Review of The Bone Woman
Alan G Morris
The graphic description of decomposing bodies is not my favourite reading matter for a pleasant weekend of catching up on my literature. When Sharon of LitNet gave me a copy of Clea Koff's book, The Bone Woman, to read, I was really expecting a kind of hands-on murder mystery along the lines of the novels by Kathy Reichs or Patricia Cornwell. What I got was very different and a whole lot more realistic.
Forensic anthropology is a relatively new field, but with old roots. Techniques for studying bones first started in the 19th century but were applied mostly to studies of human evolution and variation. By the mid-20th century, these techniques were being applied regularly to forensic cases. The dry skeleton had become a rich resource about the life and death of the individual that once carried the bones in his body. Anatomists and anthropologists were recognised as members of the forensic team and many universities around the world began training young people, like Clea Koff, for this job.
Forensic anthropology is the study of medico-legal cases involving the examination of bodies at advanced decomposition or complete skeletonisation. Traditionally-trained forensic pathologists really have no background to do this kind of work. Their expertise is in the pathology of soft tissue, and these remains have long passed that level of analysis.
At a first stage of analysis, the forensic anthropologist looks at "age, race and sex" - the demographic features.
In the second stage the researcher looks at "individualisation". This is really about the appearance of the person: her height, her growth history, signs of old diseases and old trauma. It includes the examination of events at death. Often it is impossible to identify the cause of death when only bone is present, but sometimes cut marks, bullet holes or unhealed broken bones tell the story.
The last stage is "identification of identity". This is the hardest analysis of all to do. Facial reconstructions and dental records help, as do photographs taken in life, but more often than not, no identity can be confirmed.
But Clea Koff's world is not the clean and clinical bone room of the university laboratory. It is the dirty, smelly real world of decomposing bodies in the political trouble-spots on the planet. She is motivated by service to the oppressed through forensic identification of the dead in mass burials. Hers is the world of murder on a scale not seen since the Second World War. Hers is the tears and trauma of the survivors and the dead of Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo.
At the age of 23 years, Clea Koff went straight from the bone room into the cauldron of genocide in western Rwanda. Her book is more of a diary than scientific travelogue. We are reading about Clea's experiences and her responses to them, warts and all.
Clea's first task was the excavation of the dead from the church at Kubanye. This was one of the more notorious horrors of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when several hundred people were butchered with pangas inside and around the Catholic Church. Barely two years later Clea Koff was part of the team collecting bones on the hillside and then removing partly decomposed bodies from the associated mass grave. They were lucky that they were able to identify some of the dead and return their remains to their families, but young Clea was faced not only with the stress of witnessing the signs of extreme violence, but also with meeting the friends and relatives who had been there during the days of terror. No debriefing was offered the UN forensic team when the job was done, and Clea Koff tells us about her own grappling with post-traumatic stress.
Clea Koff's 1996 examination of the horrors of Rwanda were followed later the same year by more evidence of mass murder in Bosnia and Croatia, and four years later by another session in Kosovo. In total she had spent just under a year excavating, cataloguing and analysing the decomposing dead of some of the worst war crimes we have known in the past 50 years. The pay was lousy and the working conditions awful.
Why would anyone volunteer for such a job? The answer is in Clea's writing. She comes from a motivated family and was taught at her parents' collective knee about social injustice. She has chosen to interpret her profession as science in the service of humankind. She is helping to bring closure to the families of the dead by doing what she does. They aren't always happy to know. She tells us of the "mothers of Vukovar" who tried to block the excavation of a gravesite because they preferred to believe their menfolk were still alive.
Clea Koff is not a detached observer, but there is nothing wrong with that. I have met several people with the same motivation, and although I am hardly likely to be a volunteer myself, I can understand how they feel about their driving compassion. Her book is horrific, but it is also a fascinating insight into the cruelty and compassion of our human nature.
Forensic anthropology in South Africa
The South African Police Services does have forensics labs in several cities around the country, but none of them has forensic anthropologists as part of their teams. They make use of the academic forensic anthropologists at the universities on a consultation basis.
LitNet: 18 November 2004
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