9/11: One Year Later
September 11th- a year has passed since that dreadful September Tuesday in 2001 when terrorists shocked the world - and changed it forever - by flying hijacked passenger jets into the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.
"Well, I was in Prague that day, that I was in Prague. I remember I was probably travelling. It was of course a shock, like for all the other people."
"Real shock that it can happen like that, that it can happen, you know."
"Shock. I mean, it looked like something you'd see in the movies."
"I hear from radio, so first reaction: I can't believe."
"I didn't know about the event till my husband told me in the evening, and he said 'Did you hear, and did you watch the TV?' I said I don't know what happened. And he told and I said I don't believe it."
"I was at home alone with my children and I... I was afraid that this was the start of some world war or some terrible thing. My first reaction was 'I must do something!', but I didn't know what."
While many wrestled with feelings of anxiety and helplessness in the wake of the attacks, journalists based in Washington and New York worked around the clock to cover the events, putting personal shock aside. A correspondent for Czech Radio based in Washington Olga Krupauer was filing reports in the hours and days after September 11th - and here is how she recalls the unfolding of that fateful Tuesday:
"Well, last year on September 11th I was at my desk, I was basically getting ready for the day, and I remember I was thinking what to do because it seemed, until that day, that there wasn't really much happening as far as the news was concerned. And then I was sort of glancing at the TV on my right side and suddenly I saw on CNN a report on initially they were saying it was just a small sports plane which hit the first tower of the World Trade Center, so, I immediately started to pay attention. Then, the situation changed when the 2nd plane hit the 2nd World Trade Tower, which was already broadcast live on CNN, and then the situation became extremely confused and shocking because nobody really knew what happened. I called immediately to my editor in Prague and started to go live on the radio every fifteen minutes, I wanted to go to New York at the same time, but later another plane hit the Pentagon. Then, there were rumours that there was also an explosion on Capital Hill, then another plane fell in Pennsylvania, so the situation became so confusing. It was really hard in the first minutes and hours of the day to figure out what was happening and it was definitely the hardest day in my journalistic career."
When Olga Krupauer did make it to New York City she said approaching the disaster site where the towers had stood was one of the most difficult moments she had ever faced:
"I was trying to get to New York and the roads were closed and also the planes weren't going anymore to New York so I took the train. That was on the following day, on the 12th of September, and I think the biggest impact was just arriving towards New York, seeing the island of Manhattan and in the place where the two towers used to be there was just a huge amount of smoke. Then, when I reached Manhattan I started to walk actually - you had to walk on foot because there was no transportation from 14th street southward, I was walking toward the towers and I just couldn't believe my eyes. I used to live in that area for two years when I studied in New York, so I knew the area very well and I was just shocked, it was just I have never been in a war, and it was just like being in a war. It was just utter destruction and the streets were empty... I just felt like crying all the time it was just extremely, extremely sad."
For their part politicians in the Czech Republic expressed their deepest sympathies in the hours after the attacks. Czech President Vaclav Havel said that he was devastated by the tragedy, assuring Americans that Czechs were "on their side", adding that the terrorist strikes were an "attack on freedom and democracy". Milos Zeman, the Czech prime minister at the time, also expressed his sympathy, while then-speaker of the lower house Vaclav Klaus said he felt "utter contempt for those who did not hesitate to sacrifice the lives of innocent people to achieve their goals".
The next few days in the Czech Republic saw masses held for the U.S. victims and on Wednesday September 13th , 2001, all church bells here were rung as a sign of respect and remembrance. Flowers and burning candles were also laid before the U.S. embassy in Prague, together with an inscription that read 'We are with you'.
Meanwhile, the devastating attacks on New York and Washington had made clear implicit security threats for NATO allies throughout Europe, the Czech Republic included. After the September 11th security here, especially at American sites, became a top priority. Jiri Kominek of Jane's Defense Weekly remembers:
"There was a lot of panic and apprehension, anxiety that's typical after something like that: people are uncertain, they don't know what is going to happen next - everyone's sort of, you can say, sense of fear. As far as the measures that were taken of course there was the crisis staff that the Czech government established with the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior, that immediately began taking measures to insure the security of American sites in the country, in the city of Prague rather, the U.S. embassy, the U.S. ambassador's residence, Radio Free Europe. Another issue was the concern that terrorists could strike in the metro system. So, the metro: obviously if you are going to launch a terrorist attack using chemical or biological weapons then the metro is a good place to do so because you've got a large concentration of people."
Thankfully such threats did not go realised in Prague, or, the Czech Republic, or, for that matter anywhere else in the world. One year later - security remains tight at certain sites in Prague such as the U.S. embassy and the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The site of the radio station in particular was a cause for concern throughout the year: it was targeted for terrorism in the past and remains a potential target even now. After 9/11 Prague citizens, as well as station employees, had to accept armed Czech soldiers and police guarding the building, with barriers installed and armoured vehicles stationed to prevent a terrorist strike, such as a bomb-laden truck from approaching the building. Still, the paradox of RFE in Prague being guarded by armed personnel is lost on no one at the station, including the station's spokeswoman Sonia Winter:
"We are an open organisation, we stand for freedom of speech and freedom of information and at the same time here we are guarded by soldiers marching up and down with rifles at the ready and armoured personnel carriers standing in front of the building, so, this goes against the whole philosophy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. At the same time, we have to accept that terrorism can reach anyone, anywhere, at any time, and it's a fact of life since September 11th, and we have to take appropriate preventive measures."
