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Interpreter of tragedies

A forensic sleuth finds hope in the stories she can tell for those silenced in war zones.

June 09, 2004|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

She cries a little; she smiles a lot. Get acquainted with her and you'll wonder why it's not the other way around.

Clea Koff, 31, has been up to her delicate neck in the worst of the world's troubles, and that's a fact, not a metaphor. In the soft green landscapes of Rwanda, where reality and nightmare once converged, she gathered up the skulls. She matched them to the skeletons. She labored to match these remains with surviving families.

In Bosnia, where insanity consumed humanity, she drew still more anonymous corpses from the loose soil. In the killing fields of Croatia, the bodies came out of the ground in layers. In a woebegone, but not forgotten, morgue of Serbia, she opened the refrigerator boxes one by one to count the toll of tyranny.

She studied the bones. She listened to the bones, piles of bones that grew into mountains of bones.

Now she talks for them.

"I aspired to give a voice to people silenced by their own governments or militaries, people suppressed in the most final way, murdered and put into clandestine graves," Koff writes in her just-published memoir of her five years as "The Bone Woman."

To say that Clea Koff is a forensic anthropologist doesn't begin to convey the nature of her field work or the idealistic fervor that she brought to it. On and off from 1996 through 2000, she served with United Nations scientific teams that uncovered, cataloged and identified the evidence of the worst crimes of this age. But that doesn't convey enough either. Far from it.

One could make an attempt by reaching for words like "grim," "grisly," "heartbreaking," "fetid" -- or even stronger words like "shocking," "unimaginable," "sickening." But for words like this to grab you by the throat with all their intended force, you must follow her deep into the grave, trowel in hand, as she numbers the heads and calls out the inventory: "right knee" or "left knee." And when it comes to contrasting descriptions of this work, the fulfillment, satisfaction and "a knee-buckling sense of privilege," well, only Koff herself can explain what happens in the heart when the living meet the dead, and then with some difficulty.

That is the 271-page story she has written.

Serving the deceased

You can see her coming. There's no mistaking that wrap-around smile as she walks into a downtown Los Angeles coffee shop. Her grin is as bright as high beams.

Page 34: "Many people have asked me how I could smile so much in the midst of a mass grave or a field of scattered bones. It is because I see not just death -- about which I can do nothing -- but bones and teeth and hair, which I can do something about, something that serves the deceased and possibly a greater community, not just theirs but other communities around the world."

She could be a model. The Bone Woman has long thin bones, lithe movements and the aura of energy that surrounds people whose emotions are contained very close to the surface of the skin. Instead, she devoted her 20s to being a global crime scene detective.

Page 8: "In addition to helping authorities determine the identity of deceased people, forensic anthropology has a role in human rights investigations, because a dead body can incriminate perpetrators who believe they have silenced their victims forever. That is the part of forensic anthropology that drives me ....

She sits and sips coffee diluted with milk. She is home now, her parents live in Los Angeles. She has just finished an international book tour -- and before that, two difficult years of writing, of being prodded by editors and friends and family. It's been a long process of reliving what a good many people cannot imagine ever enduring.

She is prepared now. Most interviewers, she explains, want to know what it felt like. The sights, sounds and smells?

Odd. Most interviewers, it seems, did not think to read Koff before talking with her. Or they would have not a single such question unanswered. "The Bone Woman" is a vividly or, if one prefers, a frightfully descriptive account of the sights, sounds, smells and what it feels like.

In one passage of her book, she recalls her nightmares: a trowel scraping through saponified flesh as she lay against dismembered legs. In other passages, she explains her workday routines in virtually identical circumstances and far more than that. Her verbatim descriptions are beyond what can be related in a family newspaper. Suffice to say, Koff's seven "missions" into fields of death erase all qualitative differences between horrors dreamed and horrors unearthed.

A hopeful work

She first went to Rwanda as a 23-year-old optimist. If mass murderers can be confronted with evidence of their evil and brought to justice, she reasoned, then perhaps mass murder ... well, one can hope. In this vein, some book reviewers and her publisher have found "The Bone Woman" to be an unexpectedly hopeful work.

Perhaps.

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