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Slain War Victim Activist Buried

Friends, family, journalists and colleagues came from around the world for the Lakeport, Calif., funeral service for Marla Ruzicka, a passionate defender of victims of war who was killed in a car bombing in Baghdad.

Among the some 600 mourners at St. Mary's Catholic Church Saturday were U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer and actor Sean Penn, who called Ruzicka one of his heroes.

Ruzicka, 28, was the founder of CIVIC, the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, whose aim was to tally the number of Iraqi civilian deaths in the war.

She was killed with her Iraqi translator and another foreigner on April 16th by a car bomb which hit their two vehicles as they drove along the treacherous road leading to Baghdad's airport.

Instrumental in securing millions of dollars in aid for distribution in Iraq, Ruzicka had been traveling to and from the country since U.S.-led forces invaded, often going door-to-door to meet wounded Iraqis and gathering data for her surveys on those hurt and killed.

In Iraq, a 12-year-old orphan remembers Marla Ruzicka as a smiling blonde apparition who gave him a glass of juice and changed his clothes when bullet splinters in his spine made it painful to move and walking virtually impossible.

The American activist took up Rakan Hassan's cause, securing a surgeon in the United States to perform the operation he needs to recover from the attack that killed his parents. But Ruzicka died before she could complete her mission, cut down by the same relentless violence that has shattered the lives of the many Iraqis she tried to help.

At the time of her death, Ruzicka was in contact with officials from the U.S. Embassy and State Department to arrange Rakan's medical evacuation. Since then, however, his cause has stalled. The embassy said Friday it was still processing his case.

Everyone who knew the 28-year-old activist — from the Iraqi families she helped, to the U.S. senators and war correspondents she lobbied — extolled Ruzicka's relentless campaign for compensation for the innocent victims of war.

With passion for her causes and an unbridled capacity for having fun, she was remembered as a force of nature, a cross between Mother Teresa and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, said Quill Lawrence, a radio reporter for the British Broadcasting Corp., speaking at the funeral.

Ruzicka often arrived in war-torn places unprepared and nearly broke, he said. But Lawrence said she quickly managed to win over the hearts of those she was helping and those whose help she needed.

Lawrence said Ruzicka repaid favors with her friendship, kindness and a ready smile. "She made me feel like I was the greatest person on earth," Lawrence told the crowd.

Bobby Muller, chairman of Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, said the true value of Ruzicka's work was her ability to counter people's cynicism.

"Marla demonstrated the fact that an individual can make a profound difference in this world," Muller said. "This woman was our inspiration."

Ruzicka refused to accept the official line that the U.S. military does not keep track of civilian casualties, writing in an op-ed piece the week before she was killed that this position "outraged the Arab world and damaged the U.S. claim that its forces go to great lengths to minimize civilian casualties."

An Associated Press survey of deaths in the first 12 months of the occupation found that more than 5,000 Iraqis died violently in just Baghdad and three provinces. Since then, however, neither U.S. nor Iraqi officials have produced a complete tally.

Ruzicka thought she was close to uncovering the figures.

"Recently, I obtained statistics on civilian casualties from a high-ranking U.S. military official. The numbers were for Baghdad only, for a short period, during a relatively quiet time," she wrote in the article published posthumously in USA Today and posted on her Web site.

It wasn't clear if the deaths were caused by U.S. troops or insurgents, she wrote, but it was clear the U.S. military did actually keep track of the civilian dead. A U.S. official told her it was "standard operating procedure for U.S. troops to file a spot report when they shoot a noncombatant," she said.

The U.S. military did not immediately respond to her claims.

Ruzicka was on her way to visit an Iraqi girl injured in a bomb blast when she was killed, according to her colleagues from the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, the organization she founded.

As for Rakan, he now lies motionless on a bed borrowed from neighbors, staring listless and depressed at the walls of a bleak, dank room, waiting for help to walk through the door again.

Rakan's parents were killed when a U.S. military foot patrol fired on the family's car one dark, starless night in January in the border town of Tal Afar. The incident was widely reported, but Ruzicka was one of few foreigners to risk traveling north to meet Rakan and his seven siblings earlier this month.

Rakan said he felt sorry for Ruzicka's parents "because she cared about me. I should care about her family in return."

Still struggling with the loss of his own parents, Rakan said through a translator that he wanted to send a message to Clifford and Nancy Ruzicka, preparing to bury their much-loved daughter on the other side of the world.

"I say to her parents: God bless her soul, God give them strength to endure this tragedy," he said. "I lost her, they lost her and every poor Iraqi has lost her."

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