We would meet early every morning for an hour-long jog through the snowy streets of Kabul. It was December 2001, just weeks after the US-led Coalition, in collaboration with Afghan military front Northern Alliance, had routed the Taliban from Kabul in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre.
There were three of us – a brave American young woman named Marla Ruzicka, a happy, yappie dog named Snowy, and myself, at the time a correspondent for French news agency Agence France-Presse.
We would run at dawn past the bakers firing up their ovens, ready to churn out endless loaves of steaming flat bread, past drivers of huge colourful trucks making fires under their vehicles to warm up the engines, past merchants cloaked in blankets on their way to open their stores.
Marla, just 24 years old, was in Kabul to spearhead the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) NGO she had founded. Her mission was to prove that the Coalition was deliberately under-reporting the number of civilians being killed in their ongoing operations – and to secure compensation for victims.
We would run down to the local football stadium, where just weeks earlier the hardline Taliban had been publicly executing its opponents during the Friday match half-time break.
As we ran round and round the field, we would chat about many things – about the sense of euphoria that had gripped Kabul after the fall of the Taliban, about the endless convoys of trucks from Pakistan bringing in goods that had been outlawed by the Taliban when they controlled the city – toys, video games, Bollywood movies, cosmetics and horror of horrors, lacy underwear.
But most of all we would talk, angrily and earnestly, about the civilian casualties of the Coalition’s air strikes. About the dead children -- too many dead children.
Marla was passionate about her one-woman quest – exposing the indiscriminate cruelty of Coalition air strikes and trying to secure compensation from Washington for relatives of innocent women, men and children killed and maimed in the bombings.
She believed fervently that one had to be on the ground to get a clearer idea of the extent of civilian casualties in the world’s conflict zones. And she did her best to get to the site of every air strike in and around Kabul to make her own investigations.
Exposing the indiscriminate cruelty of coalition airstrikes
In those days the air strikes were carried out by ultra-high-flying jets which left acrid airstreams in their wake – and scary, smoky downward trails behind their lethal projectiles.
These days the bombings are carried out by sophisticated unmanned drones – the age of robot warfare has arrived.
But despite the technological advances, the civilian casualties continue to mount.
According to the UN assistance mission in Afghanistan, civilian deaths in the war-wracked country rose one percent to 1,692 in the first half of 2018
The main causes of casualties, the UN said, were clashes between security forces and militants, roadside bombs, and suicide attacks.
It said attacks on targets such as sporting events, aid groups, Shia shrines, government offices and voter registration stations accounted for most of the civilian casualties.
But, it added, casualties from air strikes by the Coalition rose by a whopping 52 percent, with 353 casualties including 149 dead and 204 wounded.
Air strikes were also a major cause of civilian casualties during a four-month offensive in Syria’s Raqqah province last year against Islamic State militants by another US-led Coalition, according to Amnesty International.
“There is strong evidence that Coalition air and artillery strikes killed and injured thousands of civilians, including in disproportionate or indiscriminate attacks that violated the international humanitarian law and are potential war crimes,” Amnesty said in a June 2018 report.
The US and other Coalition partners have strongly denied that civilians are being targeted indiscriminately and disputes Amnesty’s figures, admitting to no more than 32 civilian deaths.
The rights group says the much lower figure given by the Coalition is due to “poor investigation procedures that fail even to involve on-the-ground research".
By contrast, its researchers had spent weeks in Raqqa conducting field investigations, including interviewing witnesses and visiting attack sites. The very methods that Marla had employed.
In all wars, estimates of civilians killed and maimed always vary widely.
Figures, for example, of civilians killed in World War 2 range from 50 million to 80 million – a full 30 million difference.
As Marla had stressed over and over, only researchers on the ground can get a reasonably accurate picture. But the job is extremely fraught.
Marla Ruzicka tragically died in a roadside bombing in Baghdad on April 16th, 2005. She had been engaged in the same dangerous work she had carried out in Afghanistan years earlier. She happened to find herself behind a convoy that was attacked on the dangerous airport road.
Her death, said Rolling Stone magazine, “resonated far beyond the tightly knit group of war junkies and policymakers who knew her.”
It deeply affected US Senator Patrick Leahy, who had been working with her on legislation to provide millions of dollars in US aid for civilians who had been harmed by the US military.
Leahy persuaded President George W. Bush to sign legislation on May 11, 2005, which renamed the civilian war victims the "Marla Ruzicka Iraqi War Victims Fund."
In a grim twist of fate, this feisty woman who for the previous four years had done all she could to expose the tragedy of civilian victims of conflict, herself had become a victim.