The Bone Woman: A Forensic Anthropologist's Search for Truth in the Mass Graves of Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo

The Bone Woman: A Forensic Anthropologist's Search for Truth in the Mass Graves of Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo

by Clea Koff
The Bone Woman: A Forensic Anthropologist's Search for Truth in the Mass Graves of Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo

The Bone Woman: A Forensic Anthropologist's Search for Truth in the Mass Graves of Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo

by Clea Koff


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In 1994, Rwanda was the scene of the first acts since World War II to be legally defined as genocide. Two years later, Clea Koff, a twenty-three-year-old forensic anthropologist, left the safe confines of a lab in Berkeley, California, to serve as one of sixteen scientists chosen by the United Nations to unearth the physical evidence of the Rwandan genocide. Over the next four years, Koff’s grueling investigations took her across geography synonymous with some of the worst crimes of the twentieth century.

The Bone Woman
is Koff’s unflinching, riveting account of her seven UN missions to Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, and Rwanda, as she shares what she saw, how it affected her, who was prosecuted based on evidence she found, and what she learned about the world. Yet even as she recounts the hellish nature of her work and the heartbreak of the survivors, she imbues her story with purpose, humanity, and a sense of justice. A tale of science in service of human rights, The Bone Woman is, even more profoundly, a story of hope and enduring moral principles.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812968859
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/08/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.18(w) x 7.94(h) x 0.64(d)

About the Author

The daughter of a Tanzanian mother and an American father, both documentary filmmakers focused on human rights issues, Clea Koff spent her childhood in England, Kenya, Tanzania, Somalia and the United States. She now divides her time between Los Angeles and Melbourne, Australia.

Read an Excerpt


THE blood's long gone

it took twenty-four hours to fly from california to Rwanda. I crossed ten time zones and ate two breakfasts, but there was one constant: my thoughts of Kibuye church and the job I had to do there. Most of the facts I knew were bounded by the dates of the genocide: the church was in Kibuye town, within the préfecture, or county, of Kibuye. During the three months of the 1994 genocide, this one county alone suffered the deaths or disappearances of almost 250,000 people. Several thousand of those had been killed in a single incident at Kibuye church.

According to the few Kibuye survivors, the préfet, or governor, of Kibuye organized gendarmes to direct people he had already targeted to be killed into two areas: the church and the stadium. The préfet told them that it was for their own safety, that they would be protected from the violence spreading through the country. But after two weeks of being directed to the "safe zones," those inside were attacked by the very police and militia who were supposed to be their protectors. This was a tactic typical of génocidaires all over Rwanda: to round up large numbers of victims in well-contained buildings and grounds with few avenues of escape and then to kill them. In fact, more people were killed in churches than in any other location in Rwanda. Some priests tried to protect those who had sought refuge in their churches; others remained silent or even aided the killers.

I read the witness accounts of the attack on Kibuye church in "Death, Despair and Defiance," a publication of the organization African Rights. Reading them was like having the survivors whisper directly in my ear: they describe how the massacre took place primarily on April 17, a Sunday, on the peninsula where the church sits high above the shores of Lake Kivu. The attackers first threw a grenade among the hundreds of people gathered inside the church; then they fired shots to frighten or wound people. The small crater from the grenade explosion was still visible in the concrete floor almost two years later, along with the splintered pews. After the explosion, the attackers entered the church through the double wooden doors at the front. Using machetes, they began attacking anyone within arm's reach. A common farming implement became, in that moment, an instrument of mass killing, with a kind of simultaneity that bespeaks preplanning.

The massacre at the Kibuye church and in the surrounding buildings and land, where more than four thousand people had taken refuge, continued for several days, the killers stopping only for meals. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up when I learned that the killers fired tear gas to force those still alive to cough or sit up. They then went straight to those people and killed them. They left the bodies where they fell.

People living in Kibuye after the genocide eventually buried the bodies from the church in mass graves on the peninsula. The UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda had requested our forensic team to locate the graves, and to exhume the remains and analyze them to determine the number of bodies, their age, their sex, the nature of their injuries, and the causes of their deaths. The physical evidence would be used at the trial of those already indicted by the Tribunal on charges of crimes against humanity, to provide proof of the events and to support the testimony of witnesses.

Every time I read the accounts of Kibuye survivors, I ended up crying because they described a type of persecution from which there appears no escape, followed by a shock survival stripped of joy due to the murders of parents, children, cousins-and family so extended the English language doesn't even have names for them, though Rwandans do. Reading those accounts one last time before the plane delivered me to Kigali, my reaction was no different, but I tried to hide the tears from people in the seats around me and that gave the crying a sort of desperation, which in turn made me wonder how I would handle working in this crime scene.

As I stepped out of the airplane and walked across the tarmac of the Kigali airport, my concerns faded because my immediate surroundings occupied me. The first thing I noticed in the terminal was that many of the lights were out and the high windows were broken, marred by bullet holes or lacking panes altogether: cool night air poured in from outside. Just inside the doors, the officer at passport control inspected my passport and visa closely.

"How can you be a student and also come here to work?" he asked. I told him I was with a team of anthropologists.


