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'Rough Translation': How An Activist Changed The Way The U.S. Conducts Wars


The war in Afghanistan changed the way this country fights wars and the way it responds to the deaths of civilians. Now, that particular change may have started with a young activist from California who's profiled in NPR's Rough Translation podcast. I talked to NPR's Quil Lawrence about her. And just a warning - there are some graphic bits in this interview.

Marla Ruzicka was a civilian, a young civilian. She'd traveled to Afghanistan a few months after 9/11, when she was only 25 years old, and you knew her.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Yeah, I met her in Kabul in 2001 and became good friends. She was maybe the only American anti-war protester there. And honestly, no one knew what to make of her. And she, herself, was figuring out her role. She started out by documenting civilian casualties from U.S. bombs.


MARLA RUZICKA: I saw images in this hospital that I just didn't want to see. One woman had lost both her eyes. Both of her arms were broken. Both of her legs were broke. And when she was turned over, literally blood spilled out of her. And her relative said to me, you're American. What are you going to do to help?

LAWRENCE: And at first she sticks to her sort of anti-war protest playbook.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED US EMBASSY OFFICIAL: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

LAWRENCE: And she gets a bunch of these Afghan families and marches them up to the gates of the U.S. Embassy and just makes a scene.


RUZICKA: You told them you're going to help them.


RUZICKA: And when you say you're going to help them - how? Besides just submitting it to the Department of Defense.

UNIDENTIFIED US EMBASSY OFFICIAL: I'm sorry. You don't seem to understand, do you?

RUZICKA: No, I understand. But I - we need more. These people have been hurt for six months.

UNIDENTIFIED US EMBASSY OFFICIAL: I need more time with them, not with you. Thank you.

KING: I'm listening to the voice of the diplomat there, the U.S. diplomat. And he sounds both dismissive and a little frustrated with her. Did her protest end up achieving anything?

LAWRENCE: I don't think so. And part of what you heard there is that Marla was just really easy to underestimate. She didn't look very professional - jeans and an Afghan fur vest. And during this time in Afghanistan, though, she realized that she did need to change her strategy.

KING: So how did she change her strategy?

LAWRENCE: Well, she left Afghanistan, and she started using her pretty amazing networking skills in Washington, D.C., in 2002 and '03. And she quickly got connected with Senator Patrick Leahy's office. And with the cases she'd documented, Leahy's office set up this fund for civilian casualties that gives up to $10 million a year. And those of us who had underestimated her, we just kind of shut up really quick.

KING: Yeah, I can imagine. That's a lot of money and suggests that she achieved what she set out to achieve. But as you point out, this is in 2002. And so right now, we're just talking about the war in Afghanistan. There is, in fact, of course, another war coming in Iraq.

LAWRENCE: Right. And by that time, she has founded the Center for Innocent Victims in Conflict, CIVIC. And Marla goes to Baghdad, and she and an Iraqi colleague, named Faiz Ali Salim, go around documenting casualties. And then Marla talks her way into the Green Zone in Baghdad, and she meets a young Army captain working on civilian claims. His name is Jon Tracy.

JON TRACY: She basically explained that she and her partner had been going around Iraq and collecting data on civilian casualties since the start of the war. And she had very well-developed files. I mean, you know, the pictures, the birth certificates, the death certificates. She had statements from the survivors and from neighbors.

LAWRENCE: And this is what Marla had always done. She would just win people over to her cause and kind of recruit them. But this was the first time she'd done that with the U.S. military.


RUZICKA: Now, by working with the military, they know it's in their interest to help people that they accidentally harmed. So we're starting to have a more how-can-we-work-together relationship. And that's how we're getting some movement.

KING: She says gaining movement, which is true. But Jon Tracy is one captain in the entire U.S. Army. And by 2004, 2005, there were a lot of civilian casualties in Iraq.

LAWRENCE: Yeah, and that weighed on Marla, and it cost her. Her friends, me included, were urging her to slow down and take care of herself, and she wasn't. She kept traveling to Kabul and Baghdad. And in April of 2005, she's in Iraq, and she had another breakthrough. This time, it's a U.S. Army general who she manages to connect with. And I never knew who that was until we started researching all this for the podcast. But on that trip, in a totally random attack, she and Faiz, her Iraqi colleague, were killed by a car bomb in Baghdad.

KING: So it's been 16 years since this young woman died. What is her legacy? What happened to the work she was doing? Did someone take it up?

LAWRENCE: Well, the Senate named that civilian victims compensation fund after her - the Marla Ruzicka Fund. And to this day, it gives millions of dollars each year to civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. And you can see Marla's hand in a historic shift in the way the U.S. military started tracking and compensating and trying to avoid civilian casualties.

KING: Quite a legacy. Thanks, Quil.

LAWRENCE: Thank you.

KING: That's NPR's Quil Lawrence talking about the late aid worker Marla Ruzicka. You can hear her whole story on our podcast, Rough Translation. You can download and subscribe to that wherever you normally get your podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF HUSHED'S "SIBYL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.
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