Getting the dead to make the case

The Bone Woman
February 25, 2005

Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily." The continuing trial of Slobodan Milosevic for crimes against humanity at The Hague is one that many of us are familiar with. Rarely, however, do we get the opportunity to read how the evidence for these alleged war crimes is painstakingly collected and the cases for the prosecutions formulated. The Bone Woman is an effective window into part of that process.

The book is based on Clea Koff's personal journals and is divided into her various deployments to Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. Throughout the book, Koff seamlessly merges her development as a forensic anthropologist with the development of the role of forensic science in international investigations into crimes against humanity and in bringing war criminals to trial. She has also collected a set of photographs that allow the reader to appreciate the contexts and conditions in which she has worked.

As with all books on the experiences of forensic practitioners, there is a danger of manipulating the tragedies of others into an exciting page-turner. To her credit, Koff has largely resisted this and has produced a book about the personal context of her work rather than its gory specifics - although there is the occasional bloody detail, it is no more than is necessary to impart the less-than-savoury nature of much of the work.

Koff's book is, on the whole, vividly descriptive and the landscapes she discusses (geographical, anatomical and emotional) are nicely realised, although occasional clunky passages do at times reveal this to be her first non-academic work. One cannot help but emit a slightly disappointed sigh when encountering the usual tired forensic osteological casebook cliches (for example, "letting bones talk") in an otherwise well written and mature book.

In addition to being an interesting, pertinent read, The Bone Woman is valuable in that it reveals the realities of forensic anthropology to the reader. It presents an image that is a far cry from the moody lighting and stylised scientific objectiveness that television would have us believe.

Koff shows it for what it is: dirty, physically demanding and psychologically draining. Using herself as the example, she repeatedly shows its emotional toll, the difficulties in maintaining an "objective expert" stance when surrounded by grieving next of kin and the inadequacies of graduate training in preparing you for this aspect of our work. It also highlights the frustrations faced when dealing with the other myriad interested agencies and parties. A constant example - and one that will have resonance for all those who have faced it - is the role of the United Nations and how the very nature of that organisation can often hinder its own attempts to conduct humanitarian investigations.

The good work that The Bone Woman achieves is, at times, undermined by the slightly self-promoting nature of some of the prose. This is an autobiographical work, but one is, at times, given the impression that the missions would have crumbled without Koff and she neglects to fully appreciate the sheer numbers of people and disciplines beyond anthropology that have contributed to the success of such deployments.

The book concludes with an appendix giving the results of the tribunals that Koff has been involved in. This is a rare addition and serves to demonstrate that multidisciplinary forensic investigations can produce results; it allows the reader to place Koff's experiences within a global socio-political context. A further plus point is its stylish, understated jacket. The publishers have clearly resisted the temptation to assault potential buyers with the usual gruesome images.

For me personally, and as a forensic anthropologist, this book is important for two reasons. First, it goes some way to deglamourising a discipline that is falling foul of its own popularity - often as a consequence of being defined disingenuously in the public domain. Second, Koff's accurate descriptions of these traumatised regions and her experiences there can only help to reaffirm the importance of forensic anthropology to the judicial process, and to us as practitioners.

This is a thought-provoking and honest account of the practice of forensic anthropology, the immense responsibility that it entails and the transformative effect on someone that investigating such horrific acts can have.

Tim Thompson is lecturer in forensic anthropology, Dundee University.

The Bone Woman

Author - Clea Koff
Publisher - Atlantic Books
Pages - 321
Price - £12.99
ISBN - 1 84354 138 6

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