Counting the Cost

Colleen Kelly delivered this speech at the Eyes Wide Open exhibit, Philadelphia, PA July 2, 2005

In January, 2002, with the War on Terror‚ in its nascent beginnings, members of my organization, September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, traveled to Kabul, Afghanistan.  These 9-11 families were on a mission that was quite simple, but heart wrenching.  They traveled to Afghanistan to meet Afghan mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters; all of whom had lost someone to the violence that occurs with war, any war, but in this particular instance, our War on Terror. The people the 9-11 families met were ordinary Afghans, regular people, civilians, not connected with the Taliban or Al Qaeda.

On 9-11 my brother simply went to work, and within hours become one of thousands of the first civilian casualties in the War on Terror.  The Afghan families we met all had lost loved ones to similar circumstances their family members also happened to be at the wrong place, at the wrong time.

There was a difference however. On 9-11 civilians were the target. On October 7th, 2001, the American led military response began.  And although civilians certainly were not targeted, thousands of Afghan civilians died. After any violent death, what ensues is the same loss, the same grief, the same sorrow, the same anger.

Although we as Americans may wear different clothing than the Afghans, speak a different language, eat different foods, we are exactly alike in a very important way: we all have a human heart. And when your heart breaks, all the outside window dressings‚, that which differentiates “us” from “them”, are stripped away.  What remains are complex human feelings that have a beautiful and loving potential to connect us, not divide.  “I can understand your loss because it happened to me. I can understand your sorrow because my heart is so heavy too.”

While in Afghanistan, the four 9-11 family members met a bubbly, vivacious, blond American named Marla Ruzicka.  She stuck out like a sore thumb.  Not only because of her golden locks, but often because of the hot pink sandals she wore beneath her abaya.  Marla was on the ground in Kabul about a month before the Peaceful Tomorrows visit.  She was organizing most of our meetings there, and had already begun documenting Afghan civilian loss of life.  Marla was indefatigable, and attracted people like bees to honey.  It was Marla who introduced us to most of our Afghan sister families; families who had now also lost loved ones in this new war.

When the members of Peaceful Tomorrows returned home, we immediately went to Congress and began petitioning for an Afghan Victims Fund.  The reasoning was simple. The American people had been overwhelmingly compassionate and generous to the 9-11 families.  Wouldn’t we want to extend that same good will to Afghan families who had also inadvertently lost family members to the military campaign, and had suffered enough through years of Taliban rule?

It was a long and arduous battle fought on the marble floors of Congressional meeting rooms.  We were told it would set bad precedent. What would happen if governments around the world were required to compensate civilian victims of the wars in which they were participants?

What would happen?

Marla was in the thick of it. She, probably more than anyone, roamed the halls of Congress seeking recognition of civilian loss of life.  Finally, in the 2003 Supplemental Appropriations Bill, language was added by Senator Leahy of Vermont that garnered millions for those areas in Afghanistan hardest hit by the new war. Not specifically civilian compensation, but it was a start.

Then came Iraq.

What you see in front of me are 1,746 pairs of military boots, a loving and public tribute to those American soldiers who have lost their life in Iraq.  They have a human heart too, only their window dressing‚ was more likely to be combat boots and fatigues.

But also in front of me you see hundreds of civilian shoes. They represent a small fraction of the thousands of Iraqi civilians who have died in the war in Iraq.  Each civilian shoe has been tagged with an actual name and age of an Iraqi civilian who has died since March 19th, 2003.  And who collected these names and ages? Our friend Marla Ruzicka and her colleague, Faiz Ali Salim.  At some point, Marla had moved to the new front in the war on terror Iraq.  She was doing in Iraq what she had been doing in Afghanistan ˆ going from door to door, collecting names and information about civilians affected by the war.  She befriended journalists and generals, anyone who would help her help the Iraqi people.

Tragically, Marla and Faiz were killed during a roadside attack on the dangerous highway that leads to the Baghdad airport.  Marla‚s last words to the medic who ran to help her were, “I’m alive”.

Well, Marla is alive.

Her heart and soul are alive in this exhibit. Her work is alive in all that we do to recognize civilian casualties. Her spirit is alive in every person who sees those shoes and is deeply, deeply moved.

We are here today to count the cost:

1746 U.S. military dead.

300 billion spent on war, weapons, and a culture of death.

thousands and thousands of Iraqi civilians killed.

It begs the question:

For what?

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