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Losing a fighter for war's victims

ARMED ONLY with her humanity, Marla Ruzicka did the impossible. Virtually alone, she directed attention and resources to the invisible victims of war. She moved the military without using force, galvanized official Washington without powerful connections, and motivated the press without sensationalism -- just intimate connection to civilians whose deaths she documented and grieved. Her work was a triumph of the heart.

She was recently killed by a car bomb while traveling to help Iraqis affected by the war. No one can take her place, but the United States can fulfill her mission to account more fully for civilian harm in war.

Marla was a humanitarian. By the time she founded her organization, CIVIC, her early activism had shed its political skin and distilled into a personal campaign for civilian victims of war. First in Afghanistan and later Iraq, she walked door to door, recording how families had been affected by conflict. By creating a methodical record of civilian harm limbs lost, buildings destroyed, children killed, she and her colleagues bore witness to the suffering. She used that information to get assistance to victims. She provided it to a Harvard-sponsored collateral damage database to assess the military causes of civilian casualties. She made it harder for US authorities to ignore the human costs of war.

She was relentless, settling into a military lawyer's office until he saw the merits of a particular injury claim, hounding a commander until he approved a wounded child's medevac. Her force of will helped convince Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, to direct millions through the US Agency for International Development to assistance for families and communities. She didn't know that such things simply ''weren't done." So she did them.

In her optimism and naivete, she was quintessentially American. But she stood apart in her sense of responsibility for others. She healed as she moved through ravaged communities: holding victims, crying with the bereaved, gathering evidence of harm, and promising help. Strangers responded to her for no reason other than her authentic concern.

If she connected with the victims, she also found common cause with those in uniform. She forwarded me an e-mail from an Army officer who tracked her down long after he had left Baghdad. ''I admired you for your compassion, sensitivity, and courage; you were a bright spot in all of that tragedy," he wrote. ''I had the great misfortune and sad duty to tell you of a child's death -- one for whom you were searching at a hospital. You cried briefly on my shoulder as I told you that news. I was saddened and touched by your sorrow that day."

It mattered to her that they were able to share that sadness together. She understood that US soldiers don't wish harm upon the innocent, and she looked upon them as allies.

Marla's parents called her an ambassador for us all. But in truth, she was doing what the US government would not. Marla searched out what most Americans try to ignore -- the collateral effects on the innocent. She was the sole American present at the funeral of a Jordanian taxi driver, whom she called the first civilian victim of the Iraq war. She named the dead, documented injuries, and recorded damaged lives. Along the way, she worked without blame, without an agenda.

Still, she believed the United States could do better, not just at healing the wounds inadvertently caused, but to prevent future suffering. Which is why she wanted the government involved in the work to which she dedicated her life. She proved how much just one person could contribute. She believed that relief groups, de-mining teams, health organizations, journalists, and human rights investigators could also assess the impact on civilians. But she knew that unless the US government, and particularly the military, was engaged, it couldn't be done right. More fundamentally, only the military could apply the information to better avoid civilian casualties in the future. So not long before she died, Marla asked Leahy to create a government office responsible for maintaining a record of noncombatant casualties of US military operations.

Marla represented Americans better than we deserved. Honoring her life means asking our government to acknowledge the unintended victims of armed conflict and to learn from their suffering.

Sarah Sewall is adjunct lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government where she directs the Carr Center Project on the Means of Intervention

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