Duck Duck Book

53 – bone woman
04.14.2008, 8:03 am
Filed under: science

The bone woman : a forensic anthropologist’s search for truth in the mass graves of Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo / Clea Koff.
New York : Random House, c2004.
[MCL call number: 599.9 K78b 2004; four copies, no holds;
also in Spanish under the title El lenguaje de los huesos: S- 599.9 K78L 2004; three copies, no holds]

I have never had a serious desire to be a doctor, but I must admit that since childhood I’ve been fascinated by forensic medicine. It seems so amazing that someone with the right training and experience can cut apart a deceased person’s body, look at their insides, test their tissues and fluids, and come away several hours later with a clear idea of what exactly caused the person to die. But how much more fascinating is it that forensic anthropologists can do the same when the person’s body has been reduced, more or less, to nothing but a skeleton?

Clea Koff was a student forensic anthropologist working on her master’s degree at the University of Arizona and doing field work at the Pima County, Arizona Medical Examiner’s Office when she had the opportunity to travel to Rwanda to work for the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal examining the evidence in mass graves left after the Rwandan genocide. Koff jumped at the chance, and after two missions for the Tribunal in Rwanda, she joined four more in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo. In each place, Koff and her colleagues worked sixty-hour or longer weeks in awkward, sometimes dangerous conditions with poor supplies and patchy institutional support, coaxing little bits of people’s stories from their bones, bodies, clothing, personal possessions, and surroundings.

The dead, their relatives, their killers, and the horrible circumstances that allow people to draw lines and rise up wholesale against their neighbors are always present in Koff’s narrative; as is Koff’s own struggle with the tension between her broad responsibility as special kind of human rights worker and her role as a scientist, a servant of truth and discovery. But in many ways it is a beautiful story, too. The search for answers is an important part of what makes us human, and Koff takes that quest seriously. She considers scientific, social, historical, philosophical, and political questions as she hones her vocation so that it will add value, satisfaction, and meaning not just to her own life, but also, at least a tiny bit, to the lives of others as well.

The Bone Woman has an appendix listing completed and commenced trials that used evidence from the missions described in the book, which is interesting but on the whole rather dry and unsatisfying. Unfortunately, there is no index, and no bibliography.


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