Thursday, April 1, 2010

The funny thing about islands

Is that they are actually attached to the ocean's floor. Yes, attached. They don't bob about like rubber duckies, which would make sending mail to an island-dweller sort of difficult, and I imagine lead to all sorts of seasickness and other problems.

But don't tell that to Representative Hank Johnson of Georgia.

Rep. Johnson is concerned that the sudden influx of Marines and their dependents on Guam may cause the island to capsize. He does, however, know the exact dimensions of Guam, WHICH HE WILL TELL YOU TWICE VERY SLOWLY.

Props to Admiral Robert Willard, who was probably contemplating strangling himself with the microphone cord to escape the agony of listening to Rep. Johnson slowly and torturously describe THE EXACT DIMENSIONS OF THE ISLAND WE GET IT IT'S SMALL.

Moving on.

In 1996, barely two years after the genocide in Rwanda, Clea Koff and a team of anthropologists and forensic pathologists operating under the auspices of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal went to Africa to begin excavating mass graves to try to tally the dead, and if possible, identify the bodies and return them to their relatives for reburial. Koff and her colleagues began their excavation at a church in Rwanda that was the site of a mass execution. Roughly 500 bodies were buried around the church, mostly women and children who had been hacked or bludgeoned to death.

Later, Koff and some of her colleagues would return to other mass grave sites in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Croatia, including the exhumation of the graves of the Muslim men and boys executed after the fall of Srebrenica, which would finally lay to rest the Serbian government's claims that those executed were soldiers (most of the bodies were teenagers, children, or old men, and Koff and her colleagues reported finding many skeletons still blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs. Most had been shot in the back at close range.).

Koff's account is gripping, especially considering that she was only 23 and freshly graduated when she left for Rwanda. She and her colleagues, many of whom would later work together in the killing fields of Eastern Europe, developed close relationships that would later be tested by the harsh conditions and grueling emotional toll their work would take on them.

Koff herself, despite her passion for forensics, commitment to returning the bodies to their relatives, and remarkable ability for detachment, experiences emotional upheaval during the excavation process, including disturbing dreams and post-traumatic stress disorder after a particularly harrowing experience when she and her coworkers are nearly shot by members of Rwanda's police. But despite this experience, she agrees to return to Eastern Europe in the hopes of collecting evidence to try the leaders of the Balkan conflict on war crimes charges.

Koff isn't a writer, and her prose has a breathless, almost rushed feeling to it, but her metaphors are all the more striking and original for their lack of artifice. In one paragraph she compares the toe bones of a body to carrot and liquorice pieces, and her descriptions of the gradual unearthing of a massive puzzle of bodies and body parts is riveting.

The dynamic of her working group is also fascinating, and although it's apparent that Koff is trying to remain diplomatic in her descriptions of her colleagues, it's apparent that the difficult conditions and the behavior of the group's leaders was especially trying for the cohesion of the group, who were not only performing an exhausting and emotional task, but struggling to deal with inadequate supplies, an often hostile press, and disruptive visits by government figures.

One particularly heartbreaking detail of Koff's book is her account of the attempts of the Mothers of Vukovar, a group of women who had lost husbands and sons in the various massacres, to stop the excavation attempt. The women believed that their family members were being held in hidden camps in Serbia and that the excavations were a smokescreen by the government. Eventually, with the realization that many of the men and boys the Mothers of Vukovar were hoping to find were being disinterred from mass grave sites, the Mothers of Vukovar abandoned their attempts to force the Serbian government to disclose the whereabouts of their relatives.

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