A Killer’s Tale — A special report.; A Serbian Fighter’s Path of Brutality – By John F. Burns

New York Times, November 27, 1992

A Killer’s Tale — A special report.; A Serbian Fighter’s Path of Brutality

By John F. Burns



What Borislav Herak remembers most vividly about the sunny morning in late June when he and two companions gunned down 10 members of a Muslim family is the small girl, about 10 years old, who tried to hide behind her grandmother as the three Serbian nationalist soldiers opened fire from a distance of about 10 paces.

“We told them not to be afraid, we wouldn’t do anything to them, they should just stand in front of the wall,” said Mr. Herak, who is 21 years old.

“But it was taken for granted among us that they should be killed. So when somebody said, ‘Shoot,’ I swung around and pulled the trigger, three times, on automatic fire. I remember the little girl with the red dress hiding behind her granny.” 

Fired From the Hip

As he tells his rambling story now, in a room with potted plants at the Viktor Buban military prison here, Mr. Herak stands up from his steel chair, shuffles into the open part of the room in his green field jacket and laceless black army boots, and demonstrates how he fired from the hip with his Kalashnikov rifle.

With his companions, he emptied a 30-bullet magazine at a family he had found cowering minutes before in the basement of a home at Ahatovici, a Muslim village five miles northwest of the prison.

The particulars given by the young Serb to investigators, and repeated during seven hours of interviews with this reporter, amounted to a chronicle of six months of the savage violence that has characterized the Bosnian war.

Two weeks ago, Mr. Herak and a Serbian married couple, now also under arrest for war crimes, took the wrong road while driving their Volkswagen Golf from the suburban town of Vogosca to Ilidza, in the Serbian-held outskirts of Sarajevo.

At a roadblock, the trio were stopped by a unit of the Bosnian Army defending Sarajevo. Almost immediately, Mr. Herak began telling investigators of his gruesome experiences as a Serbian fighter, including one incident in which he used a six-inch hunting knife to cut the throats of three captured Muslim men who were Bosnian soldiers.

Until he fled Sarajevo in May and joined the “Serbian volunteers” who have been drafted as auxiliaries to the military forces besieging Sarajevo, Mr. Herak was a primary school graduate who pushed a handcart for a living at a Sarajevo textile company. 

29 Murders Charged

Now, under Article 41 of the old Yugoslav criminal code, he faces death by firing squad for offenses that include genocide, mass murder, rape and looting. His trial, expected to begin next month, could make him the first person to be executed legally for crimes committed in Europe’s most brutal conflict since 1945.

The indictment lists 29 murders between June and October, including eight rape-murders of Muslim women held prisoner in an abandoned motel and cafe outside Vogosca, seven miles north of Sarajevo. There, Mr. Herak said, he and other Serbian fighters were encouraged to rape women and then take them away to kill them on hilltops and other deserted places.

The indictment also covers the killings of at least 220 other Muslim civilians in which Mr. Herak has confessed to being a witness or a participant. Many of these dead were women and children.

Although Mr. Herak’s experiences were limited to a 10-mile stretch of territory immediately north of Sarajevo, his account offered new insights into the ways that tens of thousands of civilian victims of the war have died, most in towns and villages where there have been no independent witnesses.

In addition to the Ahatovici incident — in which four children under 12, two elderly women and four men were killed — Mr. Herak described two mass murders of Muslims by Serbian forces in the Sarajevo area.

In the first, in early June, Mr. Herak said, he watched a Serbian unit called the “special investigation group” machine-gunning 120 men, women and children in a field outside Vogosca.

Mr. Herak said dump trucks had been used to transport the bodies to scrub land beside a railway yard at Rajlovac, near Sarajevo, where the bodies were piled in an open pit, doused with gasoline and set afire. Bodies in a Furnace

In another incident with multiple victims, in July, Mr. Herak said, he saw 30 men from Donja Bioca, a Muslim village three miles northwest of Vogosca, shot and incinerated in a furnace at a steel plant at Ilijas, a town north of Vogosca.

Some of the men were alive when they were thrown in to the furnace, he said.

Mr. Herak also described seeing the bodies of 60 Muslim men who he said had been used by Serbian forces as a “human shield” when Bosnian forces were trying in August to drive Serbian forces off Zuc Mountain, a 3,000-foot height outside Vogosca. 

