The Vancouver Sun (British Columbia)
May 22, 2004 Saturday Final Edition
The bones talk, and she listens: Clea Koff writes a sobering account
of her encounters with mass murder
by: Tom Hawthorn
One murder is a crime. One hundred murders, or one thousand, or ten
thousand, or tens of thousands are also crimes, although the enormity
of the wrongdoing is so great, so unbelievable, that it becomes
possible for the perpetrators to lie and cover up, making accomplices
of many others.
Hitler, the mass murderer against whom other monsters are measured,
knew this well. Preparing plans for the extermination of the European
Jews, he notoriously dismissed concerns about future world opinion.
“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
he said. Indeed, when recently Canada’s House of Commons belatedly
condemned those deaths more than eight decades after the fact, the
vote was denounced by the Turkish government and its supporters as
being misinformed and unhelpful.
For survivors and grieving relatives, the horror of murder is
compounded by denying the fact.
Bearing witness is an antidote to such sickness. So, the Holocaust
memoir becomes a genre because it is necessary to count as many
survivors and name as many victims as possible, if we are to take
seriously the solemn promise of “never again.”
Yet the past decade has provided a brutal wake-up for those of us
under age 65 who have wondered how the world could ignore the
deliberate and organized slaughter of so many people.
In Rwanda, political leaders squawked orders for mass murder over the
radio. In Serbia, otherwise decent people suspended disbelief and
accepted government propaganda denying the existence of mass graves.
In Canada, we tsk-tsked over news of the latest atrocities, our sense
of moral superiority once again affirmed.
Even as a teenager, Clea Koff knew the world’s atrocities demanded a
response from her. Raised in Africa, England and the United States,
this daughter of a Tanzanian mother and an American father, both
documentary filmmakers, quips that she learned about the
lumpenproletariat at the supper table before she knew about Bert and
Ernie on television. Fascinated by the nature of death even as a
girl, she collected dead birds and studied them as a prelude to
Koff found inspiration for a career as a forensic anthropologist from
two sources: a TV documentary on bodies preserved in the ash from an
eruption of Mount Vesuvius, and Clyde Snow’s book Witnesses from the
Grave: The Stories Bones Tell, which describes efforts to find the
remains of the “disappeared” victims of Argentina’s bloody military
junta of the 1970s and ’80s.
“I had known for years that my goal was to help end human rights
abuses by proving to would-be killers that bones can talk,” she
writes in The Bone Woman, a compelling personal chronicle of months
spent rooting around in mass graves.
Koff was sent to Africa in 1996 with the International Criminal
Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), a United Nations organization formed to
bring the killers to justice. (She also worked for ICTY, the tribunal
for the former Yugoslavia.) She works with the remains of murder
victims, of which there is no shortage. The violence in Rwanda was so
widespread that it quickly claimed some 800,000 victims, the vast
majority killed by hand, usually by machete. Imagine every man, woman
and child in Vancouver and Burnaby hacked to death, some left to rot
where they fell, others thrown into pits and covered with dirt.
Koff finds Rwanda a beautiful, verdant land, where the serene setting
of the church at Kibuye masks the horror inflicted and a menace still
While some skeletons display wounds to the arms and hands, others
bear only the fatal blows.
“The absence of defence wounds gave my image of that massacre an
eerie calmness; did people take the blows as though taking the
She finds herself smiling a lot in Rwanda, an incongruous reaction to
so horrid a killing field. “It is because I see not just death —
about which I can do nothing — but bones and teeth and hair, which I
can do something about …”
Bones offer clues as to age, sex, height, ancestry and cause of
death. Koff and her colleagues scrape away dirt until they uncover
remains, exchanging a pickaxe for a trowel for a pair of chopsticks
for the delicate task of flicking dirt from between finger joints.
A rational scientist, Koff uses a poet’s eye in describing her
discoveries, noting in one case how “the big toe phalange [is] chunky
like a baby carrot, the other phalanges more like small licorice
pieces, held in anatomical position by a sock because the flesh of
the foot has decomposed.”
Descriptions of much of her work are not for the faint of heart, so
those of you now eating breakfast may wish to skip a few paragraphs.
Koff copes daily with ammonia fumes from intestines, as well as
saponified remains, a state of decomposition in which skin remains
tender. “If you puncture it, something not dissimilar to cottage
cheese came foaming out …”
The smells of decomposition — “one being sharp and ripe, the other
thick and ‘hairy'” — permeate her clothing, scents she cannot avoid
even while eating lunch.
These horrors fuel the nightmares she duly records, yet an event she
witnesses causes her greater distress.
One fine evening, Koff dines al fresco on the shores of Lake Kivu
when her reverie is disturbed by a sickening sight: two desperate men
in the water being shot to death by uniformed Rwandan soldiers. “I
couldn’t conceive of which ‘side’ they were on, or which side we were
thought to be on, or, indeed, if there were any sides.”
Seeking explanation, she is told the dead men were insurgents from
Zaire. The information is useless, for she has no means of judging
“I hated the impotence of not being able to do more than just report
the killings and I hated the fear I now felt for my own life, even
though the bullets hadn’t been directed at me or my teammates. And,
insult upon insult, I hated the fact I got to leave this place so
The Bone Woman was written from Koff’s journal entries — a strength
in retelling the small incidents of her labours, a weakness when
recounting the petty disputes one expects among colleagues working in
such hostile and unpalatable circumstances. She dislikes the teasing
she endures from teammates after telling a Reuters reporter that she
says to the uncovered skeletons: “We’re coming. We’re coming to take
Her complaint is so overshadowed by the enormity of these crimes
against humanity as to seem callow and naive. And yet her reaction
may be understandable, given that she’s someone who spends her 24th
birthday up to her elbows in viscera.
Koff also exhumes bodies from mass graves in the former Yugoslavia
(“where the people who committed the crimes we would be uncovering
were still at large”) at Cerska, Nova Kasaba and a rubbish pit at
Ovcara, where missing men from the hospital at Vukovar had been
“These bodies, by their very presence, were dismantling years of the
perpetrators’ propaganda that the grave didn’t exist, that the
missing men were probably larking about in Italy, that a crime
against humanity hadn’t taken place five years earlier,” she writes.
Her work does not so much bring resolution to the crimes, by
uncovering the assailants and having them punished, as restore
humanity to those whose lives were taken. Long after the book is
closed, a reader remembers the woman in Rwanda with pink plastic
necklaces; the hospital patient who secreted his X-rays in his
clothing (for identification after death? because he believed he was
going to another hospital?); the boy in Kosovo whose grave held
marbles — child’s playthings and a reminder of our necessary outrage
at his murder.
Tom Hawthorn is a Victoria reporter who last reviewed Lloyd
Axworthy’s book, Navigating a New World.
GRAPHIC: Photo: Pierre Heuts, From the book the bone woman; Clea Koff
(right) in Kigali, Rwanda, with UN scientific expert Bill Haglund.;
Photo: THE BONE WOMAN: A Forensic Anthropologist’s Search for Truth
in Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo BY CLEA KOFF, Knopf Canada,
271 pages ($34.95)