Ex-Serbian fighter tells of gruesome 'cleansing'

SARAJEVO, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — 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.

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."

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 homes.

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

Mr. Herak, his head shaven by his captors, used the Serbo-Croatian word "ciscenje," meaning cleansing, frequently 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 called the Serbian operation in the village "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."


Throughout much of his account, 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 conflicted, 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.


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.

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 [one of the three Muslim men] 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.' "

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.


After investigators 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."

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.

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

Referring to a tape-recorded confession by his son played on Sarajevo television Tuesday night, the senior 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."

Tracing his family's history, the older Herak noted that his mother was a Croat and that his daughter, Ljubinka, 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 now living with her mother in Skopje, capital of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia.


The younger Mr. Herak, during two interviews at the prison, spoke with warmth of Muslims, in particular of Jankovic, his brother-in-law.

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."

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 Serbian 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."

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 Muslim homes.