‘This Skill’ Of Cutting Throats

Mr. Herak also recounted being taken to a small farm outside Vogosca where a 65-year-old Serbian volunteer, whom he identified as Risto Pustivuk, had led Mr. Herak and three other young Serbs to a grassy plot one morning in early June and shown them how to wrestle pigs to the ground, hold their heads back with their ears and cut their throats.

Days later, Mr. Herak said, he used what he described as “this skill” to cut the throats of three Muslim men captured fighting for the Bosnian Army near Donja Bioca, the village outside Vogosca.

In effect, Mr. Herak’s story was the first account given by a perpetrator to outsiders of how the Serbian nationalist forces have carried out “ethnic cleansing.”

This is the policy under which Serbian leaders seeking to carve out much of Bosnia and Herzegovina for an exclusive Serbian enclave have sanctioned the killing of large numbers of Bosnian Muslims and Croats and their forcible eviction from their towns and villages.

This has created a tide of more than 1.6 million refugees that has presented the worst crisis for international relief agencies in Europe since World War II.

Mr. Herak, his head shaven by his captors, frequently used the Serbo-Croatian word “ciscenje,” meaning cleansing, to describe his activities as a Serbian fighter, for which he was paid the equivalent of $6.50 a month.

Referring to the killing of the Muslim family at Ahatovici, for instance, he said Serbian commanders had described the Serbian operation in the village as “ciscenje prostora,” or the cleansing of the region, and had told the Serbian fighters to leave nobody alive.

“We were told that Ahatovici must be a cleansed Serbian territory, that it was a strategic place between Ilidza and Rajlovac, and that all the Muslims there must be killed,” he said.

“We were told that no one must escape, and that all the houses must be burned, so that if anybody did survive, they would have nowhere left to return to. It was an order, and I simply did what I was told.” 

Either Nonchalant Or Conflicted

Throughout much of his account, which was given partly in the presence of prison officials and partly with nobody from the Bosnian Government or Army present, Mr. Herak appeared almost nonchalant. He described details of the killings without any apparent emotion, and spoke remorsefully only when he was pressed for his feelings.

Then he appeared to be in conflict with himself, saying at one point that “if there was a God, I would not have been caught,” and at others that he was haunted by the recurring images of the people he had killed.

“All these things have fried my conscience,” he said. But even the threat of execution seemed not to hold his attention for long. “I am sure that I am guilty, and even if I am sorry, I will be executed,” he said at one point. “They will stand me in front of a wall and shoot me.”

Later, he said he would like to be exchanged for Muslim prisoners held by the Serbian forces. On another occasion, he suggested that he should be freed to fight on the Bosnian side.

“I don’t suppose that’s possible,” he said. “But if it’s possible, I’d like it.”

Looking pallid, with sunken eyes and with fingernails so deeply bitten that some have virtually disappeared, Mr. Herak said he was haunted at night by the recollection of some of his victims, in particular the three Muslim men whose throats he had cut.

“I have pictures in my mind of many things I did, and they return every night,” he said. “I sleep, I wake up in a sweat, I sleep again, I wake up and smoke, and Osman is always there. I have dreamed at least 10 times of Osman saying: ‘Please don’t kill me. I have a wife and two small children.’ “ 

His Attention To Detail Is Keen

But mostly, his account was offered in a matter-of-fact manner, and always with a keen attention to detail. As he shifted between one killing and another, and between rapes, the young Serb gave the names of many of his victims. He described where they were killed, what they were wearing, and what they said immediately before they died.

In hours of talking he never changed a detail. He fell silent, a few times, only when pressed for his feelings.

When asked what he would have said to the mother of one girl he raped and killed, he replied, “Nothing.”

Asked repeatedly if he had been put under pressure to talk, or promised a lighter sentence or relief from harsh treatment for confessing, he said he had not.

At one point, when this reporter asked to see his upper body, he pulled up his shirt to show that he had not been bruised. But he appeared deeply frightened, and asked after one long session if a visitor would seek the prison governor’s assurance that the guards, mostly Muslims, would not beat him once he had finished telling his story.

The governor, Besim Muderizovic, gave assurances that he would not be harmed.

According to investigators, much of what Mr. Herak has told them has been echoed by the Serbian couple who were with him in the car when he was arrested.