Would he have a negative reaction to Tribunal-related activities?

"Physicians for Human Rights," I replied nervously.

His face lit up. "Ah! Well, you are very welcome."

Relieved, I walked downstairs to the baggage claim. The carousel was tiny, squeakily making its rounds, and I could see through the flaps in the wall to the outside where some young men were throwing the bags onto the carousel. My bags came through, but two teammates I had just met on the plane, Dean Bamber and David Del Pino, were not so fortunate. The baggage handlers eventually crawled inside through the flaps in the wall and stood in a group, looking at the passengers whose bags hadn't arrived as if to say to them, "Sorry, we did all we could."

While Dean and David went to find help, I walked past the chain-link fence separating baggage claim from the lobby, pushed past the crowd of people there to meet this twice-weekly flight, and met Bill Haglund, our team leader. I recognized Bill because I had met him a couple of years earlier at the annual meeting of forensic anthropologists in Nevada. He was a semi-celebrity at the time, from his work as a medical examiner on the Green River serial murder cases in Seattle, but the reason he made an impression on me was his slide show from Croatia: he had just returned from working for Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), exhuming the remains of Croatian Serb civilians killed by the Croatian army in 1991. Now here he was in Kigali airport, just as I remembered him: wearing glasses, tie, and hat, his multicolored beard (white, gray, blondish) a bit straggly. In a hurried but low tone that I came to know well, Bill immediately started to brief me on the team's logistics and plan of action, both for our two days in Kigali and the first stages of the mission in Kibuye. It sounded like an enormous amount of work-or was that just Bill's rushed-hushed delivery?-but I was excited and felt ready for anything, particularly because Bill emphasized that no forensic team had ever attempted to exhume a grave of the size we expected. We would be pioneers together, learning and adapting as we worked.

By now, Dean and David had arranged for Bill to get their bags when the next flight came into Kigali in a few days, so we walked outside. Our project coordinator, Andrew Thomson, was waiting for us in a four-wheel drive.

As we drove into Kigali town, I could not believe I was there. You know it is Africa: the air is fresh and then sweet-strongly sweet, like honeysuckle. Kigali's hills were dotted with lights from houses. On the road, the traffic was rather chaotic. Drivers did not use turn signals; they just turned or jockeyed for position as desired. Our boxy white Land Rover was one of many identical vehicles, though the others had the black UN insignia marked on their doors.

We checked in to the Kiyovu Hotel, but left almost immediately to have dinner in a neighborhood of ex-embassies. The manicured tropicality of this area exuded another kind of African beauty, like a postcolonial Beverly Hills. Before dinner at a Chinese restaurant we met two more people who worked for the Tribunal; their high front gate was opened by a guard named God. The doors of the house lay open as though surveying the garden arrayed down the hill below. Standing there at that moment, I was at ease with my companions and tremendously happy to be in Rwanda. I was finally back in East Africa, a place I remembered from my childhood as exuding an abundant vibrancy of epic proportions.

upon waking the next morning, I saw that at least the outskirts of Kigali did not dispel my memories. The suburbs consisted of a multitude of green hills lined with unpaved roads, and valleys filled with low, red-roofed buildings. Flowers bloomed everywhere, and the contrast of green grass against orange earth was as saturated and luminous as a scene from Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria. Even the grounds of the modest Kiyovu Hotel inspired awe: climbing vines with massive purple flowers; huge hawklike birds nesting in the trees. The birds swooped out over the valley and came into view as I looked through my binoculars at the city, wondering how it would compare to all this.

We spent the next day and a half in town, gathering our exhumation equipment from the Tribunal's offices to take to Kibuye by car. The roads of central Kigali were in excellent condition and allowed Bill to drive fast, roundabouts providing an extra thrill. When I wasn't sliding across the backseat, I could see that Kigali's hills seemed to create neighborhoods through topography. People walked along the road, some carrying pots on their heads, while others tended the oleander bushes in the median dividers.

The Tribunal's headquarters were in a small multilevel building that provided only the barest respite from the growing warmth and humidity. We set about unpacking the many boxes of equipment that had been shipped to Kigali in the previous weeks. As we sorted and inventoried the contents, it became clear that much of the equipment was either inadequate or simply absent: we had office supplies and rubber boots of various sizes, but the surgical gloves were three sizes too large; the scalpel handles were massive and their accompanying blades were so big I wondered if they were meant for veterinary pathologists; the screens were all wrong, nothing like the mesh trays needed to sift small bones and artifacts out of bucketloads of soil. There was no time to remedy the situation. We would simply have to be creative once we were in Kibuye.

We ate a late lunch at the Meridian Hotel, Bill challenging Dean, David, and me to think about our purpose in the work for PHR and the Tribunal. He reminded us that our priority as forensic anthropologists in Kibuye would be to determine age and sex, gather evidence of cause of death, and examine for defense wounds. The conversation was as yet removed from reality because we hadn't begun the exhumation. It was more about expectation and had an almost academic distance-Bill even asked us what sort of bone remodeling we might expect in people who had regularly carried heavy weights on their heads. When the conversation turned back to human rights and the right to a decent life, David told us about retrieving human remains from a mine in Chile, where he had helped found the Chilean Forensic Anthropology Team. He talked of how it took hours to just climb in and out of the two-hundred-meter-deep pit on a rope, retrieving the skeletons bone by bone, and of having to deal with the grief of the families sitting on the edge of the mine shaft. Although it was the highlight of the day to talk together like this, as we sat in the shadow of the hotel I began to feel chilly.

