To prosecute charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, the UN needs proof that the bodies found are those of non-combatants. This means answering two questions: who the victims were, and how they were killed. The only people who can answer both these questions are forensic anthropologists.
Before being sent to Rwanda in 1996, Clea Koff was a twenty-three-year-old graduate student studying prehistoric skeletons in the safe confines of Berkeley, California. Over the next four years, her gruelling investigation into events that shocked the world transformed her from a wide-eyed student into a soul-weary veteran — and a wise and deeply thoughtful woman. Her unflinching account of those years — what she saw, how it affected her, who went to trial based on evidence she collected — makes for an unforgettable read, alternately riveting, frightening and miraculously hopeful. Readers join Koff as she comes face to face with the human meaning of genocide: exhuming almost five hundred bodies from a single grave in Kibuye, Rwanda; uncovering the wire-bound wrists of Srebrenica massacre victims in Bosnia; disinterring the body of a young man in southwestern Kosovo as his grandfather looks on in silence. As she recounts the fascinating details of her work, the hellish working conditions, the bureaucracy of the UN, and the heartbreak of survivors, Koff imbues her story with an immense sense of hope, humanity and justice.
1. Koff uses the term "double vision" to describe how she views the bodies she excavates — she looks at them as both objects of scientific evidence and loved ones of grieving families and friends left behind. How does this double vision help Koff complete her work? At what points in The Bone Woman does she find herself unable to maintain a balance between the two views.
2. When exhuming bodies, Koff often makes careful note of what they are wearing and the items they've retained, such as tax receipts, house keys, and identity cards. She states, "It wasn't until I had seen more of these artifacts that their significance dawned on me" (page 61). How do these artifacts help the anthropologists in their work? What conclusions can be drawn from them?
3. How did the book Witnesses from the Grave lead Koff from her university studies in archaeology to forensic anthropology? How did her parents and her upbringing contribute to her interests? What were her motivations for entering this line of work?
4. How do Koff and her teammates emotionally cope with working in mass graves? How do their strategies for dealing with this environment differ?
5. The shooting that Koff witnesses in Kibuye is a defining event in the memoir. Koff writes, " The episode and its aftermath underscored my concern that we weren't doing enough to help the living people associated with the bodies in the grave" (page 67). Discuss how this experience affects Koff.
6. Koff discusses "the importance of having team members who are team players, who look to each other for backup and can double-check each other's work without bristling" (page 97). What are other characteristics forensic anthropologists need to possess in order to succeed in their work?
7. Koff writes, "I knew that, despite the importance of the work we were doing, a toll would be exacted by this life. I didn't know what kind of toll, or when it would happen, or how long I would last" (page 150). What symptoms of trauma does Koff exhibit from her experiences? How do the team's emotional responses manifest themselves?
8. Reflecting on her experience in Kigali, Koff writes, "If I hadn't joined the second mission to Rwanda, I wouldn't have learned that my guilt was misplaced" (page 112). What does she mean by this? For Koff, how does the Kibuye mission differ from the Kigali mission?
9. What is Koff's explanation for the murders of noncombatants and civilians in such great numbers? How does she assess the reasoning behind these killings?
10. Throughout The Bone Woman, how does Koff change? Do you notice a significant transformation in her worldview, philosophies, and emotional thresholds at the end of her account?