The second man in the car, Sreten Damjanovic, 31, is said to have been a companion of Mr. Herak’s at many of the killings. Afterinvestigators confronted him with statements by Mr. Herak and Mr. Damjanovic’s wife, Nada, 46, implicating him in the Ahatovici killings, Mr. Damjanovic is said to have replied: “Is that what he said? If you put me in a cell with him, I’ll kill him.” 

His Father Believes The Tales of Murder

Among those who appear satisfied that Mr. Herak is telling the truth is his father, Sretko Herak, a welding technician who is one of about 50,000 Serbs who have remained in Sarajevo during the siege.

Milica Herak, his wife, also a Serb, was visiting Belgrade, the Serbian capital, when Serbian forces surrounded Sarajevo in April, and Borislav Herak’s decision in late May to flee across a bridge in central Sarajevo into the Serbian-held district of Vraca left the older Mr. Herak, who is 55, alone.

When this reporter arrived at the two-story home in the Pofalici district, Sretko Herak invited him in, then quickly burst into tears.

Referring to a tape-recorded confession by his son played on Sarajevo television on Tuesday night, Mr. Herak said: “I could see that he was frightened, but I believe he was telling the truth. Now I am ashamed to look people in the face because my son has thrown dirt on his family.”

Saying his son had a history of poor grades in school, erratic behavior as a conscript in the Yugoslav Navy and heavy drinking accompanied by threats of physical harm to his father, Sretko Herak said: “I would be happier if he had simply killed me, and gone to prison for it. Now, I am alive and tortured by what my boy has done to innocent people.”

Like many residential districts in Sarajevo, the Pofalici neighborhood where Borislav Herak grew up, on a hillside that has been heavily pounded by Serbian guns, is a mixed community of Serbs, Croats and Muslims, and residents say there have never been nationalist frictions.

Tracing his family’s history, the older Mr. Herak noted that his mother was a Croat and that his daughter, Ljubinka, who is 30, is married to a Muslim, Nezad Jankovic, who is a taxi driver fighting in the Bosnian forces. The couple have a daughter, Indijana, who is 7 and is and now living with her mother in Skopje, capital of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. 

Killer Speaks Warmly of Muslims

Borislav Herak, during two interviews at the prison, spoke with warmth of Muslims, in particular of Mr. Jankovic, his brother-in-law, whom he described as exceptionally kind and a good husband to his sister.

Speaking of the couple’s daughter, Indijana, who like tens of thousands of people in Sarajevo has a combination of Serb, Muslim and Croat forebears, he said, “I love her more than anything else in my life, Indijana.”

Mr. Herak said he had had nothing but good relations with Muslim neighbors in Pofalici. They had invited the Herak family into their homes for Bajram, the principal Muslim festival here, and had been invited each year into the Herak home to celebrate the Serbian Orthodox Christmas.

“They helped me, Muslims,” he said. “They were very good to me as people. Everywhere I went, Muslims helped me. They are a very correct people.”

But Mr. Herak said that after he went to the bridge across the Miljacka River in late May, carrying a loaf of bread as a pre-arranged signal to Serbian fighters waiting for him on the other side, he began to get a different view of Muslims.

From Serbian radio and television and in gatherings with other Serbian fighters, particularly the older generation steeped in Serbian folklore going back to defeats by the Ottoman Turks in the Middle Ages, he said, he learned that Muslims posed a threat to Serbs.

Among other things, he said, Serbian political leaders and commanders told fighters that Muslims, who accounted for 44 percent of Bosnia’s prewar population of 4.4 million, were planning to declare “an Islamic republic” in Bosnia, which became independent of Yugoslavia under a Muslim-led Government in April, just as the Sarajevo siege began.

According to these accounts, Mr. Herak said, Muslims would also require Serbian children to wear Muslim clothing. “We were told that we would have to cleanse our whole population of Muslims,” he said. “That’s what we have been told. That’s why it has been necessary to do all this.” 

Massacre Began With Looting

The young fighter said that he had also been motivated by the urge to have things he never had before the war, including women and items like television sets and videos and foreign currency that Serbian fighters were encouraged to loot from Muslims’ homes.

He said the Ahatovici killings, when 10 members of one family were shot by Mr. Herak and his companions, began as the three men entered the house, heard voices in the basement and went downstairs to demand valuables.

