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World knew her simply as Marla

Aid worker killed in Iraq was big-hearted, hardheaded

Editor's Note: Marla Ruzicka, the founder of an American humanitarian aid group helping Iraqi and Afghan civilian war casualties, was killed in a roadside blast in Baghdad on April 16. CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen, a friend of hers, wrote this appreciation.

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Marla Ruzicka's parents remember her as a bright light.

Jane Arraf remembers the humanitarian killed in Iraq.
• Activist praised for work

(CNN) -- Thousands of people from around the world knew her simply as Marla.

In dusty, remote Afghan villages, on the streets of Baghdad, and in the corridors of power in Washington, when you mentioned Marla everyone knew who you were talking about and a smile would invariably come to the person's face. She had hundreds of best friends in every corner of the globe. She treated everybody as if they were incredibly special. She loved everybody.

After spending several months in Afghanistan in late 2001 and early 2002, Marla arrived in Washington with no money and knowing almost nobody. In a short period, she had donations streaming in for her work helping civilians in the wars in Afghanistan, and then Iraq.

Marla was opposed to the Iraq war before it began, but once the war started she just wanted to help people who were hurt, not engage in a debate about the merits of the war. Beneath her Californian, happy-go-lucky demeanor, she was a hardheaded realist about what needed to be done.

The war happened. People were hurt. She wanted to help them.

Although she never said so directly -- she never had anything negative to say about anybody -- Marla had little patience for people who demonstrated against the war, and did nothing else.

An example of her realistic approach is how she worked in Afghanistan and Iraq compensating the families of people who died.

She and her field workers went out and carefully investigated if Afghan and Iraqi civilians really had been killed by the U.S. military, and then that family would get some kind of compensation if it turned out they had suffered because of the actions of American soldiers.

Even though I knew that Marla was taking tremendous risks over several years, I never worried about her. I thought somehow that because she was doing so much good in the world that would insulate her from violence.

Recently, she had become increasingly concerned about the situation in Iraq, which is why she started spending more time in Afghanistan, which is, relatively speaking, safe.

An e-mail Marla sent to me on the day she died described her anxiety about the security situation in Iraq, but she felt that there was so much work she still had to do.

This is what the e-mail said: "We are helping lots of kids with medical care -- this place continues to break my heart -- need to get out of here -- but hard!"

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