The Bone Woman: a Forensic Anthropologist's Search for Truth in Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia,and Kosovo

by Clea Koff
ISBN: 0676976069

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A Review of: The Bone Woman: A Forensic AnthropologistĘs Search for Truth in Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo
by Todd Swift

American poet and critic Edgar Allan Poe wrote that no topic could be more poetic than that which related death to a beautiful woman. Poe's necrophiliac narrative strategies have since become somewhat commonplace: the yellow police line is one both readers and television viewers willingly cross often, and the number of "profilers" and "forensic" experts, fictional and less-so, of whom we have grown fond (from FBI agent Starling onwards), has swollen like a body left too long in water. The trope has become a character, and that character tends to be a determined woman interested in looking at dead people in order to solve a mystery.
Now it is time to uncover yet another link between repugnant crime and the ambiguous attractions of the investigator-this one dished out to us in the form of a very engaging memoir by the young and brilliant forensic anthropologist Clea Koff. Koff is as photogenic as her subject is unspeakably ugly. Koff is also, and more importantly, a very good writer, a sort of Graham Greene for the Tomb Raider set. Her depiction of squalid, sun-ravaged "post-conflict" terror and morally-compromised adventure is spot on.
It is barely believable, but true, that anyone so inexperienced and young (she was a 23-year-old grad student when she went on her first mission in 1996) could have become the only expert to participate in all seven of the forensic fact-finding missions for the UN War Crimes Tribunal: Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo. Koff is also a peculiar and refreshingly honest person. How else to account for such a confession as: "By the time I was thirteen we were living in Washington, DC, and I was burying dead birds in plastic bags so I could dig them up later-I was curious to see how long it took them to turn into' skeletons."
Such an early childhood interest in rotting animals is often associated with sociopathic behaviour in later life; and, conversely (and thankfully) with those who seek to use scientific study of such decomposition to apprehend psychopathic killers. Koff goes to the limits of what is acceptable to say and write when she claims her first day in Rwanda, as she ran out of flags to mark the skulls she found, was a dream come true. Here readers are treated to a topsy-turvy world, where those trained to "give voice to people silenced" in "the most final way" relish the gory details and their own bone-crunching prowess.
Perhaps the most tiresome trope in an otherwise often startlingly fresh and always informative story is, in fact, that of the mute skull or other abject piece of human remnant "speaking" from the shallow grave of loose topsoil close to the massacre site. It is one any viewer of "CSI" has encountered, and is a staple of the crime thriller. Yet, finally, the image of the unearthed bones that communicate their tale is one that the author dusts off and makes her own.
Koff's forensic work, inspired by the classic book Witnesses from the Grave, had always sought to reconcile her wish to "help reduce oppression by making the bones talk" with her desire to engage in the visceral thrill of the hunt, however immersed in the morgue or killing fields. These somewhat conflicting motives (though not suspect) create the tension in The Bone Woman that makes it more compelling than a straightforward account might be. This is because Koff is unafraid to get personal, and admit to her emotional struggle.
Her initial happiness on day one in Rwanda decomposes into a grim need to find meaning in the murder. She discovers, to her dismay, that, out in the field, the morgue has no "back door" and an intimacy collects, just as the bones do on a sterile tray, forming a bond between investigator, victim, and victim's relations. Koff is good on the subject of the personal costs, and rewards, then, of working at the thin edge of genocide. What is uncovered establishes what communities actually were willing to do to each other (these were organized mass slaughters) and is thus a dangerous truth to bear; it also, paradoxically, allows the grieving to begin and thus eventually heal, even as blame is apportioned.
Koff's exploration of the poetics of homicide (indeed mass murder) and its investigation is equally compelling. Her use of colour and image in this sentence for instance: "We spent days searching for surface skeletons, placing red flags in the soil as we worked until we had located so many that it was more helpful to ring whole areas in yellow crime scene tape wrapped around tree trunks." Koff is also adept at offering chilling sentences the average reader is unlikely to encounter elsewhere, outside of highly specialized manuals: "One day, most of the skeletons we worked on were children with massive sharp force trauma and blunt force trauma to the head."
Elsewhere, a description of maggots and putrification is presented which is without doubt the most morbid and grisly a lay-person could tolerate. There is something of the "been there, done that" Less Than Zero cold style in this jaded tone, but that may come from Koff's intention to form a sort of novelistic purpose from the non-fictional soil she mines. Then again, perhaps, like many soldiers, doctors and scientists, she simply doesn't realize how startling dead bodies can be to "civilians".
This "when Eros meets Thanatos" whimsy (which is problematic given the context but nonetheless car-wreck fascinating) is well-evidenced by her relating of anecdote, as when she is menaced by some of the soldiers meant to protect her encampment. Once, "having a pee" in the foliage, she discovers she is being watched, by a soldier who says "I love you". In Koff's trademark mix of horror and humour the story continues: "He appeared almost every time I was alone on the hillside with a skeleton." Such moments of near black humour keep the reader going through admittedly challenging terrain.
Koff is on thinner ground when, at the end of the book, she moves from her own personal and professional experiences (admittedly formative and unique) to the creation of a political philosophy. Namely, the big question: why? It would be unfair to criticize her for posing the question, since it would be a perverse person indeed who, after seven missions searching for the facts behind civilization's worst crime, genocide, would not wonder at the cause or causes. Being the only anthropologist to participate in all these missions, she is able to further compare and contrast, say "Rwandan genocide" with that which took place in Kosovo, based on their murderous results. She has seen the dumped bodies, and the cleaved skulls. It is clearly tempting for Koff to attempt to achieve a link.
Her argument, then, is disappointing, in that her final claim is to suggest a basic source for each of the various genocidal outbreaks: "self-interest". Koff claims that the surface issues, such as inter-tribal, ethnic or religious tensions, mask a simple urge on the part of government officials to organize massacres in order to control and assimilate power and natural resources; her reference to Israel and water rights in the Middle East, here, seems geopolitical over-reaching.
Furthermore, after stating that genocide can "happen anywhere" she admits that it relies on the quick mobilization of many people willing to brutally decimate their friends and neighbours for bribes such as "big-screen televisions" or "plots of land". This kind of greed-based looting is sadly general, but not necessarily universal. If Koff wishes to base her theory of genocide on such a mix of psychology and economics, she will need deeper expertise than that of the body bag and scalpel.
Still, the book as whole is a success. The story that The Bone Woman tells is of dedication to justice, in very frightening settings, knee-deep in gut-wrenchingly putrid soil, excavating human remains that signify the very worst that humans do to each other. Clea Koff follows her passionate, insightful muse into and past the heart of darkness, to emerge with an unexpected revelation. In the middle of the mutilated body lies a radiating marrow: a writer's inexhaustible power to unearth language, to signify hope's transcendence; to signify like a red flag, a child's white skull. Koff may have found harrowing truth, but in the process we have found a new writer of much promise.

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