The Bone Woman by Clea Koff

Brave voice of the silent witnesses
Click to follow

One morning, early in January 1996, a 23-year-old anthropologist called Clea Koff found herself on a grassy hillside in Rwanda, surrounded by banana trees - and by skulls. One of a team of forensic experts sent by the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda to investigate the mass graves of Tutsis, murdered during the genocide of 1994, she had the job of reuniting the heads with their bodies, scattered down the hill, and in so doing to determine their age, sex, stature and the manner in which they had been killed. The notes she kept at the time, and those she wrote later describing mass graves in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, have become The Bone Woman: both a detailed account of what her work entails, and a deliberation on the nature of such investigations.

The Bone Woman is not for the squeamish. It takes a particular kind of spirit to handle corpses twitching under the press of maggots devouring the flesh, but for Koff, "fresh" flesh is simply something that gets in the way of bones. Even as a student at Stanford University reading anthropology, she knew that what interested her were not the long dead and properly buried of ancient archeology, but the recent dead: victims of violence, whose identities she could help to prove, whose killers could be brought to justice.

Koff discovered that she found the bodies of young people, dead from overdoses or from failing to survive the desert crossing as migrant workers from Mexico into California, too disturbing. She volunteered to work among forensic teams collecting evidence for the prosecutors seeking indictments on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. In Rwanda, the massacred lay in single graves, the corpses were usually those of women and children; in Bosnia, the graves contained men, their hands tied behind their backs; in Kosovo, it was family groups, burnt together.

Everywhere, it was her task to pick away muscles and flesh, saw up bones, fit parts of bodies together to make entire corpses, and eventually to conduct relatives on visits of identification. The work was physically exhausting, the smells excruciating, the sights upsetting, but Koff, as she repeats several times, loved it. She loved the precision of her job, its satisfactory scientific and forensic dimensions, and she loved its implications, the sense that the bones could speak to her, help provide the clues that would condemn their killers. It was human rights work, of a most practical kind.

Not long ago, a collection of autobiographical pieces by front-line aid workers who run refugee camps, negotiate truces, take food to famine areas and dress wounds on behalf of organisations such as Medecins sans Frontières and Oxfam appeared as Another Day in Paradise. Despite the title, there was nothing ironic in the contributions: they were matter-of-fact personal records, written by mostly young men and women engaging in lives of unimaginable toughness, moving from one terrifying job to the next, with very few breaks.

Koff belongs among these modern mercenaries of the human rights and humanitarian world. Like them, she exudes restlessness, a sense of pleasure in risk, a need for this kind of adrenalin, as well as an obvious enjoyment in the camaraderie of working friendships as colleagues, befriended in Rwanda, are encountered again in Bosnia and Croatia. Like them, she is drawn back, again and again, by a feeling that it is still possible in the world to do something worthwhile and by a belief that witnessing is all that keeps the world from sinking into barbarity. She is part of what Michael Ignatieff has called the "expanding moral imagination" of our times.

Koff is a clear and precise writer, and her accounts of the slow and meticulous uncovering of the mass graves, body by body, of different forensic steps, and of the teamwork that goes into the process are fascinating. There is a postscript, listing the names of those brought before the International Tribunals. Though pitifully small in comparison with the numbers slaughtered, it gives purpose to the intensely unpleasant work that she describes.

That what Clea Koff does is necessary and excellent is not in need of saying: it is impossible to reach the end of The Bone Woman without great admiration for her tenacity and stoicism. What is considerably harder to say is how far material of this kind - gruesome, unsettling, technical - is proper material for a general book.

Caroline Moorehead's life of Martha Gellhorn is published by Chatto