Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Happy 20th Anniversary Czech Republic
Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution and the fall of communism in what was then Czechoslovakia. It was an exciting day, with celebrations taking part all over the Czech Republic and Slovakia. People were out en masse to enjoy the festivities and commemorations which took place. Jiri and I took part in the re-enactment of the fateful walk thousands of students took back on November 17, 1989. Again, there were thousands of people--covering all ages and walks of life--who took part in this walk yesterday. It all began at Albertov, then went on to the Vysehrad, and ended at Narodni Trida--following the original path of the first peaceful demonstration. Banners and flags waving and fluttering attended us along the route. Some of the slogans on the banners were sometimes in support of the current politicians, sometimes asking for a return of communism, and even demanding that former President Vaclav Havel "return to the castle" to become president once again. It was all very exhilarating for me--to see all of this taking place, when just 20 years ago freedom of speech did not exist in this country.
Jiri shared with me his memories of the day of marching 20 years ago. He was a young 30-something working in academia, and so was tied directly to students and their causes. There had been rumblings against communism for some time, only making a firm appearance in 1988 and carrying on into 1989. Jiri was very much in touch with the sentiments of the students and stood with them in solidarity. One of his friends called and suggested that they join the march on November 17, 1989. There was a feeling that there would be some fighting with police, even though the demonstration's intent was to hold a peaceful march. So, Jiri and his friend decided to attend the march to support the students.
Jiri explained to me that the march, of about 10,000 people, was very peaceful until it entered onto Narodni Trida (National Street), in downtown Prague. At this point, the student marchers were stopped and blockaded, by police, into an area about the size of two city blocks. There was a crush of people. I'm not sure how long the students were there--something like 30 minutes--before the police began to attack the crowd. Jiri described the marchers as varying in age from students to elderly people, and even included some children. Even so, when the police received orders to attack, anyone and everyone became targets for a very brutal beating. The demonstrators were shocked when the police began to charge at them with rubber batons. The beating doled out by police was brutal. Many hundreds of demonstrators were injured, with many sustaining terrible injuries which maimed them for life. We've been watching videos of this eventful beating for the past few days on Czech TV. The images are quite shocking and horrific. Jiri also received a blow from the police, but was not injured. Police did not let anyone escape, and even kept the injured from leaving the area to be treated for their injuries. Mass confusion and beating continued on Narodni Trida for about two hours before it ended. I would not call this a "Velvet Revolution," though the government did not stage any major retaliation against the demonstrations that took place on and after November 17, 1989.
Last night Jiri and I were a part of the massive crowd of thousands who gathered on Narodni Trida to celebrate. It was once again a place of mass confusion and a crushing crowd, but this time it was a party atmosphere. The crowd was very well-behaved and everyone enjoyed the spectacle of lights and sound. There was a fireworks display to symbolically mark the fall of the Iron Curtain, with the national anthems for both the Czech Republic and Slovakia being sung. After this, the marchers came down to the area of Narodni Trida where the beating had taken place--to finally end at a stage where singers were performing. We were literally crushed in the midst of that crowd, but it was a great and happy experience!
I was not here when the Velvet Revolution took place, but it was a momentous time for me, none-the-less. Back 20 years ago, none of us thought the Iron Curtain would fall in our lifetime. The Iron Curtain was an established fact that seemed as indestructible as the Great Wall of China. The will of the people was released back in 1989, and continues to make forward progress into the future. The Czech Republic is not finished evolving--the process will be several generations before the marks of the communist regime are removed from the psyche of the people. Even so, the Czechs are moving right along--I feel--on the right path to a brilliant future. They have birth pangs, but what country has not? As long as the people have a voice and a will things will continue to evolve in this beautiful country--the Czech Republic.
Happy 20th anniversary, Czech Republic!
All photos property of S. A. Vacik
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