Appreciation: Marla Ruzicka, 1977-2005

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We didn't know what to make of Marla Ruzicka. Young, blonde, relentlessly buoyant and sometimes giggly, she stood out among the tired, cynical hacks and aid workers that usually populate war zones, so much so that battle-weary journalists nicknamed her "Bubbles" in the early days, uncertain what to make of this gregarious life force that had dropped in our midst. In Kabul and Baghdad during the past few years, Marla was the life of the party. She would rent a house for a day, arrange food and drink and then fire off e-mails to friends and colleagues inviting us to a celebration that sometimes ended with a display of her enviable salsa-dancing skills. But behind her party girl attitude and surfer-girl looks was a fearsome determination and astonishing compassion, qualities that were instrumental in her securing millions of dollars in aid money from the U.S. government last year to help the victims of American bombing in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Ruzicka, 28, became a victim of the Iraqi conflict on Saturday, when a car bomb detonated beside her car on the perilous road from central Baghdad to the city's airport. Her longtime Iraqi aide and driver Faiz Ali Salim, 43, was also killed.

Ruzicka first visited Afghanistan as a representative of the San Francisco-based human rights group Global Exchange. She began lobbying for the victims of U.S. bombing who she said deserved compensation. Fiercely anti-war, she was savvy enough to understand that she probably couldn't stop conflicts but that she could help their victims. On one memorable occasion in Kabul, in early 2002, she organized a demonstration outside the U.S. embassy, arriving with a father and his daughter, the only survivors of a recent U.S. bombing raid that had left 18 family members dead.

The demonstration could have been a flop. The Marines inside the embassy gates were nervous and sent out Afghan lackeys to hassle any translators working for the gathered journalists. Ruzicka climbed up on an old concrete flower box and, shouting above the commotion, told the family's story and demanded compensation from Congress. She had no microphone and the crowd was being broken up even as she spoke. But through sheer force of personality she pulled it off and the story ran in the following day's papers. "I'd rarely met someone who could combine such strident activism with canny politics—all at the age of 24, when I first met her," says TIME's Vivienne Walt, who got to know Ruzicka in Kabul in 2002.

Within minutes of that meeting, Ruzicka was leading Walt into mountain villages to introduce her to families who had lost their homes in U.S. bombing attacks. She was famous among journalists in Baghdad for being able to talk herself through any checkpoint. To seal her valuable contacts, she jogged with U.S. military JAGs, and knew countless ministry, police and hospital officials by first name. "With her incredible knack for making friends and her indefatigable investigative pursuits, she taught many of us who were a lot older some things about how to do our jobs," says Walt.

Two years ago, Ruzicka founded her own human rights group, Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict She set herself the momentous task of tracking the civilian victims of collateral damage in Iraq and began lobbying Congress for compensation, convincing U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy to put a special fund in last year's foreign aid bill. The $17.5 million promised so far is just part of her legacy. Ruzicka's short life, so packed with adventure and achievement, is proof that belief and resolve can achieve incredible things.