The Bone Woman by Clea Koff

Nonfiction — print. Random House, 2005. Originally published 2001. 304 pgs. PaperBackSwap.

In order to prosecute perpetrators for genocide and crimes against humanity, bodies must be exhumed and their condition as well as the mass graves they are found in must be documented. It is not enough to say people of particular ethnic or religious groups have disappeared and are presumed dead as perpetrators can claim these missing individuals were casualties of war or are undocumented refugees in neighboring lands.

Koff’s memoir recounts her experiences as a twenty-three year old exhuming and identifying bodies for the United Nations International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) in Rwanda and, later, her five missions with the ICT throughout the former Yugoslavia. The work itself was grueling and difficult, and Koff’s years of schooling and training left her unprepared to deal with the realities of working in worn torn regions under an cumbersome bureaucracy.

The missions lacked the necessary tarps to keep out the rain, which added in decomposition and washed away important evidence, and the guards hired to protect the forensic anthropologists were ineffective when the Congolese military opened fire on people swimming across Lac Kivu mere feet from where Koff and her coworkers were working. The last section of the book focuses less on her work and more on her difficulties with her coworkers and the UN bureaucracy. A clear sign of burnout, although Koff never calls it this, and so the book ends on a less interesting note than the one it began on.

In the United States, where Koff received her training, victims would be identified through dental records or medical procedures performed on their person when they were alive. Of course, in war torn nations like the former Yugoslavia or poorer nations like Rwanda, dental and medical records were not available to aid in identification. Instead, Koff had to rely on clothing to identify people, which can be unreliable as people trade and steal clothing as needed during times of war. In places like Kosovo where the populace was confined to their homes for years, however, the widows and mothers of the genocide victims were able to identify their husbands and sons based on stitching and patches on their clothing.

The sections of the novel detailing the days where Koff would clean these clothes and lay them out for the local populace to come identify carried the most emotional impact. Koff’s distance from her subject matter — necessary in order to do the kind of work she does — would breakdown on these days because she would begin to imagine the skeleton as a person with hopes, dreams, and aspirations (“double vision” as she calls it). At one point, Koff uncovered the body of a young boy with marbles in his pockets. His family was being persecuted for their ethnic background and fleeing for their lives, but this little boy brought his marbles with him because they were an important possession to him. Koff had to leave the grave; I had to set the book down and cry.

Koff ruminates quite a bit on the necessary of emotional distance when doing this kind of work and how she had to fight against “double vision” in order to keep going. Does maintaining such distance leave her cold, heartless, and unable to connect with people? Or does it serve humanity because she is able to do this kind of work? Able to bear witness to the unspeakable crimes committed against these people and be a voice when so many other’s have been silenced? Her introspection on these questions was briefer than I would have liked, but it is clear Koff believes in her work and knows the distance she personally needs to maintain in order to carry out this work. Her story is pretty extraordinary and inspiring. I’m sure if I had read this one back in college, I would have turned the final page and then headed down to the registrar’s office to change my major.

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2 thoughts on “The Bone Woman by Clea Koff

    1. Yes, I have a pretty thick skin about these kind of stories (much like Koff), but the bit with the marbles really got to me. Had to put the book down and go for a walk to clear my head.

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