Koff: The Bone Woman

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Clea Koff, The Bone Woman : a Forensic Anthropologist’s Search for Truth in the Mass Graves of Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo. New York : Random House, 2004. x + 271 pages; illustrated.

In 1994, Koff was a twenty-three year old grad student of forensic anthropology. She joined a UN expedition to help uncover mass graves in Rwanda and the Balkans; this is her memoir. I picked this one up for several reasons: I did a big research project on Bosnia, so I’m always interested in Balkans stuff, I also apparently have a thing for UN workers (I loved Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures and Chasing the Flame), and I’m in love with the TV show "Bones", which has a forensic anthropologist as one of its main characters. So you could say it would have taken a lot for me not to enjoy this book. That being said, it’s not at all what I expected. I guess I thought it would have more of a science feel to it, and also have a bunch of history about the two genocides.

Instead, Koff took a very human approach: she was young, and still trying to figure out who she was, both personally and professionally, so all of these struggles are definitely present. While reading it, I felt like I was alongside Koff, and I really connected with her (probably because we’re so close in age). She tells about the little inconveniences that eventually wear people down, about her nightmares, and about seeing people in the bones. She also talks about the genocides themselves, from an observational point of view (i.e., she doesn’t reference research, so much as what she learned while she was there).

I thought it hit a good note for a memoir, and I could handle the occasional self-congratulatory tone (if I were achieving my life dream at age twenty-three, I’d be pretty darn pleased with myself). That being said, I was surprised when I went to Amazon for a link that many people found her selfish and whiny. I’m not sure if these people have ever tried to live outside of the US or what, but when you’re in a foreign country the littlest things can suddenly become a huge deal. And when you’re dealing with mass graves every day, it makes sense to me that you’d try to focus on other things.

So, as long as you’re interested in how a young, intelligent, caring person deals with exhuming hundreds of bodies in a foreign country, I think you’ll enjoy this one.

Favorite Passages

"I peeked into Kibuye church that day after Ambassador Albright left, and saw that she had brought a massive wreath-of freesias, I think. I don’t know whether she’s aware that the bourgmestre (mayor) of Kibuye town placed her wreath with the body bags after we completed our work there. Of all the nonlocal dignitaries who visited the grave sites where I’ve worked, Madeleine Albright was the only one to bring something to mark the occasion."

"To destroy a house is symbolic, especially in places like Croatia and Bosnia, where many people build their houses themselves, enlisting the aid of relatives or neighbors with skills in brick laying or concrete and returning the favors later. The houses are usually built over a period of years, one complete floor at a time, while the family saves the money to build the next floor. Most neighborhoods have a fair number of houses with completed first and second floors, but maybe only the outer walls and roof of the third. To destroy what people have spent decades building, maybe even a lifetime, with the help of neighbors, and then to leave the neighbor’s house standing, is a particular form of cruelty. The moment of destruction is intended to demoralize the owners and their families by sending a clear message: we undo your house, we erase your mark on the land. Don’t come back, because you haven’t enough lifetime left to start over again."

"That leaves the question of why. Why did those governments decide to murder their own people? Why did soldiers and police and barbers and mechanics murder their own neighbors? I think the answer is self-interest. Particular people in a government of a single ideology with effectively no political opponents have supported national institutions that maintain power for themselves. What muddied the waters were the 'reasons' the decision makers gave for their political agendas. Take Kosovo: were the killings and expulsions in the 1990s really meant to avenge the Battle of 1389, as Serbian president Solobodan Milosevic was fond of stating? Or was it because mineral-rich parts of Kosovo can produce up to $5 billion in annual export income for Serbia? Or take Rwanda: did Hutus kill their neighbors and their neighbor’s children simply because they were Tutsi, as the government exhorted them to do? Or was it because the government promised Hutus their neighbors’ farmland, land that otherwise could only have been inherited by those very children, and those children’s children, ad infinitum?"

-- Notes by EVA

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