Clea Koff: The Bone Woman

War Crimes Laid Bare from Beyond the Grave

Some 15+ years ago, towards the end of the years when I was practicing law in the U.S., I was asked to represent a young woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, the former Zaire) in an immigration case.  My client was a Tutsi, in her twenties; a shy, slender young woman with delicate features — I later learned that as in her culture “big is beautiful”, as a result of her persecution- and flight-induced weight loss she considered herself extremely ugly, which substantially negatively impacted her feeling of self-worth, in addition to the trauma she had already suffered as a victim of persecution –, who had come to the U.S. literally owning only the single set of clothes that she wore; including her underwear, which she washed every night.  As she was sitting across from me at a table in the offices of the refugees’ aid society that had taken up her case (and referred the legal aspects to my firm, on a pro bono basis), she told me her story:

Until the 1997 power grab by rebel leader Laurent Kabila, her family had been prosperous; her father was well-connected politically and in the business community.  Once Kabila had seized power, he swiftly instituted an anti-Tutsi campaign similar to that which had ended up in the Rwanda genocide three years earlier; fueled by the fact that thousands of Rwandan Tutsi had actually found refuge in the DRC and were living in camps in the country’s eastern part, though Kabila’s campaign was by far not limited to the east of the DRC.  Tutsi residents of the capital, Kinshasa, like my client’s family, took to hiding in their cellars every night, and sometimes also during the day.  It was no longer safe for them to go out on the streets.  Many lost their jobs; an increasing number of Tutsi were arrested (without warrant) or simply killed.  My client’s father and husband were shot before her very eyes after Kabila’s militia had ransacked their home and found them hiding – she was made to watch them being killed out on the street before being taken to a prison and shut up there, under appalling sanitary conditions and with little food to eat, with other women – a group of 10 or 15 in each cell.  The prison guards used the women for an almost daily game of Russian roulette – the purpose not being a determination which of them were going to be killed next, but which were going to be gang-raped that particular day.

While being transported to a different prison compound some time later, my client took her entire heart into her hands and jumped off the truck.  She managed to get away and for the rest of that day, zigzagged through Kinshasa’s streets until she reached the house of a priest with connections to a refugee group that had organized a secret trail into the neighboring Republic of Congo.  My client was given a new (false) passport – since her real one, even if she’d still had it (which of course she didn’t), would now have been akin to a death warrant – and a plane ticket to the U.S. … where she found out that the very thing that had saved her life (her false passport, which, as instructed, she surrendered immediately upon entering the country) was now also the very thing that stood in the way of her asylum claim, as legally she had entered the U.S. “under false pretenses”, with an assumed identity; if only for the briefest of moments.

This client’s story – apart from its heartrending intrinsic attributes – to me also added a further element of perspective on the work I had been doing for the past several years until then on another case: one pending before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).  Because it is one thing to read the witness statements and forensic reports associated with your case, and the summaries of the facts and evidence associated with the cases underlying the ICTY and ICTR (International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda) judgments we were citing as precedents in our briefs.  It is another thing entirely to have one of those eyewitnesses sitting across from you and describing, in a low voice and with downcast eyes, all that she has seen and suffered through herself.  At the time when I took up her case, she had already received a substantial amount of trauma-related and other psychological counseling; it was this counseling that enabled her to tell her story at all – and to do so without bursting into tears every other minute.  Yet, I can honestly say that I have never met a braver person in my entire life, and all these years later, I still feel a tremendous amount of respect for her.

Clea Koff’s The Bone Women has now provided me, some 15+ years after the fact, with yet another bit of perspective on the war crimes investigations underlying the ICTY and ICTR cases that I hadn’t had until then: Insight into just how the forensic reports making victims speak even from the grave had come into being.  I realize that given my own involvement in a case before ICTY, my views on this book probably aren’t the same as those of the vast majority of Koff’s readers, who come to this book without any prior “inside” knowledge.   And while I do think the Telegraph blurb on the cover of my edition of the book (“The ultimate memoir of the post-Cold War decade”) is as vast an overstatement as any blurb can possibly be, I do think this is an important book – as important as many another book about the genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo or, for that matter, the Democratic Republic of Congo – or those in Argentina, Chile, Cambodia, (South) Sudan, or anywhere else in the world.  It is also unique, in that it is neither an eyewitness nor a journalist’s account of the atrocities but, rather, the account of a scientist sent into these countries after the fact in order to help establishing the truth which the perpetrators of the genocide had tried to hide – by propaganda just as much as by literally hiding the bodies.

Make no mistake, this is a memoir, not a text on forensic anthropology; so there is a limited amount of scientific detail.  However, I believe Koff was right in drawing the line where she did – anything more would only have invited prurient sensationalism.  And ultimately, I also think to most readers it matters not only to learn about the nature of the forensic anthologists’ work and their findings – e.g., how the graves holding the victims of genocide were identified, how the graves’ parameters were established, how the victims were exhumed, in what general conditions / state of decomposition they were, what kinds of wounds they had sustained (in lay terms) and what conclusions these wounds permitted, what kind of lab work was performed in the morgue, etc.; all of which Koff does cover at considerable length – but also to learn about the background, setup and conditions in which Koff’s missions took place, her and her team’s interactions with the local population and the victims’ relatives and friends, their attitude towards their work (how do you stay sane, confronting the moldering remains of the victims of several of the worst genocides of the recent past every day and learning from their bodies all that you do learn about their final moments, their suffering and their cruel death?), the physical and, particularly, psychological and emotional stress involved in this kind of work, and ultimately Koff’s general take-away from the six missions in which she participated.

