If Marla Ruzicka had penned her own obituary, she would have written about Faiz Ali Salim, her 43-year-old Iraqi driver and aide in documenting the impact of the invasion on Iraqi civilians. While U.S. troops were bombing, Marla was bonding, literally canvassing door-to-door in Baghdad neighborhoods to count the number of civilian casualties.
The 28-year-old Northern Californian and Faiz were killed by a suicide bomber on the notoriously dangerous Baghdad airport road in April 2005. In her quest to secure funds for families who’d lost innocent loved ones, Marla had befriended scores of reporters, who generously and poignantly eulogized her infectious spirit, her relentless determination to help war victims and her gift at salsa dancing. Faiz’s death was mentioned as an afterthought; Marla would have told his story instead.
He left behind his wife and 2-month old baby.
Marla and I shared a suite during our first trip to Iraq, just five weeks before the U.S.-led invasion. I didn’t know her well. She seemed deep in her own world, as if she were trying to place herself in it. Struggling with a recent romantic breakup, recovering from grueling work she had just experienced in Afghanistan, and, like all of us on that trip, reconciling our helplessness with the theoretical power our democracy was perceived to bestow on us, she was quiet and didn’t invite intrusion.
Over the years, I’ve wondered what Marla’s conversations were like with Faiz. Surely, she would have been enchanted by his newborn; she gravitated to children. Did they ever talk about how dangerous their work was? Reporters wrote about Marla’s fearlessness. Did Marla ever wonder if her presence as an American put Faiz in danger? Did he shrug off that possibility in favor of helping this dynamic American secure compensation for his injured countrymen?
These questions knock about my brain right now as I prepare to return to Iraq. For the past week, my “fixer,” Abdullah in Baghdad, and I have been on a roller coaster made more frustrating by communication snafus while I am in Beirut. One minute he’s expressing concerns about my visit (but I’m not sure what he is most concerned about: my safety, his responsibility for my safety, or his safety) and the next minute he’s lining up meetings with my translator and driver.
My translator is a 21-year-old who recently worked in the Green Zone. Born in 1991, the year of the first Gulf War, Mustafa has known nothing but recovering from war, preparing for war and enduring war. He is excited to work with me until this weekend, when a wave of coordinated car bombs shattered Eid celebrations and killed 60 to 91 people. (As I tried to confirm these figures — casualty numbers still unconfirmed — I learned another two bombs went off in cafes in Baghdad, killing another 21 people, according to initial reports.) It’s akin to al-Qaida setting off coordinated bombs in Boston on Thanksgiving.
New checkpoints. New roadblocks. New lines. New walls. New fears. Mustafa wrote that there’s a new requirement: I must get some sort of written permission from the Iraqi government to conduct interviews. He wants me to get this paper to protect him, the driver and Abdullah so that soldiers stopping us at checkpoints don’t think I’m being kidnapped by three Iraqi men. It could take a month to get this approval, and my Iraqi visa is good for only a month.
Furthermore, getting this approval means sending these men’s names to the government. One of the men is a Sunni and is understandably suspicious of being registered with the predominantly Shiite government as having helped an American.
Abdullah’s hushed voice on the cellphone today is brittle, suspicious and cryptic. His uncharacteristically long e-mail last night in a language that is not his own is suddenly panicky, almost desperate. “Our names will go to the [government] ministry and militias then after you’re back (if you are back safe), who will be sure that we will be safe? Now in Iraq no one trusts even his brother, so how can I trust the driver or translator or even the staff of the hotel?” This proud man once defied my concerns about being seen with me by crossing his arms and declaring, “I am a free man.” I can still hear his indignation, now I hear his defeat.
Then, the driver demanded more money; double what anyone else would get.
An Iraqi fixer in the States advised I postpone, my friend Sarmad in Hillah (who is interviewed on my blog about water treatment quality) was more blunt: “Don’t come.”
The 29-year-old new father wrote me tonight: “Kelly, we have no life. We are all dead.”
My flight was supposed to leave within days; I’ve canceled my trip. I’m heartsick for my Iraqi friends and the daily violence, insecurity and indignity they endure. I feel guilty about letting down my friends in Baghdad and at the embassy who worked so hard for this trip’s success. One of the U.S. consulate workers called me from his personal cellphone from outside the office and confided, “Madam Kelly, I want you to know we are doing everything we can. You are helping our people!” But, I can’t endanger their lives by showing up.
I’m still reeling after spending more than seven months on the logistics, fundraising and PR for the trip. I have to regroup and figure out my own schedule. I am supposed to be out of my rented apartment in Beirut in two days. I hope to spend the unexpected time in Beirut doing more in-depth reporting on Syrian refugees. Perhaps I can get to refugee camps in Turkey. Not sure yet, but I have no intention of squandering the time.
Kelly Hayes-Raitt prepared to return to Baghdad Aug. 14. Follow her current efforts at www.AreWeReallyOutOfIraq.com.