How I missed the start of the Velvet Revolution

Prague, 1989

Until 1989, the 17th of November was only remembered as International Students' Day in Czechoslovakia, commemorating the student resistance in the streets of Prague against the Nazi occupation in 1939. Thirteen years ago, the date took on a whole new meaning, although students had a lot to do with it too. On that day a peaceful gathering of university students was brutally cracked down by the police, an event which set the ball rolling and turned into what was dubbed the "Vevet Revolution".

Prague,  1989
Friday November 17, 1989 is one of those days that perhaps everyone remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing - or I certainly do. Of all places I was in Berlin. My parents took me, a high school student, to East Germany - as it still was at the time - to spend the weekend there sightseeing and shopping for slightly different varieties of the uniform eastern-bloc fashion. But instead of shopping we spent the weekend in awe, walking around central Berlin and watching the infamous Berlin wall being torn down. TV crews from all over the world were waiting outside their vans with satellite dishes, humanitarian aid workers were throwing flowers and sweets from Red Cross lorries to East Berliners, who were meeting friends and relatives they had not seen for decades. Without a West German visa in our passports, my parents and I walked undisturbed through Checkpoint Charlie and were given free copies of Western newspapers and maps of West Berlin. We were witnessing history being made and we wondered whether something like that was ever going to take place in Czechoslovakia too.

Prague,  1989
But in the meantime things were happening back home we could not imagine the consequences of. We had no news whatsoever from Prague and to tell the truth we were so overcome by the happenings in Berlin, we cared little about the boring grey reality of an ordinary autumn in Czechoslovakia. It was only on Sunday at the Schoenefeld Airport that we learnt from the Czechoslovak Airlines representative that something was afoot and this time it was really big. Towards the end of the 1980s demonstrations and protest took place more frequently and often tear gas was used and people were beaten up but this time we could sense some line had been crossed and things would never be the same again. On Monday morning when I came back to my school, I found it on strike, only one in a series of strikes and protests which eventually brought down the communist regime in Czechoslovakia.