At Death's Door
By David Wright
Wednesday 28 May 2003
American Woman Travels Door to Door to Count Iraqi Casualties
The Pentagon keeps a precise count of U.S. casualties in the war in Iraq. But the question of how many Iraqis lost their lives remains as mysterious as the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein or the location of all those weapons of mass destruction.
Marla Ruzicka, 26, from the San Francisco Bay Area, has been in Baghdad since the day Saddam's statue fell in the city center. She has been doing a headcount of the Iraqi injured and the dead. She's found more than she expected.
She has formed her own nonprofit organization, called the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, or CIVIC. She has organized 150 surveyors to fan out across Iraq. So far, they say they have documented 620 civilian deaths in Baghdad, 256 in Najaf, 425 in Karbala and as many as 1,100 in Nasiriyah. It is only a preliminary count.
"Somewhere between 5,000 to 10,000 people died in this conflict," Ruzicka said.
Ruzicka's survey teams conduct their search door to door. On Saturday, she visited the village of Rashidiya, a small farm town on the banks of the Tigris River. On April 5, U.S. warplanes strafed the village, killing nearly 100 people. All of them were civilians.
In one house, 17-month-old Haider al Hamadi was the only member of his family to escape unscathed. He lost his mother, his three sisters and two brothers. His father survived, but lost three fingers.
In another home, 42 people in one extended family were killed. Many were visiting from Baghdad in an effort to keep their children safe from the blitz.
"Each number represents a case, a need, represents a father, a mother, a loss of life," she said.
Her Own Cause
Ruzicka does not represent the U.S. government. She's not affiliated with any big relief agency. She is a lone peace activist who has taken it upon herself to help the civilian victims of war.
It is a difficult process, in part because there continue to be casualties almost every day. But there is still no official tally of how many Iraqi lives were lost military or civilian. Iraq's military kept all records secret. And the civilian documents are unreliable.
Each hospital keeps a handwritten book of the dead. There is no master list. And the hospital records are in disarray after the flood of casualties during the war, and the looters who came after.
Cemeteries are poorly marked. Many burials were not documented at all. And it is difficult to tell the military from the civilian dead because of the tactics Saddam's forces employed during the war: dressing in civilian clothes, staging in civilian neighborhoods, putting civilian lives at risk.
"It takes time, that's why we cant give you a number today or tomorrow," said Ruzicka. "Our goal beyond getting assistance to the innocent families that are harmed is to get a proper accounting of war."
It is painstaking work, meeting one on one with people whose lives have been ruined.
Ruzicka's task started in Amman, Jordan, two months ago. She attended the funeral of the man believed to be the first civilian casualty in this war a Jordanian taxi driver killed the first night of bombing. While the U.S. ambassador sent a letter, she was the only American to personally offer condolences to the grieving family.
Now, every day, she meets with new victims, in sessions that often seem like group therapy.
"Yes, a number is important," she said, "but it's not as important as making sure that we recognize that each number is a life. Ultimately, we can get them long-term medical care. We can get their homes rebuilt and possibly it's a hard possibility but what we're working or is some economic assistance."
Fighting for Compensation
The U.S. military says it does everything it can to ensure that innocent civilians don't get caught in the crossfire. But mistakes happen; war is messy. Ruzicka's ultimate goal is to win compensation for these people, which is no easy task.
The only real precedent for compensating civilian casualties comes from Afghanistan, and Ruzicka helped to make it happen by successfully lobbying the U.S. Congress to help innocent victims of that war.
In Afghanistan, Ruzicka's survey confirmed 824 civilian deaths although she believes at least double that number died in the U.S. campaign to oust the Taliban and al Qaeda. She convinced Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to insert language in an appropriations bill, allocating $3.75 million to help the Afghan victims.
"Marla Ruzicka is somebody out there saying, 'Wait, everybody. Here's what's really happening. You better know about this,' " said Leahy. "We have whistle-blowers in industry. Maybe sometimes we need whistle-blowers in foreign policy."
But in Iraq, one person, however determined, is bound to have trouble getting the attention of the U.S. military, which has its hands full. Just wading through the bureaucracy can take days.
Ruzicka is also chronically short on money. She now has $50 left in her bank account, so she is applying for a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Until that comes through, she relies on the help of her friends.
But while other aid agencies are still getting organized in Iraq, still tentatively working out the difficult security situation, Ruzicka is already out there, trying as much as one person can to help.