I couldn't shake the feeling even during dinner, which we ate at an outdoor Ethiopian restaurant set among other houses on an unpaved back road. At one point, four men dressed in different styles of Rwandan military uniforms strolled into the restaurant. They were carrying machine guns. I don't know what I expected to happen-were they there to eat or to arrest someone?-but everyone just looked at them and they looked back and then strolled out. Whether out of tension or jet lag, I suddenly lost my appetite; Dean and David weren't eating much, either. We watched Bill tuck into his dinner, but on the way back to our hotel, David said to me, "You didn't eat much. You are still hungry." It wasn't a question.

After a fitful night of being awoken by small lizards taking refuge in my room and the sound of the linoleum peeling up from the floor (it conjured up visions of a caterpillar the size of a small dog chewing through dry leaves) I joined Dean and David to go to the UN headquarters to get our UN driver's licenses and identity cards. This was my introduction to the true international character of the UN and a glimpse of the bureaucracy for which it is infamous. The HQ, the old Amohoro Hotel, was buzzing with activity: cars passing in and out of the guarded gate, armed soldiers from all over the world escorting us, people charging around apparently getting things done, everyone wearing the blue beret of the UN at a rakish angle.

While our IDs were being processed, Dean, David, and I walked around the corner of the building to the transport office for our driver's licenses. The test consisted of driving up the street, around the roundabout, and back again. We all passed. The examiner went over the rules for driving a UN vehicle, but he spent most of the time berating us about the frequency with which these were disregarded, as though we had already transgressed.

Drolleries aside, those two bits of identification were essential: our identity cards and licenses gave us immunity, free passage, and protection from personal or vehicle search. We were to wear them on a little chain around our necks at all times. With our newly laminated cards sticking to our sweaty chests, we walked back to the Tribunal building and loaded up the Land Rover and trailer for the drive to Kibuye. Bill was staying in Kigali that night, so he had arranged for two ICTR investigators, Dan and Phil, to escort us to Kibuye. Although Kibuye was only about ninety kilometers to the west, it would be a four-hour drive, slowed by periodic Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) roadblocks and sections of unfinished road.

my first impressions of Rwanda beyond Kigali came through a soundtrack by ABBA, pouring loudly out of the car stereo via Dan's walkman. The initial forty minutes of the drive were on paved road; the latter three hours began on an unfinished graded surface and ended on potholed dirt, so those of us in the backseat could only see out of the windows only when we weren't airborne. But as we drove, I felt so light, anticipatory, and excited at what was to come that I believe I hardly blinked, and I couldn't stop smiling to myself.

Reading Group Guide

1. Koff uses the term "double vision" to describe how she views the bodies she excavates - she looks at them as both objects of scientific evidence and loved ones of grieving families and friends left behind. How does this double vision help Koff complete her work? At what points in The Bone Woman does she find herself unable to maintain a balance between the two views.

2. When exhuming bodies, Koff often makes careful note of waht they are wearing and the items they've retained, such as tax receipts, house keys, and identity cards. She states, "It wasn't until I had seen more ofthese artifacts that their significance dawned on me" (page 61). How do these artifacts help the anthropologists in their work? What conclusions can be drawn from them?

3. How did the book Witnesses from the Grave lead Koff from her university studies in archaeology to forensic anthropology? How did her parents and her upbringing contribute to her interests? What were her motivations for entering this line of work?

4. How do Koff and her teammates emotionally cope with working in mass graves? How do their strategies for dealing with this environment differ?

5. The shooting that Koff witnesses in Kibuye is a defining event in the memoir. Koff writes, " The episode and its aftermath underscored my concern that we weren't doing enough to help the living people associated with the bodies in the grave" (page 67). Discuss how this experience affects Koff.

6. Koff discusses "the importance of having team members who are team players, who look to each other for backup and can double-check each other's work without bristling" (page 97). What are other characteristics forensic anthropologists need to possess in order to succeed in their work?

7. Koff writes, "I knew that, despite the importance of the work we were doing, a toll would be exacted by this life. I didn't know what kind of toll, or when it would happen, or how long I would last" (page 150). What symptoms of trauma does Koff exhibit from her experiences? How do the team's emotional responses manifest themselves?

8. Reflecting on her experience in Kigali, Koff writes, "If I hadn't joined the second mission to Rwanda, I wouldn't have learned that my guilt was misplaced" (page 112). What does she mean by this? For Koff, how does the Kibuye mission differ from the Kigali mission?

9. What is Koff's explanation for the murders of noncombatants and civilians in such great numbers? How does she assess the reasoning behind these killings?

10. Throughout The Bone Woman, how does Koff change? Do you notice a significant transformation in her worldview, philosophies, and emotional thresholds at the end of her account?

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