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The Bone Woman: A Forensic Anthropologist's Search for Truth in the Mass Graves of Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo [Hardcover]

Clea Koff
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 2004
In the spring of 1994, Rwanda was the scene of the first acts since World War II to be legally defined as genocide. Two years later, Clea Koff, a twenty-three-year-old forensic anthropologist analyzing prehistoric skeletons in the safe confines of Berkeley, California, was one of sixteen scientists chosen by the UN International Criminal Tribunal to go to Rwanda to unearth the physical evidence of genocide and crimes against humanity. The Bone Woman is Koff’s riveting, deeply personal account of that mission and the six subsequent missions she undertook—to Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo—on behalf of the UN.

In order to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity, the UN needs to know the answer to one question: Are the bodies those of noncombatants? To answer this, one must learn who the victims were, and how they were killed. Only one group of specialists in the world can make both those determinations: forensic anthropologists, trained to identify otherwise unidentifiable human remains by analyzing their skeletons. Forensic anthropologists unlock the stories of people’s lives, as well as of their last moments.

Koff’s unflinching account of her years with the UN—what she saw, how it affected her, who was prosecuted based on evidence she found, what she learned about the world—is alternately gripping, frightening, and miraculously hopeful. Readers join Koff as she comes face-to-face with the realities of genocide: nearly five hundred bodies exhumed from a single grave in Kibuye, Rwanda; the wire-bound wrists of Srebrenica massacre victims uncovered in Bosnia; the disinterment of the body of a young man in southwestern Kosovo as his grandfather looks on in silence.

Yet even as she recounts the hellish working conditions, the tangled bureaucracy of the UN, and the heartbreak of survivors, Koff imbues her story with purpose, humanity, and an unfailing sense of justice. This is a book only Clea Koff could have written, charting her journey from wide-eyed innocent to soul-weary veteran across geography synonymous with some of the worst crimes of the twentieth century. A tale of science in the service of human rights, The Bone Woman is, even more profoundly, a story of hope and enduring moral principles.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1 edition (April 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400060648
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400060641
  • Product Dimensions: 25 x 16.8 x 2.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,121,458 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

In 1996 Clea Koff, author of The Bone Woman, was a graduate student of prehistoric skeletons at Berkeley when she was invited to take part in a fact-finding mission in Rwanda for the UN War Crimes Tribunal. The questions she and the other forensic specialists were to answer were: who were the victims buried in a mass grave behind the Kibuye church, and how did they die? This encounter with genocide proved pivotal in Clea's decision to become a forensic anthropologist specialising in human rights. Over the next few years, she participated in six more UN fact-finding missions in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. She uncovered the wire-bound wrists of Srebrenica massacre victims, disinterred the body of a young man in southwestern Kosovo as his grandfather looked on in silence, and discovered among the bodies of hospital patients the curious case of a Croatian with x-rays stuffed down the back of his robe.

The Bone Woman is Koff's powerful, deeply personal account of her training in human rights forensic anthropology, her growing awareness of the human dimension of genocide, and her struggle to come to terms with her role in the reconciliation and healing process of a family--and a nation. Koff details, with a no-holds-barred frankness, what day-to-day life was like as part of a dedicated, multinational team of forensic anthropologists, archaeologists, pathologists, technicians, workers and soldiers: the harsh, sometimes terrifying and potentially violent conditions under which they lived and laboured, not to mention the old bugaboo of politics. She gives a clear, informed, insider's view of her work and her struggle to maintain the necessary professional distance while coming face-to-face with the obvious brutality of the victims' deaths and the pain of the survivors.

While there is much that is similar across these missions, Koff takes special care to emphasise what is distinct to each. Each killing field has its own story. Each victim is an individual whose personhood and personal history were to be erased and rendered anonymous. Yet at the same time, each story carries a universal warning that we all must heed, so as not to fall into the error of viewing what happened in a given place and time as an isolated incident that will never be repeated. --Diana Kuprel, --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


'It is impossible to reach the end of The Bone Woman without great admiration for Clea Koff's tenacity and stoicism.' Caroline Moorehead, Independent 'Clea Koff's work is the place where science, idealism and humanism most intersect.' Laurence Phelan, Independent 'Fascinating... Despite the extraordinary depravity of the crimes detailed in its pages, The Bone Woman is a humane, hopeful and involving book.' Phil Whitaker, Guardian 'A hugely important book... It may be that this is the ultimate memoir of the post-Cold War decade.' Alec Russell, Daily Telegraph --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A truly gripping read. 31 Aug 2004
This book is written with passion and honesty. Clea Koff was a young woman when she first went to Rwanda at the start of her odyssey that took her to the killing fields of Africa and Eastern Europe. However, she writes with the maturity and clarity of someone who has seen and experienced things that will forever be part of the brutal history of the 20th Century.
I found it difficult to put the book down, even when the subject matter was disturbing in the extreme. Koff writes clearly and without any glorification of what she saw, and she clearly revelled in the responsibility of her job.
A fascinating account of terrible events that have a frightening habit of happening again and again during conflicts across the globe.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
This book is not an easy read. Clea Koff is a forensic anthropologist whose job has taken her to Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo.

