BAGHDAD — She hugged and laughed her way through war zones with an effervescence belying her seriousness of purpose.
No pass to get through a checkpoint? She leaned across her Iraqi driver to show the stern American guard the shock of blond hair beneath her flowing black robes.
"Please, please, please, please, please," she said, and then, "Where are you from?"
She waved aside tough-looking guards from all corners of the world, never looking back to see if they had raised an AK-47 in her direction. In her one-woman mission to make the United States take responsibility for the innocent victims of its wars, 28-year-old Marla Ruzicka bubbled with a passion that seemed to lift her beyond danger.
Iraq's random violence caught up with Ruzicka on Saturday. Her car pulled alongside a convoy of U.S. contractors just as a suicide bomber detonated his car. Ruzicka, her driver-translator and one guard on the convoy were killed. Five other people were wounded.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 20, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Injured Iraqi -- An article in Monday's Section A about the death of activist Marla Ruzicka said Rakan Hassan of Mosul was shot by a helicopter gunship. He was shot by a U.S. patrol.
Her death stunned a wide circle of diplomats, government officials, soldiers, journalists and ordinary people from Baghdad to Kabul.
"God bless her pure soul, she was trying to help us," said Haj Natheer Bashir, the brother-in-law of an Iraqi teenager Ruzicka was trying to evacuate to the Bay Area for surgery. "She was just a kind lady."
A former Marine who now works for the State Department in Baghdad said: "She was a remarkable woman and a kind person, and she affected everyone she came in contact with." The diplomat said he was not authorized to speak on the record about Ruzicka because her remains were awaiting DNA analysis for positive identification.
Ruzicka was en route to visit an injured Iraqi girl, her group's website said. But it wasn't clear why she was on the notoriously dangerous Baghdad airport road, or why her car pulled up alongside a convoy. Almost all Baghdad drivers slam on their brakes as soon as they see a row of slow-moving SUVs ahead to avoid getting in the way of possible car bombs.
Raised in conservative Lakeport, north of San Francisco, the 5-foot-3 Ruzicka was a high school basketball star, a leading three-point shooter. She also showed an early attraction to humanitarian causes.
Ruzicka and her twin brother, Mark, were the youngest of six children of Clifford and Nancy Ruzicka. Mark, who gathered with family and friends at their parents' home in Lakeport on Sunday, said his sister had led a school protest against the Persian Gulf War in 1991 when she was in eighth grade, and was promptly suspended.
Her high school principal, Pat McGuire, sent an e-mail to the family Sunday after learning of her death, recalling that Ruzicka, after reading Alan Paton's novel "Cry, The Beloved Country" and watching a videotape of the slaying of a young American woman in South Africa, had come away with a desire to do humanitarian work.
During her college years at Long Island University she traveled to countries such as Cuba, Guatemala and Costa Rica. When she visited Israel, she also traveled to Ramallah in the West Bank.
Her father, 69, a civil engineer, said the family became accustomed to her travels.
"She had a lot of purpose in her life, so it was kind of natural that she would go into places like these," he said. He added that he was proud of her as a "lady with a tremendously open heart and warm feelings toward the people who've been in conflict and war."
About 10 years ago, she showed up at the San Francisco offices of the left-leaning Global Exchange, said its founder, Medea Benjamin, the Green Party's candidate for the U.S. Senate from California in 2000.
Ruzicka accompanied Benjamin to Afghanistan in 2001 after the war to oust the Taliban, and came back a changed person, said her friend and volunteer attorney, David Frankel.
"She could no longer relate to the boring, mundane details of ordinary life," Frankel said.
She returned to Afghanistan on her own funds, "finding people who were hurt, finding what they needed -- an artificial limb, a skin graft, a new roof over their house. She would find a way to fill the need directly," he said.
A few days after Baghdad fell in April 2003, Ruzicka showed up in Iraq. She began building a volunteer network to document civilian casualties.
The records they compiled on more than 2,000 dead provided an early accounting of the war's toll. The currently accepted figure, based largely on news accounts, is between 17,000 and 20,000, said Newsweek reporter Owen Matthews, a friend of Ruzicka, who said her compilation stood out because of its detail.
Several friends said Ruzicka experienced steep emotional swings and had a troubled side to her life.
"This was her therapy," Matthews said.
As she struggled to build her own organization, Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, or CIVIC, Ruzicka began shuttling between Baghdad, an office in New York and her parents' home in the Bay Area.