One of the things that I most appreciate about Koff’s approach was that however many victims’ bodies she exhumed and examined, she always respected the fact that the individual body she was concerned with at any given time had been a living and breathing person once, and she not only respected their individuality but went to great lengths to highlight how it showed even after death, and how it illustrated the life from which they had prematurely been snatched:

“I kept working, following Bill’s instructions, and exposed the scarf and cranium of a woman on my edge of the grave.  She was lying on her left side, her back to the wall of the grave, and the radiating fractures from a hole on the left side of her head reached around her cranium like fault lines.  […]

I was finding it hard to work in a crouched position because of the heat and the stench: normally I would be alternately standing and crouching, picking and troweling.  But I forgot my discomfort when I found pink necklaces around the skeleton’s neck vertebrae and some hair.  Now I was totally focused.  This woman had been alive once, not so long ago, and had fastened the necklaces herself.  Ralph wondered later if the smaller of the two necklaces would turn out to be a rosary like a plastic one I had found on a surface skeleton.  But as I crouched over this body, I couldn’t know what the pink necklaces had meant to her.”

The Bone Woman, 2005 Random House trade paperback edition, p. 45 (Kibuye)

 * * * * * * * * * *

“After lunch, I started working on my next grave and things became interesting.  Again, there was neither drraza [note: an angular wooden lean-to above the body, keeping the soil away; commonly placed above coffins inside Kosovo graves] nor coffin, neither sheet nor blanket wrapping, just soil on top of a body lying on its back.  The body was clothed in two hooded sweatshirts, a jacket, and tracksuit pants.  The many layers of clothes reminded me first of the Kibuye bodies and then of the Vukovar hospital bodies.” [Note: The many-layered clothing indicated the victims had been on the move when killed and uncertain if and when they would return home or find lasting shelter.]

“[…] A cloudy turquoise marble had turned up in the soil above the body.  I laid it aside in an evidence bag.

[…] The skeleton was that of a young person.  But I wasn’t thinking about children.

[…] Quickly, I leaned over to examine the skull, which I had exposed but not yet detail-cleaned.  I carefully cleaned the soil away from the teeth.  Yes: mandibular canine and second mandibular molar erupting, second maxillary molar still in the crypt.  This person was probably between twelve and fifteen years old when his life ended.

With renewed vigor despite the afternoon heat, I cleared all the dirt until I had just the body lying on the floor of the grave.  I could tell that items were lodged in the dirt-caked right hip pocket of the tracksuit pants.  I didn’t have to expose much more to see that they were marbles.  Lots of them.  A good handful.  Suddenly I was thinking about children.  About how I’d noticed young kids playing what I thought of as the ‘old-fashioned’ game of marbles while the forensic teams had played soccer with the older children from our neighborhood a few weeks earlier.  I had watched these little kids when I left the soccer field for a break (we’d been run ragged).  Two little boys flicked their marbles in grass so long they could barely track the progress.  It was great to see children playing a game outdoors, a game that didn’t involve a television and that was perhaps passed on from parent to kid, from kid to kid.  I was thinking about children, boys especially.  About how they can be so different from young girls, who sometimes stalk their adulthood, wanting to wear training bras even when they have only the hint of breasts, or wanting to wear makeup before their parents will allow it.  Boys can be slower in this race, perhaps surreptitiously checking their reflections in mirrors, looking for the first signs of mustache hair but otherwise trying to get away with juvenile behavior for as long as possible.  The boy in my grave had a pocket full of marbles, and that told me more about his life than almost anything else could.

The marbles didn’t necessarily have evidentiary value for the Tribunal, given that the skeleton with its trauma would tell the story that he was both a child and a noncombatant.  But in the grave with him, I saw beyond the forensic facts to the boy he might have been.  Derek had given me time to clean this boy’s body and clothing […].  I spent the rest of the afternoon with the boy and his marbles.

[…] When we finally carried the boy’s body on the stretcher to the freezer truck, I was reminded of how much I value this part of the process. […] [P]utting a body bag into the reefer for transport to the Tribunal morgue feels like the only quasi-ceremonial step that marks an Unidentified’s formal entry onto the path of becoming an Identified.”

The Bone Woman, 2005 Random House trade paperback edition, pp. 226-229 (Kosovo)


Exhuming the boy with the marbles
(The Bone Woman, 2005 Random House trade paperback edition, unpaginated photo insert p. 14;
photo by Ms. Koff’s team mate Justine Michael)

More generally, I also appreciate the fact that Koff’s narrative perspective, in each section of the book, closely mirrors that of her perspective during that particular mission as such.  There is a limited amount of foreshadowing, but by and large, it is easy to see how her own perspective and insight evolved over time (and how she was increasingly able to put into context her very first experience during her mission to Kibuye, Rwanda).  To me, this again makes her book relatable on a personal level (I guess the path she travelled is similar for many people).  But I do also think it may provide an additional, albeit perhaps unspoken, layer of understanding to readers coming to her narrative without any kind of prior knowledge.

