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Bone Woman: Among the Dead in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Croatia - Clea Koff

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Genre: Science / Nature / Author: Clea Koff / Edition: New Ed / Paperback / 368 Pages / Book is published 2004-04-22 by Atlantic Books

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      03.01.2008 14:09
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      Excellent book about forensic anthropology and genocide

      I have always been interested in bones; one of my clearest childhood memories is being allowed to gently sponge the dirt from the jawbone of a pig, which had been dug up from a Roman midden. My mother was working on the site and she took me with her occasionally during the summer holidays and I have never forgotten my excitement as I revealed the delicate structure of the teeth and the honeycomb consistency of the bone. As a teenager working in a museum archive my favourite room was the bone room where racks upon racks of brown cardboard boxes held intriguing labels. We were encouraged to open any boxes we wished and I spent most of my free time in these rooms examining the structure of the human body from the foetus to the very old. The bones recorded many of the features of pre-industrial life and medicine, so I became familiar with syphilitic lesions, unhealed breaks, arthritic joints and more brutal knife cuts and slashes. I eventually took the history path rather than the anthropology, pathology and osteo-archaeology route but I have continued my fascination with bones and bodies and what they can tell us. It was in the continuance of this interest that I got my hands on this book by Clea Koff.

      Clea Koff worked as a forensic anthropologist for the UN and Physicians for Human Rights in Rwanda and Bosnia, working hand in hand with the pathologists to unearth the mass graves of the genocides that had occurred several years before (she was working in the mid-1990's). This book is her account of her time in these countries, the work she was engaged in, her role as a forensic archaeologist and what life was actually like working in this field for the UN. She excavated the bodies, gave them a gender and age range and helped the relatives identify the bodies; all the time living and working in difficult and often dangerous conditions. Needless to say, it was in my amazon basket pretty quickly and I have spent the last week absorbed in it.

      The book is divided into sections; Clea's training and life before she joined Physicians for Human Rights, then her investigations in Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo and finally an assessment of what happened afterwards. All of the investigation sections have a short introductory paragraph summing up the circumstances surrounding the genocides and the text is complemented by maps and colour photographs. The photographs are a mix of 'anthropologist action' and 'holiday' photographs with a few of the graves and victims themselves (some of them are quite shocking as not all of the bodies are skeletonised). The captions are often very touching, I found several in particular made my eyes prick with tears every time I read them. Whilst reading Clea's account it is very easy to become distanced from the events that she talks about, but the photos bring you back to the shocking reality of what happened in these places.

      Her writing style is quite simple and personable; her personality jumps off the page at you. If it weren't for her job and the subject matter I doubt I would have persevered as I personally dislike this style, it was as if she was chatting to me! In addition to her job there is a great deal of additional material dealing with her team and the way it functioned, UN bureaucracy and her emotional reactions and how she dealt with it. Some of this was useful, some was intensely irritating, especially when she documents little spats and grievances between team members which add little to the story and waste valuable space. In parts it became more of a smug personal memoir rather than a discussion of the atrocities and her work in uncovering them. However I found her insights into the actual life of a forensic anthropologist and the emotional and physical pressures extremely interesting; likewise her opinions on the two countries and their reactions to the genocide. Both geographical areas have similarities and differences and it is through Clea's experiences and interactions with survivors and bereaved relatives that we see the real human cost of the horrors which they have gone through. It seems utterly bizarre that within such a short space of time neighbours killed neighbours and friends killed friends, that children were seen as fair game and people were able to dehumanise others to the extent that they could literally herd them together for the sole purpose of mass extermination. We get some of the background to the story in the book but it really makes you question if we are indeed superior to animals, at least animals only kill others for food and tend to limit their attacks on members of their own species. Clea Koff attempts to answer these questions in the last section of the book and her preliminary answers have prompted me to continue my interest in these conflicts and I have ordered more books on the subject.

      There was absolutely no way I could have read this book in one sitting, it took me a week of picking it up for an hour or so here and there. It is impossible to skim the most emotionally harrowing sections of the book as not only does it defeat the purpose of the book but seems disrespectful to do so. I shed many tears over the stories in the book, from the (tiny) bloody handprints on the wall of the church in Kibuye, to the Bosnian boy in the mass grave with his pocket still full of marbles. In addition to this Clea is often in great personal danger, not just from insurgents, land mines and over-amorous soldiers but from those who are seeking to prevent these graves from being uncovered and the perpetrators from being bought to justice; she is actually living at the crime scene. At times even the hardened emotions of the forensic anthropologist are overwhelmed by what she is seeing and these passages are some of the most emotionally charged in the book as the reality of what has happened smacks home. It is heart warming to know that people were prosecuted and imprisoned for these genocides but such a small number compared to those who must have been involved (you need more than one person to kill 8000 men at once).


      I also found this book hit an interesting note between too-technical and not-technical-enough, there are a few descriptions about the technical processes that an excavated body goes through to be 'processed', but in general it was just right for the general layman who has little experience with or knowledge of forensics processes, genocides or the politics and attitudes of other countries. I didn't feel patronised, but neither did I feel out of my depth which is usually just the right balance for this sort of book. It is an extremely powerful memoir of a forensic anthropologist (although a not particularly well written book in places) and the subject matter is both harrowing and enlightening. I have learnt so much about the conflicts in these countries and the effects of genocides on those who are left behind to grieve and to clean up the mess. The information that was gathered and interpreted is explained to us and put into the context of the genocide investigation and the reactions of relatives and countrymen. The latter were particularly interesting as often government propaganda denied these atrocities but its hard not to believe when confronted with a grave full of bodies in hospital dressing gowns with their hands tied behind their backs. From being something that happened on TV when I was a teenager or names I occasionally hear bandied about when people talk about atrocities, now these events feel so much more real and my reactions so much more visceral than before. I personally think as many people as possible should read this book, the subject matter is something so powerful that it almost tells its own story, and like other atrocities this is not something that should be allowed to be forgotten.


      ***Price and ISBN***

      Newest version:- RRP: £12.99
      ISBN: 1843541386

      Amazon have it for £8.97 or you can get it from Amazon marketplace from £3.00

      Older versions such as this one : 1843541394 are available too from £2.95 on Amazon marketplace

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