She is one of the people who carefully uncovered the bodies of people killed in illegal mass murders. These bodies are able to tell the tales of their deaths, and thus form a significant part of the evidence needed by the United Nations to bring people to trial for crimes against humanity.

The book tells Clea's story, telling all that she sees and hears whilst participating in such horrific investigations. That she loves her job is obvious, taking particular satisfaction in the fact that her skills mean that bodies can talk - that people who kill and then say they haven't, can no longer evade justice.

Clea's writing is very personal, humble and accessible. I appreciate that she was able to write it in such a way because I now have a much bigger understanding not only of the work that she does, but what it takes to do it. In a curious way, despite the subject matter, this made this an inspirational book for me.

In my twenties, and curious about the good and evil in the world, I would have found this book very illuminating and motivating. If you have the same curiosity, you might benefit from reading this book. Whatever your age, I am certain you will be impressed by the view of forensic work and war crimes work that is given to us by the author.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sitting Among the Ashes 15 Sep 2010
By M. Day
It is some time ago now that I read this book, so I apologise for not including much detailled information regarding the actual content, but the title of my review is how I remember feeling when I read this, Sitting helpless in a smouldering ruin of ashes.

The world remained blisfully unaware while the fire raged though Rwanda, but Clea Koff takes us to a place where we can sit and reflect on a tragedy that, had it happened in a land with more natural resources or western influence, would never have happened on the scale it did.

Her account of her time actually takes you to there to listen to the accounts of people and to explain how her Anthropological work went some way to giving closure to the millions of people affected by genocide. That is not to forget the accounts of her time in Eastern Europe, equally harrowing accounts of murder and genocide, but the true scale of the African conflict really leave you feeling truly humble. This was one of the 5 largest incidents of genocide recognised as taking place in the modern world, but went largely unnoticed in the western world.

I will not tell you this book makes easy reading, it is not designed for that purpose, it is there to educate, and in terms of a thought provoking book I can say I have never read anything of its like before. If you have a list of books that you feel you must read, then please place this book somewhere near to the top of that list. You will derive no pleasure from the reading matter, but will go away with your conscience pricked and I can guarantee you will recommend someone else you know to read it.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Worth reading 22 Jun 2008
By Emm
The Bone Woman is an incredibly well-written and poignant book written by the forensic anthropologist Clea Koff. The author talks about her work on mass graves in Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo as part of UN International Criminal Tribunal investigations. It is hard to describe this book - I felt like I have undertaken a very long and exhausting journey. Ms Koff described her surroundings so well I feel as if I actually visited hot, leafy forests in Rwanda and cold, grey landscapes in the Balkans. There were times when I had to put this book down and simply process the information that I was reading. There is something about the human condition whereby we find it hard to imagine mass murder; we find it hard to comprehend the mechanics of taking the life of hundreds of people in one event; we find it hard to imagine that these were once people, to put a human face to the atrocity. In her book, Clea Koff does this for us - she paints a picture whereby the reader is finally able to comprehend and understand.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.3 out of 5 stars  23 reviews
36 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars all comes together in the end 28 May 2004
By Paul Box - Published on
The book seems to read as a journal that was written up into a book. The majority of the book follows the author's thoughts and observations over a few significant years in her life, in pretty much chronological order. To a reader who's not paying attention, the whole thing might seem like an "I was there" account. However, one gets insight into how the author approaches her work, with careful observation, dispassionate analysis, and contemplation of the pieces to solve a larger puzzle. She also convincingly communicates an underlying enthusiasm and idealism that drew her into the work and maintained interest throughout. The narrative contains many anectodes about kinds of information that bones can reveal, and does a good job of communicating nightmarish conditions in a mass grave and speculation about the atrocities that created them, but concentrating on the interesting problems to be solved rather than going into gratuitous "gross-out" descriptions of the conditions or the violence. (They seem to have left her with a few nightmares, but whether she was having nightmares was never the point of the narrative.)
The writing style is good throughout the book, but the last chapter, which I expected to be some editorial "wrap-up" of the book, turned out to be a real thought-provoker. It's extremely bad form for a reviewer to discuss the ending of a book, and my overpromoting it may lead to dissapointment in some. However, she describes some bigger picture issues and generalities, conclusions about the world that comes from the commonalities of the various cases she worked on. Coming at the end of the book, you can see her conclusions arising out of the same piecing together and contemplation of results for society and political systems that she applied to individual corpses and grave sites. I suspect that these realizations may be one of the primary motivators for her writing the book; it's where the long string of anecdotes becomes a discussion of the world at large. I would like to have seen more of this discussion, but that may be for a later book. I simply trying to say here that it's worthwhile to finish the book.
I may be overly generous giving the book five stars, as it's not the "perfect" book, but I think it should be required reading in some circles. It's certainly one to hold your attention on an extended flight.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Important for Anthro Students 16 Jan 2010
By S. Cunningham - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I was surprised to read such negative reviews for a book that I dearly love and have bought twice (after one copy was loaned and not returned). Maybe it's just an anthropology thing. As an anthro grad student who wants to work in the same types of situation that Ms. Koff describes, her book gives insight into her experiences.

