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Letter to the Editor: One reader remembers 1989 revolution

Dear Editor,

I would like to share with your other readers my experiences and reflections on the events of November, 1989.

By the time the riot police finally broke up the week-long anti-communist protests in Prague in January, 1989, I was becoming increasingly desperate. It was my last year at a technical college there, and the next exciting demonstration could not be expected before August - the anniversary of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. By that time, however, I was supposed to have graduated, and to have left Prague.

But I was lucky. During my last semester I somehow managed to offend one Associate Professor of Acoustics by ignoring his lectures, something I did whenever I felt that I could learn things faster and more effectively myself. But, surprisingly, he showed very little understanding, and as a result, my final exams were re-scheduled for September.

To my disappointment, however, both the August and October Prague demonstrations finished as those which had gone before. My only consolation was that I passed my final exams with honours, and managed to postpone my military service until April.

In the middle of November, after a short stay at home, I came back to Prague to receive my diploma, full of anticipation for what might happen. After events in Hungary, Poland and East Germany, it was quite clear that Czechoslovakia was going to be the next country to throw off its communist rulers. And the upcoming 17th of November, the anniversary of the suppression of a student demonstration in Prague by the Nazis in 1939, looked like a good time for something really big to happen. This time I wasn't disappointed.

That Friday afternoon, I arrived at the site of the announced student gathering an hour before it was due to begin. Some students were already waiting there in small, excited groups, holding rolled banners. Above us, in the top widows of the surrounding buildings, secret police agents were carefully watching the scene and getting their cameras ready. An hour later, when all the banners were unrolled above the cheering crowd of several thousand, it was absolutely clear to me that this was it. One of the speakers, a young student, left the crowd in no doubt about what was going to happen next: "Today we are going not just to remember," he shouted, to roars of approval.

But it all came to an unexpectedly brutal finish at Národní Třída street, about two kilometres from the centre. Having learned about police tactics from the previous demonstrations, I was lucky to escape with one Frenchman, shortly before police cordons completely surrounded and sealed off the crowd. About an hour later, the real drama started, when the police started to beat the demonstrators indiscriminately.

By 10 p.m. that night it was all over. In place of the youthful, expectant crowd, thousands of crushed white candles, torn banners, discarded shoes and clothing littered the empty street. Here and there, fresh bloodstains marked the pavement. Everybody was stunned. "You swine!" one young lady shouted at a departing police armoured personnel vehicle.

A few people arrived from the nearby Wenceslas Square to ask what had happened. After some time, a short, middle-aged man in a long coat approached us, accompanied by a small dog. But instead of asking about what had happened, to our great surprise he confessed in a casual and quite friendly way that he was the commander of the police units that had intervened, and then he started to apologise to us for the police action, saying that the "poor boys [the police] had been on alert for several days, and therefore were a bit nervous."

I found it hard to believe him. But a few weeks later, I saw his face in a TV report about the opening of an investigation into the incident. His name was Major BytŤŠnek, and he was the head of the secret police for Prague and central Czechoslovakia.

That night I left Národní Třída shortly after twelve, cold and hungry, wondering what the following days would bring. And although the virtual avalanche of demonstrations that followed was exactly what I had long hoped for and expected to happen, their spontaneity and size far exceeded my expectations. Who could have predicted it, after so many years? I doubt I'll ever experience anything like that again.

Ten years later, I am deeply grateful to that Associate Professor, whose indignation at my academic conduct gave me a chance to witness at first hand probably the most memorable events my generation has ever experienced.

Viliam Schichman
Prešov, Slovakia

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