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The Bone Woman: A Forensic Anthropologist's Search for Truth in the Mass Graves of Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo (Anglais) Relié – avril 2004

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THE blood's long gone

it took twenty-four hours to fly from california to Rwanda. I crossed ten time zones and ate two breakfasts, but there was one constant: my thoughts of Kibuye church and the job I had to do there. Most of the facts I knew were bounded by the dates of the genocide: the church was in Kibuye town, within the préfecture, or county, of Kibuye. During the three months of the 1994 genocide, this one county alone suffered the deaths or disappearances of almost 250,000 people. Several thousand of those had been killed in a single incident at Kibuye church.

According to the few Kibuye survivors, the préfet, or governor, of Kibuye organized gendarmes to direct people he had already targeted to be killed into two areas: the church and the stadium. The préfet told them that it was for their own safety, that they would be protected from the violence spreading through the country. But after two weeks of being directed to the "safe zones," those inside were attacked by the very police and militia who were supposed to be their protectors. This was a tactic typical of génocidaires all over Rwanda: to round up large numbers of victims in well-contained buildings and grounds with few avenues of escape and then to kill them. In fact, more people were killed in churches than in any other location in Rwanda. Some priests tried to protect those who had sought refuge in their churches; others remained silent or even aided the killers.

I read the witness accounts of the attack on Kibuye church in "Death, Despair and Defiance," a publication of the organization African Rights. Reading them was like having the survivors whisper directly in my ear: they describe how the massacre took place primarily on April 17, a Sunday, on the peninsula where the church sits high above the shores of Lake Kivu. The attackers first threw a grenade among the hundreds of people gathered inside the church; then they fired shots to frighten or wound people. The small crater from the grenade explosion was still visible in the concrete floor almost two years later, along with the splintered pews. After the explosion, the attackers entered the church through the double wooden doors at the front. Using machetes, they began attacking anyone within arm's reach. A common farming implement became, in that moment, an instrument of mass killing, with a kind of simultaneity that bespeaks preplanning.

The massacre at the Kibuye church and in the surrounding buildings and land, where more than four thousand people had taken refuge, continued for several days, the killers stopping only for meals. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up when I learned that the killers fired tear gas to force those still alive to cough or sit up. They then went straight to those people and killed them. They left the bodies where they fell.

People living in Kibuye after the genocide eventually buried the bodies from the church in mass graves on the peninsula. The UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda had requested our forensic team to locate the graves, and to exhume the remains and analyze them to determine the number of bodies, their age, their sex, the nature of their injuries, and the causes of their deaths. The physical evidence would be used at the trial of those already indicted by the Tribunal on charges of crimes against humanity, to provide proof of the events and to support the testimony of witnesses.

Every time I read the accounts of Kibuye survivors, I ended up crying because they described a type of persecution from which there appears no escape, followed by a shock survival stripped of joy due to the murders of parents, children, cousins-and family so extended the English language doesn't even have names for them, though Rwandans do. Reading those accounts one last time before the plane delivered me to Kigali, my reaction was no different, but I tried to hide the tears from people in the seats around me and that gave the crying a sort of desperation, which in turn made me wonder how I would handle working in this crime scene.

As I stepped out of the airplane and walked across the tarmac of the Kigali airport, my concerns faded because my immediate surroundings occupied me. The first thing I noticed in the terminal was that many of the lights were out and the high windows were broken, marred by bullet holes or lacking panes altogether: cool night air poured in from outside. Just inside the doors, the officer at passport control inspected my passport and visa closely.

"How can you be a student and also come here to work?" he asked. I told him I was with a team of anthropologists.


Would he have a negative reaction to Tribunal-related activities?

"Physicians for Human Rights," I replied nervously.

His face lit up. "Ah! Well, you are very welcome."

Relieved, I walked downstairs to the baggage claim. The carousel was tiny, squeakily making its rounds, and I could see through the flaps in the wall to the outside where some young men were throwing the bags onto the carousel. My bags came through, but two teammates I had just met on the plane, Dean Bamber and David Del Pino, were not so fortunate. The baggage handlers eventually crawled inside through the flaps in the wall and stood in a group, looking at the passengers whose bags hadn't arrived as if to say to them, "Sorry, we did all we could."

While Dean and David went to find help, I walked past the chain-link fence separating baggage claim from the lobby, pushed past the crowd of people there to meet this twice-weekly flight, and met Bill Haglund, our team leader. I recognized Bill because I had met him a couple of years earlier at the annual meeting of forensic anthropologists in Nevada. He was a semi-celebrity at the time, from his work as a medical examiner on the Green River serial murder cases in Seattle, but the reason he made an impression on me was his slide show from Croatia: he had just returned from working for Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), exhuming the remains of Croatian Serb civilians killed by the Croatian army in 1991. Now here he was in Kigali airport, just as I remembered him: wearing glasses, tie, and hat, his multicolored beard (white, gray, blondish) a bit straggly. In a hurried but low tone that I came to know well, Bill immediately started to brief me on the team's logistics and plan of action, both for our two days in Kigali and the first stages of the mission in Kibuye. It sounded like an enormous amount of work-or was that just Bill's rushed-hushed delivery?-but I was excited and felt ready for anything, particularly because Bill emphasized that no forensic team had ever attempted to exhume a grave of the size we expected. We would be pioneers together, learning and adapting as we worked.

By now, Dean and David had arranged for Bill to get their bags when the next flight came into Kigali in a few days, so we walked outside. Our project coordinator, Andrew Thomson, was waiting for us in a four-wheel drive.