He said one of the two elderly women was sitting in a chair, and told him, “Sonny, we don’t have anything.”

Mr. Herak continued: “So then I hit the old granny on the head with my rifle, and she got up and pulled a wardrobe away from the wall, and there underneath it was what we were looking for.”

He said he and his two companions — whom he identified as Rade Vljes, 47, a welder, and his son Dragan Viljes, 19 — had taken from the family 500 German marks, about $320, plus a collection of gold bracelets, chains, earrings and rings.

Mr. Herak said the Muslims had not pleaded for their lives as they were ordered up the basement stairs and outside, although the widespread killings of Muslim civilians by Serbian fighters were well known in Bosnia by late June.

The only exception, he said, was Osman, one of the three Muslim men whose throats he cut with his hunting knife. He said the other Muslim soldiers, Ahmed and Ziad, had said nothing as they were tackled to the ground and had their feet held by other fighters while Mr. Herak cut their throats.

“It was just a short cut, and they were dead immediately, just like the pigs,” Mr. Herak said, demonstrating his technique in the prison office by kneeling on one knee, pulling his right hand back in a replay of the movement needed to expose his victims’ necks, and making a quick, imaginary cut with his left hand. 

Only One Pleaded For His Life

“But Osman was different,” he said. “He pleaded for his life at the very last moment. But it made no difference. He was dead in two seconds.”

One group that had no opportunity to know what the Serbian fighters planned for them was a working party of five Muslim men whom the fighters took from a “prison” for Muslim civilians near Vogosca and drove up Zuc Mountain to dig trenches for the Serbian forces.

Mr. Herak said that his companion that day, in July, was a Serbian “volunteer” named Dragoljub, and that Dragoljub had said: “These guys should be killed. They’re working poorly. They’re not making any effort.”

Mr. Herak continued: “They were standing with their backs to me, so I opened fire. They didn’t say anything; it was so fast. Two, three seconds, they were dead.”

Often Mr. Herak’s account ran back to the Sonja cafe, a motel and restaurant complex outside Vogosca on the main road north from Sarajevo to Zagreb, the Croatian capital.

Mr. Herak said the “commander” of the prison for Muslim women established in the motel was a Serbian fighter named Miro Vukovic, who was a loyalist of a ultranationalist Serbian paramilitary group headed by Vojislav Seselj, a leading politician in Serbia. He said Mr. Vukovic had established “a system” for the Serbian fighters raping and killing the women.

“It was always the same,” Mr. Herak said, describing how he and his companions were encouraged to go to the motel by Serbian commanders who told them that raping Muslim women was “good for raising the fighters’ morale.” 

Rapist Remembers Victims’ Names

Mr. Herak identified the women he had attacked — Emina, Sabina, Amela and Fatima among others, the youngest of them teen-agers, the oldest about 35 — and said Mr. Vukovic, the “prison commander,” had told them: “You can do with the women what you like. You can take them away from here — we don’t have enough food for them anyway — and don’t bring them back.”

Mr. Herak said this was understood to mean that the women should be killed. He described how he and a companion had attacked Fatima, whom he described as “a nice woman, about 30 years old,” in a room at the motel, and then taken her at gunpoint in their car to Zuc Mountain.

“We stopped by a small bridge, and I told her to get out. She walked about three meters away from the car, with her back to me, and I just shot her, I think in the upper back or the back of the head,” he said, showing how he fired from the hip, once more without taking aim. “I went to her, just to be sure that she was dead.”

Mr. Herak said some of the women had been left by the roadside, while others had been dragged into bushes to hide them from the Serbian military police, who he said were feared among the Serbian fighters.

He said that he went to the motel once every three or four days, and that although Serbian fighters routinely took the women they raped away and killed them, there were always more women arriving. “It was never a problem,” he said. “You just picked up a key and went to a room.”

Mr. Herak’s account of the rapes was among the tape-recorded sequences shown on Sarajevo television.

His father, showing visitors through the younger Mr. Herak’s room at the family home on Drinska Street, seemed to shift from grief to something closer to disgust as he opened cupboards and showed piles of pornographic magazines and empty liquor bottles.

“I told Boro many times, ‘Never pick up a gun,’ ” Mr. Herak said. “But he didn’t listen. He just said, ‘That’s okay, old man, you just stay here and wait for the Serbian shells to kill you.’ “