Conversations with the dead: The bones of massacre victims …

Times Colonist (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada)
June 6, 2004 Sunday Final Edition

Conversations with the dead: The bones of massacre victims have a lot
to say to a forensic anthropologist

by Tom Hawthorn

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

One murder is a crime. One hundred murders, or 1,000, or 10,000,
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 so
many others.

Hitler, the mass murderer against whom other monsters are measured,
knew this well. Preparing plans for the extermination of the European
Jews, Hitler notoriously dismissed concerns about future world
opinion. “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the
Armenians?” he said. Indeed, when earlier this year 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 awakening for those of
us under age 65 who ever 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 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 prelude to backyard burial.

Koff found inspiration for a career as a forensic anthropologist from
two sources: a television 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 1980s.

“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. (Koff 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
not dissipated.

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 sacrament?”

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 has 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 (and
those 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’ ” — permeates her own clothing, a scent she cannot
avoid even while eating lunch.

These horrors fuel nightmares that she duly records, yet an event
she witnesses causes her greater distress.

One fine evening as Koff dines al fresco on the shores of Lake Kivu,
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, 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
its accuracy.

“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 easily.”

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 Reuter reporter that she
talks to the uncovered skeletons: “We’re coming. We’re coming to
take you out.” Her complaint is so overshadowed by the enormity of
the crimes in which she works daily as to seem callow and naive. Her
reaction is understandable perhaps for someone who marks her 24th
birthday literally 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 dumped.

“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 crime, by uncovering
the assailant and having them punished, as restore the humanity to
those whose lives were taken. Long after the book is closed, a reader
remembers the woman in Rwanda with plastic pink 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, a child’s plaything and
a reminder of our necessary outrage at his murder.

Tom Hawthorn is a Victoria reporter who last reviewed Conrad Black’s
biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt for the Times Colonist.