A killer's story Captured Serbian soldier describes shooting 10 Muslims, including girl, 10

November 27, 1992|By John F. Burns | John F. Burns,New York Times News Service

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- 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, 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, 21. "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."

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 six-month chronicle 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 from the suburban town of Vogosca to Ilidza, in the Serbian-held outskirts of Sarajevo. At a roadblock, the three 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 6-inch hunting knife to cut the throats of three captured Bosnian soldiers who were Muslims.

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

War crime charges

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 individual 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, where, 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, many of them women and children, Mr. Herak has confessed to witnessing or taking part in.

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 of them 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 had 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.

In another incident with multiple victims that occurred in July, Mr. Herak said he had seen 30 men from Donja Bioca, a Muslim village 3 miles northwest of Vogosca, shot and incinerated in a furnace at a steel plant at Ilijas, a town north of Vogosca. He said some of the men were still alive when they were thrown into the furnace.

He 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.

'Ethnic cleansing'

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."

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