Remembering Marla: 10 years of Civilian Casualties

Civilian casualties after the Narang night raid, Iraq 2009
Civilian casualties after the Narang night raid, Iraq 2009

Jennifer Abrahamson is a PS21 Global Fellow. Her expertise spans countries, continents and conflicts.  For the past 15 years, she has worked in the fields of humanitarian response, international development, women’s rights and journalism from Afghanistan and Gaza to Darfur and DRC. Most recently, Jennifer was a senior director with the International Center of Research on Women in Washington, DC, and previously worked for the United Nations and Oxfam. She is the author of Sweet Relief: the Marla Ruzicka Story.

It seems apt that the Blackwater security contractors convicted of killing 14 unarmed civilians on an Iraqi street in 2007 were condemned to lengthy sentences this week. I couldn’t help but think of Marla Ruzicka, once the world’s loudest voice calling attention to the plight of innocent victims of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was ten years ago this week, on April 16, 2005, that she was silenced when a suicide bomber detonated his vehicle next to hers on Baghdad’s Airport Road, turning her into another civilian casualty of war while on her way to seek help for others caught in the crossfire.

Upon reflection, one could almost argue today that Marla had a relatively easy job in her work documenting civilian casualties of U.S. warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq and advocating for the U.S. government to compensate victims and their families when mistakes were made. Undoubtedly, her self-assigned task was a monumental one; but peering through the lens of the last 10 years, it looks as if it was at least in the realm of the possible.

Through super-human perseverance and grit, hyper-incandescent, childlike charm and unshakable belief in her mission, Marla made happen what to everyone had seemed insurmountable. Teaming up with one of Washington’s most influential Hill staffers, she brought the stories, names and faces of civilian war victims to policymakers in Washington, DC. The partnership eventually resulted in legislation that for the first time in American history mandated the government to provide assistance to individuals, families and communities accidentally harmed by U.S. warfare (the Iraqi program was posthumously named the Marla Ruzicka Iraqi War Victims Fund). The organization that she founded, CIVIC, survived her death and to date has helped secure more than $200 million in assistance programs in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

As was described to me by one of Marla’s many war-weary friends  – just about everyone whose path she stumbled upon between late 2001 and 2005, including soldiers, security experts and government officials – her tragic death extinguished what little good remained in an increasingly dark place. A decade on, has the world entered an even darker place for civilians trapped in conflict? It certainly seems so.

This week’s sentencing was seen as a diplomatic coup for the Obama Administration vis-a-vis the Iraqis, and importantly, signals that civilian lives in our war zones are not dispensable in the eyes of the U.S. justice system. While I’m sure Marla would have been celebrating this win, I am also certain it would be overshadowed by the millions of ordinary people continuing to fall prey to aggressors of multiple conflicts, with multiple players, each which seems more sadistic than the last, that have erupted or festered since 2005.

And the bloodshed only seems to be getting worse. A report published by PS21 last month showed that the body count from the top twenty deadliest wars in 2014 was more than 28% higher than in the previous year. While the data did not distinguish combatants from non-combatants, the prognosis is bleak for civilians.

Civilian casualties in Iraq
Civilian casualties in Iraq

I still marvel at Marla’s success, and to this day I hold her up as, hands down, the most effective advocate I have ever come across. But who on earth would she be lobbying today to put into place better policies and practices to avoid civilian casualties and other harm such as violence against women and girls during conflict? Who would she be calling on to provide compensation when harm does occur?  Syrian President Bashar al-Assad? ISIS? Al-Shabab? Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula? The Taliban? Boko Haram? Would Marla, with her cascading blond hair, and booming California accent, knock on Saudi Arabia’s door demanding they be more careful while bombing the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen? Would she have any more success with Israel, or with convincing Palestinian militants in Gaza to stop firing rockets from civilian areas?

Civilian injury and death is so widespread today that recent incidents in places like Darfur now go unreported by the international media. (Remember Darfur? It’s still being torn apart 11 years after a rebellion ignited, shortly followed by a barbaric, state-sponsored scorched earth response; nearly half a million people were displaced by conflict last year, more than any other year since the conflict began in 2004. As one U.N. friend who’s working there put it, ‘the whole region is up in fire’). Shortly before Marla died, she told me she wanted to go to Darfur and start work there. Unquestionably, she would have helped to raise further awareness of the civilian tragedy unfolding, but I doubt it would have made any lasting impact.

For better or worse (more often than not, worse), there’s not a week that goes by that I don’t think about Marla. I see traces of her past work in the consistent reporting about civilian death unintentionally caused by U.S. drone strikes in places like Yemen and Pakistan, and in the remorse expressed in the aftermath. I hear her voice when I see reports about the carnage in places like Kenya, or when we mark one year since the abduction of hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls.

Most of all – perhaps because I met her there, and it is the place where she started her work – I think of her when I hear news of Afghanistan, the country that was dearest to her heart. She would be horrified by the latest developments.

A recent U.N. study found that 2014 was the deadliest year for civilians in Afghanistan since it began keeping records in 2009 with more than 10,000 killed or injured. The 22% spike from the previous year was a result in large part to the changing nature of the conflict with the drawdown of the Americans, and a shift to hand to hand combat between the Taliban and Afghan security forces. According to the U.N., the Taliban and other militants were responsible for more than 70% of the casualties. That trend is not likely to change anytime soon.

So yes, we should celebrate the fact that justice has been served in the Blackwater case. But we need a new blueprint to better protect and compensate civilians and their surviving families and communities as the dynamic of ever bloodier and messier conflicts continue to shift. Otherwise, the cause for which Marla gave her life will have been in vain.

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