As we drove into Kigali town, I could not believe I was there. You know it is Africa: the air is fresh and then sweet-strongly sweet, like honeysuckle. Kigali's hills were dotted with lights from houses. On the road, the traffic was rather chaotic. Drivers did not use turn signals; they just turned or jockeyed for position as desired. Our boxy white Land Rover was one of many identical vehicles, though the others had the black UN insignia marked on their doors.

We checked in to the Kiyovu Hotel, but left almost immediately to have dinner in a neighborhood of ex-embassies. The manicured tropicality of this area exuded another kind of African beauty, like a postcolonial Beverly Hills. Before dinner at a Chinese restaurant we met two more people who worked for the Tribunal; their high front gate was opened by a guard named God. The doors of the house lay open as though surveying the garden arrayed down the hill below. Standing there at that moment, I was at ease with my companions and tremendously happy to be in Rwanda. I was finally back in East Africa, a place I remembered from my childhood as exuding an abundant vibrancy of epic proportions.

upon waking the next morning, I saw that at least the outskirts of Kigali did not dispel my memories. The suburbs consisted of a multitude of green hills lined with unpaved roads, and valleys filled with low, red-roofed buildings. Flowers bloomed everywhere, and the contrast of green grass against orange earth was as saturated and luminous as a scene from Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria. Even the grounds of the modest Kiyovu Hotel inspired awe: climbing vines with massive purple flowers; huge hawklike birds nesting in the trees. The birds swooped out over the valley and came into view as I looked through my binoculars at the city, wondering how it would compare to all this.

We spent the next day and a half in town, gathering our exhumation equipment from the Tribunal's offices to take to Kibuye by car. The roads of central Kigali were in excellent condition and allowed Bill to drive fast, roundabouts providing an extra thrill. When I wasn't sliding across the backseat, I could see that Kigali's hills seemed to create neighborhoods through topography. People walked along the road, some carrying pots on their heads, while others tended the oleander bushes in the median dividers.

The Tribunal's headquarters were in a small multilevel building that provided only the barest respite from the growing warmth and humidity. We set about unpacking the many boxes of equipment that had been shipped to Kigali in the previous weeks. As we sorted and inventoried the contents, it became clear that much of the equipment was either inadequate or simply absent: we had office supplies and rubber boots of various sizes, but the surgical gloves were three sizes too large; the scalpel handles were massive and their accompanying blades were so big I wondered if they were meant for veterinary pathologists; the screens were all wrong, nothing like the ... --Ce texte fait référence à une édition épuisée ou non disponible de ce titre.

Revue de presse

“Every detail — the marbles in a dead boy's pocket — seems to tell the same story, of human suffering on a scale nearly too awful to contemplate. But with each Body that Koff can prove belonged to a non-combatant, it becomes easier to successfully prosecute charges of war crimes. Her work is the place where science, idealism and humanism most intersect.”
The Independent on Sunday

“There are only a handful of people who have seen and felt (and smelt) what the violence of the new world order has wrought, and she is one of them ... Thomas Keneally wrote about the awkwardness of "good" as a literary subject. It is harder to make interesting than evil ... but sometimes he concluded, you find yourself staring at good in the face and just have to recognise it. So it is with The Bone Woman.”
The Times (London)

“Her book — indeed, her life — is a testament to an idealism that shines through a grim, bloody reality.”
The Glasgow Herald

“Part science, part expose, part personal narrative, The Bone Woman offers a rare insight into both the role of a forensic anthropologist, and the role of the UN tribunal's forensic team ... Yet, for all its forensic detail, it is Koff's deep sense of connection to the bodies she came to exhume, her unflinching sense of obligation to them, and her willingness to look at what they represent, that renders The Bone Woman compelling reading.”
Sunday Times (Perth)

“It is a highly personal account written in an engaging I-was-there-style ... she gives a sense of the survivors and the guilt and grief they live with ... an accomplished writer ...”
—Jane Perlez, The New York Times 'Saturday Profile'

“Honest and effective…. A deeply personal chronicle.”
The Globe and Mail --Ce texte fait référence à une édition épuisée ou non disponible de ce titre.

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Commentaires client les plus utiles sur (beta) 24 commentaires
36 internautes sur 41 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
all comes together in the end 28 mai 2004
Par Paul Box - Publié sur
Format: Relié
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.
5 internautes sur 5 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Important for Anthro Students 16 janvier 2010
Par S. Cunningham - Publié sur
Format: Broché Achat vérifié
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 internautes sur 13 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
An Interesting Window Into Grisly Work 11 janvier 2005
Par Melissa Martin - Publié sur
Format: Relié
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 internautes sur 24 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
A stunning book and a compelling read 10 mai 2004
Par Federico (Fred) Moramarco - Publié sur
Format: Relié Achat vérifié
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.
6 internautes sur 9 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Look Beyond Mere Storytelling...Focus On the Main Theme 26 avril 2005
Par Roger Williams - Publié sur
Format: Relié
I have read many reviews where reviewers misinterpret Koff's frustration over the bureaucracy that took place during her field assignments as her being self-centered and "full of herself." These reviewers need to understand that though she wrote and published the book several years after, I believe, she was only 23 years old at the time of the Rwandan field operation. At that critical period between girlhood and adulthood, emotions can run high, particularly when one's placed in pressure-laden situations, and any little thing can set off one's frustration, so it behooves us to take that into consideration when looking at the experience as a whole. With that said, I found the book to be quite informative. I think it's a perfect book, not only for first-year anthropologists, but for anyone wanting a deeper insight into their world. The over-arching theme of the book, however, is that mass-misunderstanding mixed with propaganda can, in fact, lead to mass-murders, if not, genocide. We as Westerners can become quite comfortable with the fact that we have strong, stable democracies where such things as mass-murders can never transpire on our soil, but this book warns us that it could happen anywhere.
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