Another element in 9/11 fallout concerning Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was the Czech government's aim to relocate the station to another area in Prague: its current location above a major subway station makes the thought of a potentially successful terrorist strike all the more terrifying. Negotiations are apparently on the right track, although the issue is far from being resolved. Once again, Sonia Winter:
"There has been no real decision to make a move , it depends first on whether a suitable, more appropriate location can be found than the one we're in at the moment. That's a big question that has been under discussion and under exploration for a year and continues to be explored. We were never opposed to moving; from the beginning we have had cordial and co-operative discussions with the Czech government. There's a new government now that understands the complexity of moving something which is not like one radio station but more like 30, with hundreds of employees and hundreds of miles of cable: technically this is an enormous undertaking and it costs million of dollars. This is information now that has been driven home and that is understood by both sides that it would take years, in any case, to accomplish a move, so the situation has to be continually assessed. We are in discussion with the Czech government, we are willing and co-operating and trying to do what is best for the citizens of Prague and what is good for the radio to enable us to transmit, to be on the air. We've been on the air without interruption for more than 50 years. And, it's built into our philosophy that we deal with disadvantageous political circumstances: we don't run from them."
So much for the situation in Prague and the Czech Republic; however, this November the Czech capital will host an all-important NATO summit, which will focus on many topics including the future direction of the war on terrorism, and possibly negotiations concerning a strike against Iraq. Czech politician Jan Kasl, who was mayor of Prague on September 11th, indicates that only a year after 9/11 some European politicians' resolve to fight against terror seems to have weakened, at least as far as broadening action against the regime of Saddam Hussein is concerned:
"A year after - some people, and you can see it with the reaction to Iraq attack support or non-support in Europe - it surprised me a bit that all those heads of state are hesitating except Tony Blair. My reaction would be that evil should be eradicated. Maybe it's a question of good timing, maybe it's a question of how to focus, how to hit really the evil and not to cause damage all around, but, I'm a bit surprised and disappointed with the lack of support of European politicians to President Bush's efforts."
The question of what is evil and what isn't is one that, hopefully, won't be resolved lightly by any of the actors involved. Czech analyst Jiri Kominek of Jane's Defense Weekly, for one, fails to find a link between Al Qaeda terrorists and Iraq, that would justify a U.S. military strike. On the other hand one would be hard pressed to find many who wouldn't support bringing Osama bin Laden to justice, still an unfinished matter for Operation Enduring Freedom a year after the attacks. Olga Krupauer, the reporter for Czech Radio last year, points out that this certainly is a painful and unresolved issue for many Americans on this day:
"It's so very complicated, complicated emotions for [Americans] because a year after this biggest tragedy for them they still haven't caught the perpetrators. Al Qaeda is still functioning, Osama bin Laden, it seems, is still alive and well, so Americans didn't get the revenge they wanted to get right after it happened, so, I think it's really difficult emotions which are connected to this day."
Finally, one last Czech perspective this September 11th the words of two well-known figures on the Czech arts and literary scenes modern artist David Cerny and writer Iva Pekarkova. Both lived in New York City and have strong ties to the Big Apple. The city also had a strong influence on their work. Their thoughts and then - the sounds of New York, just ordinary street noise of traffic, from a time when the towers still stood.
"Friends of mine called me and said 'the towers - the twins - are gone! They've fallen down!'. And I said this is not...this is just impossible. And I was walking in the street, looking at the faces of all the American tourists, walking around the streets of Prague, and, they didn't know anything... So, I was like, somehow I had a feeling that I should tell everybody! My personal feeling was that somebody was trying to destroy a civilisation which I am a part of."
"My first reaction was disbelief and, you know, thinking as most people did it was somebody's 'weird joke' - this was very strange. But, you know, it wasn't so much of a shock - I think the shock came later because we simply didn't quite believe it. Then, when we would watch it on TV, and you could see the sequence repeated over and over and it had this weird 'old movie' feeling to it, if you know what I mean. You know, the very fact that it was repeating over and over made you think that maybe there was some 'reset button' that would make it stop and go back or something... I think if you see it in reality it's, it must be, really bad, it's like visiting the grave of someone you used to love, you know?"
And that's it for this programme devoted to the events of September 11th and the Czech perspective. One thing is certain: the shock waves of that day will be felt for an interminable amount of time, in the Czech Republic as everywhere else. And though we all commemorate the first anniversary of 9/11 today those who will undoubtedly remember the most are those who lost their loved ones a year ago. Our thoughts are with them.