even unintentionally, cause innocent individuals to become victims of war. As she explained during an interview for the Harvard International Review in early 2004: “Victims of violence, terrorism, and war – we want them not to be forgotten, we want a process that accounts for them. We want governments – international, the United States, the United Nations – to have structures in place for assistance.”

Marla soon convinced others that she was on to something important, a way to hold on to the hearts and minds of potentially tens of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis whose lives and livelihoods had been profoundly changed by war. In 2004, she achieved a breakthrough when Senator Patrick Leahy (VT) inserted a provision in the foreign aid bill creating and funding a “Civilian Assistance Program” (CAP) to channel help to innocent civilians engulfed by U.S. military actions. The initial $10 million CAP appropriation was matched in 2005 by another $10 million which was approved jut days before that fateful Saturday, April 16, 2005.

Returning from visiting one of the war’s victims, Marla and her long-time Baghdad colleague, Faiz Ali Salim, died in a fireball when insurgents detonated a roadside bomb aimed at a passing U.S. military convoy.

Marla had dreamed of someday expanding CIVIC’s role to other countries in conflict such as Colombia and Liberia. But she realized that Iraq and Afghanistan were of necessity more pressing because of the direct role of the U.S. military in those countries. In its initial action on the 2006 emergency funding bill for the Iraq war, the Senate Appropriations Committee has kept that dream alive by designating an additional $10 million for the Marla Ruzicka Iraqi War Victims Fund.

Marla Ruzicka was 28 when she died – truly a Blessed Spirit.


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