This is not a technical book, in fact it reads more like a memoir. So don't expect detailed excavation information, that's not what this book is. And Ms. Koff is young when she goes on these digs (she is just out of her bachelors when she travels to Rwanda). For those who may not know anything about anthropology, this is a big deal. People without a masters degree or with little field experience aren't usually part of these recovery efforts. Ms. Koff was lucky and competent enough to have worked with good professors who had connections and helped her to get on the UN mission. This is not to say she isn't a good scientist, she is, but as many in the field (and in life) know, half the battle is knowing the right person.

Some people seemed to want to see some strong emotional responses by Ms. Koff, and I can understand for most people excavating a mass grave in Rwanda would be horribly traumatic. But this is why some people do this work and others don't. You wouldn't expect a doctor or a firegfighter or a soldier to be so wrapped up in the emotion of the moment that they can't focus and get the job done. She is affected, she discusses what she is seeing, imagines what would she do if something as awful as genocide happened to her, how would she save her mother who suffers from some physical limitations making a quick escape impossible. These are the reactions of a forensic anthropologist who has worked on two long and difficult mass recovery missions.

There is a place for intense sorrow and grief. The book by the head of the UN security mission (his name escapes me) who worked tirelessly and with little resources to save people during the killing in Rwanda is a good example.

Ms. Koff's efforts begin several years after the killings ended. She is an anthropologist who knew what she was getting into and wanted to take on this difficult task to give something of the lost back to their loved ones. This is what a forensic anthropologist does. Becoming overwhelmed by her experiences does a disservice to the same people she is trying to help. She is affected, she feels the responsibility of the mission and her actions and the loss of lives keenly, but she sucks it up and gets the job done. If the Rwandans and Kosovars can bear their losses and continue on, the least she can do is what is expected of her and help them recover their relatives. And this is what she does.

She's competent,confident, but young and you can see the issues that occur when a small group of people are doing dangerous and emotionally wrenching work. This book is a must for anthropology students, especially those wanting to work in mass disaster and human rights situations.
10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An Interesting Window Into Grisly Work 11 Jan 2005
By Melissa Martin - Published on
Honestly, I am somewhat surprised by the tone and number of negative reviews of this book. While no reviewer would pretend that the Bone Woman is any work of great storytelling, I nonetheless found it to be an intriguing look into a world that I myself can scarcely imagine: that of forensic anthropology.

One regular criticism of the book seems to be that Koff expresses no moments of emotion in the field, whereas she experiences major frustration over certain perceived iniquities in the organization of the excavations. I believe that Koff herself more than addresses this seeming dichotomy when she stresses, early on in the book, her love of her work and her ability to find some measure of peculiar tranquility in excavating the graves, a sense of being party to an act of absolute justice.

Given that approach, I don't think that her apparent lack of emotional trauma in the field is so hard to understand, and her frustrations with the bureaucratic nature of field operations is also in sync with other memoirs written by various NGO or UN workers. I would also suspect that often, professional detachment in the field creates stress that is released via frustrations with intra-staff relations outside of it. Koff was a woman who wished to be completely engaged by her work: the reality of disturbances to that immersion naturally emerge in the text.

With that said, the book itself is no classic; it lacks a sense of greater purpose, or a concept of her work's place in the greater whole. It is field-focused and neither particularly revelatory or particularly insightful.

However, to those interested in humanitarian efforts and in world events, it is an accessible and interesting look into the grisly and yet absolutely necessary work of documenting war crimes' dead.

Take the Bone Woman for what it is: a rare opportunity to get a hands-on feel of what is for most of us and almost unimaginable profession. As an opportunity to see a window into that world, it has value indeed.
17 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A stunning book and a compelling read 10 May 2004
By Federico (Fred) Moramarco - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
It's simply hard to believe that Clea Koff was only 23 years old when she experienced some of the things she describes in this remarkable book. Ms. Koff is a forensic anthropologist who exhumed mass graves in Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo and elsewhere in the 1990s, and kept a meticulous journal of her activities. She's converted that journal to lucid and poetic prose that confronts mortality squarely and underscores the extraordinary inhumanity that human beings are capable of. She writes about the grisliest details with grace, luminosity, accuracy, and even lyricism. This is a must read and I can't recommend it too highly. It's one of those books that can change your life.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Honest 8 Feb 2011
By Alexandra M. Schweitzer - Published on
This book delivers an honest and interesting glimpse into the life of a forensic anthropologist/ human rights fighter. I am an anthropology student, so maybe this book would not be as interesting to other people as it was to me, as it does document the nitpicky and often gross details of Koff's work (which I loved). Koff does seem to have a tedious need to tell us about every pat on the back she has ever received, so I docked a star for that. That is my only real complaint about the book.
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