Original address (clea-bones)

The New York Times
Original address: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/04/24/international/asia/24FPRO.html
April 24, 2004

Clea Koff received her masters degree from the Department of Anthropology, University of Nebraska in 1999


A 'Bone Woman' Chronicles the World's Massacres


MELBOURNE, Australia ? Clea Koff was present at the big events of the 1990's: Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo. Just out of graduate school, she was not a fledgling diplomat, nor a journalist. She was wearing overalls, protective gloves and boots.

Her job was to dig out the aftermath: the decayed bodies, the skeletons and bones, hoping to make sense of the senseless.

Most of the time, she was able to keep her composure, even under the most gruesome of circumstances, facing the recent dead.

She would concentrate, she said, on the notion that she was helping provide critical evidence for the international trials where the authorities in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia have been charged with crimes against humanity and genocide. That is what it meant to be a forensic anthropologist.

"We play a role in establishing what happened in the past," she said of the profession she has practiced at the intersection of history and justice.

In Bosnia, she dug up bodies that had their hands tied behind their backs, were blindfolded and then shot multiple times. That evidence was presented in The Hague at the trial of the former leader of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic. "There is lawful killing in armed conflict but not that," she said. "A pathologist was asked at the trial of Milosevic if it was possible for those people to have been killed in combat. He replied: `I think not.' "

Ms. Koff has chronicled her experiences unearthing mass graves in a book, "Bone Woman," published by Random House this month to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda that left 800,000 dead. It is a highly personal account written in an engaging I-was-there style.

She helps the reader understand the complexities of skeleton structure, the exacting nature of having to bag and tabulate body parts. She gives a sense of the survivors and the guilt and grief they live with.

It helps that Ms. Koff, now 31, is an accomplished writer who gave up a major in English at Stanford University for archaeology, and then forensic anthropology. "As we drove into Kigali town, I could not believe I was there," she writes of the Rwandan capital. "You know it is Africa: the air is fresh and then sweet ? strongly sweet."

Ms. Koff speaks of her work with an irrepressible enthusiasm, and the kind of conviction that she believes she was born to do the job. "The bodies exhibit clues to people's behavior as they approached death," she said over lunch in this Australian city where she took time off to write the book. "They are not telling us about their political beliefs. They're telling us about themselves."

What she found on the bodies often raised unanswerable questions. "In some cases people brought deeds to their houses," she said. "People had baptismal cards. Some people had on two sets of clothes. What were they thinking? One man in Vukovar who had been taken from the hospital, had put his chest X-rays in his bathrobe. What did he expect?"

She was 23 when she got a call, in 1996, asking her to join a team of 16 experts who would work for the United Nations on the massacre sites in Rwanda.

She knew Africa from her heritage: her mother is Tanzanian, her father American. She had traveled the continent as a child accompanying her parents on their safaris making documentary films. But her experience until that time ? an internship at a medical examiner's office in Arizona ? was hardly preparation for the scale of Rwanda's carnage.

After the United Nations missions, she decided to write a book in order to show Western readers that people in faraway places "don't do these things just because they can't control their primordial instincts."

"Something like Rwanda, because it didn't happen with weapons of mass destruction but with machetes, doesn't mean it happened without a policy," she said.

The massacres were not driven solely by an ethnic hatred of one group, the majority Hutu, against the minority Tutsi, she said. "If people had refused to kill because it didn't sound right, if there were not the material bribes ? I feel there were enough people to allow a genocide not to take place."

Many Rwandans joined in the mass killings because they were exploited, she said. At the same time, she said, "There were definitely people who killed wantonly."

Born in Britain, Ms. Koff spent her primary school years in London, and then moved to the United States ? Washington and then Los Angeles. She seems more American than English, though at times she slips into a British accent. In the last 18 months, she has split her time between Melbourne and Los Angeles, and plans to return to the United States full time, she said.

Her real education came during her childhood traveling. Her father, David Koff, and her mother, Musindo Mwinyipembe, believed that taking their two children to the gritty reaches of Africa was the best preparation for life.

Her memories of Somalia include playing on the beach at Mogadishu with Somali children. At the same time, she came across expatriates who lived in Mogadishu behind high walls studded with cut glass to keep out local people.

She reports in her book that she sometimes felt the United Nations forensic missions were similarly isolated from the communities they were working within.

Ms. Koff seems to inherit much of her drive from her father, whose work focused on the poor. In 1980, Mr. Koff fought the Boston public television station, WGBH, when executives there were unhappy with "Blacks Britannica," a documentary they had commissioned him to make on race in Britain.

After WGBH made cuts that altered the film's militant message, Mr. Koff went to court, seeking an order barring the station from broadcasting the edited version.

He lost. But the episode left an indelible impression on his daughter, who was left in Britain at school while her parents fought the case in America. "I was 6 or 7 years old," she recalled. "We didn't understand the ins and outs, but understood something was going on."

Her next mission? A change. Ms. Koff plans to start a private agency in the United States that will help families with missing family members. She plans to act as a go-between for the families with the coroner's offices and the F.B.I.

"There are 5,000 long-term unidentified adult bodies in California," she said. "Three thousand to 3,500 adults go missing in suspicious circumstances in California every year. It is often very difficult for the families to get cooperation from the police and medical examiners."

The new work will keep her involved with her first love: bones. "I have an innate excitement about bones," she said. "They speak to me." She quotes her mentor, Clyde Snow, a pioneer in the field of forensic anthropology. "He said, `Bones don't lie.' I like that."