In the grand scheme of things, my quibbles with Koff’s book are relatively minor, but not so negligible as to not mention them at all:

As already mentioned in my status update regarding the “Kosovo” section of the book, in the two parts of the narrative dealing with missions where a significant part of Koff’s work took place in a morgue (Kigali and Kosovo), I had less of an immediate feeling of being “right there” with her as in the sections dealing primarily with work assignments at the exhumation sites (Kibuye, Bosnia and Croatia).  Both the Kigali and Kosovo sections made up for this to some extent by the fact that they, too, included at least some amount of “exhumation” narrative, as well as very empathetic descriptions of Koff’s interactions with surviving victims and the relatives of the murdered.  Still – and possibly this may be because a substantial part of morgue work is pathologist, not anthropologist work – the overall sense I have gained of the work processes inside the morgue, and the way in which the anthropologists’ and the pathologists’ work fused into one whole piece is less precise and acute than my sense of the anthropologists’ work involving the graves as such.  (The Kigali section of the book feels a bit chopped apart anyway; it’s as if it originally had been longer, but had been curtailed as a result of an editor’s intervention.)

I also think in her final remarks and her general take-away from her missions, Koff underestimates the role that racism played in the genocides she investigated.  She is right, of course, in pointing out that there are almost always other motives at play as well, and indeed may be the true reason why the racism card is played: The Nazi “Lebensraum im Osten” (“settlement” or “living space in the East”) campaign, which to Germans justified the slaughter of millions of Poles, Ukrainians and of course Jews even above and beyond the lie that it had been the Poles who had started WWII was, in fact, nothing but a naked territorial and economic power grab, justified by the alleged inferiority of “the Slavic races”.  In more recent times, politicians from Trump to Orbán to the Brexiters and the Austrian and German right-wing extremists haven been – and are – stoking the flames of racism to achieve everything from their own, personal financial gain to unbridled political power (and more often than not, a combination of the two).  So yes, those who incite xenophobia and racial hatred will often, and almost invariably, be motivated by something entirely different – there is a reason, after all, why corruption and autocrat regimes go hand in hand.

But the fear of, and the need to defeat “the other” is a powerful motivator in anybody who feels threatened or belittled (however unjustifiedly); and demagogues have known since time immemorial that nothing ensures their success as quickly, easily and decidedly as tapping into and activating that fear.  The Balkans in particular have been a powder keg of racial, ethnic and religious hatred at least since the 1389 battle of Kosovo Polje (probably even longer, but for our purposes let’s just go along with the moment in history that one of the key parties, the Serbs, themselves pin down as the origin of it all).  Serbian leaders and activists have, ever since then, again and again pointedly chosen the anniversary of that battle for any purpose in the book, unleashing Serbian racial and religious resentment against the enemy of the moment (Ottomans / Turks, the Austrian empire, Bosnians, Albanians and Croats, you name it) to achieve their aims.  The Croats, to give them their “due”, haven’t been any better – in WWII, the Croat Ustaša movement was a staunch ally of Hitler and the Nazis.  Tito managed to keep the powder in the keg in post-WWII Yugoslavia by centralizing government, and by essentially replacing ethnic allegiance and identification with an enforced allegiance to a seemingly unified Yugoslavian state, combined with economic incentives.  But inside the keg, resentment had been brewing all the time, and the lid flew off with a bang after Tito had died and the Warsaw Pact had collapsed, along with the Soviet Union as the world had known it (even though Yugoslavia hadn’t even been a member of the Warsaw Pact).  Not having been able to prevent the break-off of economically prosperous Slovenia, the Yugoslav leaders resorted to the Balkans’ time-honored tradition in their reaction to the “defection” of Croatia (almost equally prosperous as Slovenia) and Bosnia: “Serbs, go get ‘em, those traitorous Ustaša and Muslim bastards who are destroying our sacred and beloved Yugoslavia (and, um, cough, Serbia).”  The next thing the world knew, former neighbors were at each others’ throats with a vengeance, tens and hundreds of thousands of people were driven out of their homes and murdered, solely on the basis of their ethnicity and religion – and everybody else, from the rest of Europe to the U.N., NATO and the entire world was staring at the Balkans in absolute horror.  The Dayton Peace Accord, which eventually brought the violence in Croatia and Bosnia to an end, placed ethnic and religious reconciliation at a premium for a reason – and so do peacekeeping missions to any other part of the world where racism is one of the driving forces of the conflict.

Still and all: This is an important book – and now more than ever, timely and highly recommended reading.

Final note: I already finished this book a week ago, but I needed some time to organize my thoughts — and this is one book for which I did want to write a review by all means; not only because it was a buddy read with Elentarri and Ani.


Comments on the Book’s Individual Sections:


Buddy Read Announcement: HERE.

Related Post: Kofi Annan: Interventions: A Life in War and Peace


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