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Grave Testimony

Bones speak volumes to investigator Clea Koff.

Courtesy Physicians for Human Rights

LEFT BEHIND: Koff organized a "Clothing Day" in Kibuye, Rwanda, to help massacre surrvivors identify their dead by disinterred personal effects.

View photo album >>

By Laura Shin

As a child, Clea Koff wanted to be a librarian or secretary. Koff, 32, has a voice made for the stacks and a comportment befitting a suit and heels, so it’s easy to see 6-year-old Clea sitting behind a typewriter, crafting meticulous pages. “When I was small,” she says, “I pictured myself in a highly ordered world. I was always organizing or dreaming of organizing things.” With characteristic determination, she got her wish—although not in a way anyone might have imagined. Koff grew up to bring order to the contents of mass graves.

Koff, ’95, is a forensic anthropologist. She has a smile that could sell toothpaste, but the résumé of someone who has helped bring to justice some of the perpetrators of the world’s most recent genocides. In 1996, at age 23, she went to Rwanda as the youngest member of the first United Nations team to exhume a mass grave. Four years later, she had completed six more missions in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. By April 2004, when Koff published The Bone Woman: A Forensic Anthropologist’s Search for Truth in the Mass Graves of Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo (Random House), 19 people—including former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic—had been convicted or awaited trial in U.N. international criminal tribunals using evidence she and her colleagues had unearthed.

Koff’s career began with a book that her father gave her during freshman year: Witnesses from the Grave: The Stories Bones Tell, by Christopher Joyce and Eric Stover. Reading it, she learned about Argentina’s first human-rights forensic team, who in 1984 dug up and identified the remains of “the disappeared” abducted during the military junta of the 1970s and 1980s. (Koff’s parents, David Koff and Musindo Mwinyipembe, make documentary films about human rights issues.)

“I basically carried that book around all the time for years,” Koff says. “I was insane. I cold-called people at the FBI and would say, ‘I’m 18 years old, and I want to study forensics, and I’m looking one day to volunteer for the Argentine team.’ I was the type of person who would probably annoy me now.”

Koff majored in anthropology, then began graduate work in forensic anthropology at the University of Arizona. In the Pima County medical examiner’s office, she worked with human bones to determine identity and cause of death. When the U.N. opportunity came up, Koff was living with her parents in Berkeley and working for a former Stanford adviser, saving up for Argentina.

U.N. forensic teams had a twofold goal in civil war-torn Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia: to corroborate eyewitness accounts of genocide in the face of official denials and, when possible, to return the remains of victims to their families. The discovery of mass burial sites whose dead had all been killed the same way provided prosecutors with the evidence to bring perpetrators to trial.

During Koff’s first mission in Kibuye, Rwanda, she and her colleagues excavated a grave site that held nearly 500 people, most of them women and children. They were a small contingent of the 250,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus who had disappeared from that prefecture alone in the first three months of the 1994 genocide, and a fraction of the several thousand killed at the Kibuye church in a single incident.

The process that ends with a gavel starts with a pickax, shovel or trowel; Koff has even used chopsticks in situations requiring more delicate maneuvers. Investigators first remove vegetation to expose unburied bones on the grave’s surface and then reassemble the 206 bones of each skeleton. Deeper inside the grave, corpses present workers with the gruesome challenge of cleaning up the curdlike substance that can spurt from decomposing bodies. The stench is so strong that Koff describes having to store the “grave bra” she wore to work in a plastic bag—even after she’d washed it.

After exhumation, in makeshift labs under a tent, radiologists take X-rays and pathologists conduct autopsies. With an arsenal of scalpels, medical scissors, heavy-duty tweezers, wooden osteometric boards and calipers, the anthropologists isolate and measure bones and teeth to determine each victim’s age, sex and stature. The team prepares photo and computer documentation, including an inventory of recovered clothing and personal effects to help families with identification.

In Kibuye, the cause of death was easy to find. Koff flips through a photo album and points to a close-up of a skull with a clean, sharp cut in the back of it, and another picture of a machete. “You could actually fit [the machete] right here to see the trauma,” she says matter-of-factly, pointing to the skull. Almost every skull they uncovered there bore a similar mark.

How did Koff steel herself to do such harrowing work? A friend from Stanford says Koff’s college acquaintances would find it unfathomable for someone “as kind and sweet-natured as Clea.” But it is her very sensitivity, observes Suttirat Anne Larlarb, ’93, “that drives her and allows her to do the work she does, even though she is able to be emotionally distant during the actual exhumations and morgue work.” Koff explains that she managed to see beyond the grisly details of each person’s death to a larger purpose. “Not only would we uncover the truth and the historical record, and not only would we allow the bodies to talk in the courtroom, but we would get these bodies back to their families.” Sam Brown, a colleague on several missions, says she appreciated Koff’s “optimism and humor” in trying conditions.

In Croatia, Koff encountered something she hadn’t foreseen. The team had gone to excavate a grave that reportedly contained patients whom the Yugoslav army had removed from the local hospital and killed. But the Mothers of Vukovar, a local group of relatives of the missing, were sure their men were alive in prisoner-of-war camps in Serbia. They protested the team’s arrival.

I had always kept in mind the idea that if I worked in this field, I might be in contact with families, and they would be glad that people like me were there,” Koff says. But these survivors had spent years asking authorities to check POW camps, in vain. They would hardly be happy to see a forensics team arrive with a bunch of shovels. As Koff puts it, “You finally get some attention, but it’s the wrong kind.”

Eventually, she says, “I felt like I was having trouble looking at bodies as cases. I was having trouble looking at the grave, at people who lived in the town where I was working. I was feeling bad for everyone all the time. That was making my work very hard to do.” Shortly after that mission, in Kosovo, she injured her ankle and likely wouldn’t have passed the physical exam required to return. “I wasn’t entirely sorry,” Koff says.

By then, Koff had become a speaker, first to the UC-Santa Cruz anthropology department, then the American Academy of Forensic Scientists, regional forensics groups, the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology and others.

“Total strangers were saying to me, ‘Have you considered writing a book?’ And I wouldn’t talk of it, wouldn’t hear of it. I didn’t have an overarching perspective to place all of those facts into,” she says—until she returned from Kosovo. Luckily, at the urging of her parents, she had kept a journal. The Bone Woman has been published in nine countries, distributed throughout the Commonwealth and put on numerous literary “Best of 2004” lists.

The Argentine forensics teams inspired Koff partly because they worked closely with victims’ relatives. In her next venture, she will too. Koff and former colleague Brown are establishing the Missing Persons Identification Resource Center (MPID) in California. They are awaiting nonprofit status and hope to open in about a year. They aim to help identify unclaimed dead in California. There are currently 4,000 nameless deceased stored in county coroners’ facilities across the state—some dating as far back as the 1970s. MPID wants to help law enforcement match missing-person reports to databases by working with relatives to improve scientific profiles, Koff says. “I really want to get those bodies back to their families, and I want to do it working with the families.”

LAURA SHIN, '97, is a freelance writer based in New York.

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