BAGHDAD, Iraq – The 12-year-old orphan remembers Marla Ruzicka (search) 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 (search) 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.
Ruzicka was killed with her Iraqi translator and another foreigner on April 16 when a car bomb exploded as they drove in two vehicles along the treacherous road leading to Baghdad's (search) airport. She will be buried Saturday in her hometown of Lakeport, Calif.
At first, the Hassan children were told Ruzicka died in a car accident, their relatives offering a more benign version of the truth to the youngsters still longing for their parents, Kamila and Hussein.
But Intisar Hassan, the eldest at 24, learned the truth when she watched the news that night on television. She began to cry.
"That woman who was killed was a nice woman," Intisar Hassan said by telephone from the family's concrete-block home in Tal Afar, 90 miles east of the Syrian border. "She was kind and nice, and we hoped at the time she would be able to help Rakan get better."
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.
A one-woman human rights movement, Ruzicka was instrumental in securing millions of dollars in aid for distribution in Iraq. She'd been traveling to and from the country since U.S.-led forces invaded in March 2003, often going door-to-door to meet wounded Iraqis and collect the figures for her surveys on the number hurt and killed.
She badgered the military for numbers and Washington for money. She sweet-talked journalists and soldiers alike into helping her out. And everyone got a hug.
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."