Bosnia War Crimes Case Opens; Serbs Accused of Massacres, Rapes Face Sarajevo Court

The Washington Post
March 13, 1993

SARAJEVO – An embodiment of the banality of evil shuffled into a Sarajevo courtroom today, wearing a beaten pair of black shoes without laces.

Borislav Herak, self-confessed war criminal, looked like a defeated man on the first day of his trial for mass murder and rape. The Serb militiaman has lost weight since being captured several months ago, and he sat awkwardly in a rumpled, cream-colored workman’s jacket that was too wide at the shoulders and too short at the sleeves.

Herak, according to prosecutor Ljubomir Lukic, is charged with raping at least 12 women and murdering 30 prisoners of war and civilians, including a family of 10. He has confessed to 20 killings and says he expects and deserves the death penalty. His trial with co-defendant Sretko Damjanovic, who is accused of killing five people and raping two women, is the first war crimes trial in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the first in Europe since the Nuremburg trials of Nazi German leaders.

Herak, 22, has an unsettling habit of not moving his head when he wants to look at something. As he sat during the opening session, hands folded in his lap, his dark eyes prowled cautiously from one place to the other — to the photographers on his left, the television cameramen on his right, the five stern judges straight ahead of him. His eyes were like captured ravens in the cage of his skull.

He was led into the courtroom at 21 minutes past 10 this morning, silvery handcuffs around his bony wrists. The lead policeman halted in front of the defendant’s bench, a long stretch of hard, dark wood, and Herak stopped behind him. Herak, taller than his Bosnian escorts even though his head was bowed, meekly raised his wrists as the policeman unlocked the handcuffs.

For about five minutes, the judges, prosecutor and defense lawyers waited while the photographers surrounded Herak, aiming their lights at him and shooting him with their cameras. Herak did not smile, did not smirk, did not say anything. His thin shoulders were scrunched together and he gave the impression of being cold or ashamed.

The prosecutor needed about half an hour to run through Herak’s alleged offenses. One of the incidents, the prosecutor said, took place in May when Herak’s Serb militia unit, based outside Sarajevo, captured six Bosnian soldiers. Herak killed three of them by slitting their throats, the prosecutor said.

“He made the victims lie down, put his left knee on their chests, his right hand holding their hair so that the back of their heads pressed to the ground, and he cut their throats with his left hand,” Lukic said.

The prosecutor described another alleged incident, in the village of Bioca, where he said 120 Slavic Muslims were rounded up and interned by Herak’s unit at the local school. Herak allegedly raped four women, named Jasmina, Naila, Zehra and Sabina, after taking them to an abandoned construction site. They were all young.

“The most resistance was given by the woman Jasmina, whom he hit with his gun butt, and she fainted,” Lukic said, reading from typed sheets of paper. “When she was unconscious, he took off her clothes and then poured water on her to wake her up. After she became conscious, he raped her, even though she resisted and screamed.”

The list of alleged atrocities went on. In one of them, Lukic said, Herak’s unit was ordered to “cleanse” a Muslim village by burning the houses and killing everyone there. Herak and a couple of other miltiamen allegedly looted 10 houses, six of which were inhabited. The Bosnians were forced at gunpoint to hand over all their jewelry and money, and then they were shot.

In his obedience today, Herak seemed to have shed the habits of what the prosecution contends is his previous self — a leering, ruthless soldier, drunk on plum brandy and Serb nationalism. He stood up when the chief judge entered the courtroom, sat down when he was ordered to, and got up again to answer a few formal questions. What is your name, the chief judge asked, what is the maiden name of your mother, when were you born? Herak stared blandly at the judge and answered each question without comment.

The session adjourned before midday after the two defense lawyers said the indictment failed to provide precise information about the dates of the alleged crimes and the victims. The trial is set to resume Saturday, and Herak is scheduled to testify.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.