Jan Urban - saved from jail by a dying man and a kind doctor

Jan Urban

As the journalist Jan Urban knows only too well, life as a dissident in Czechoslovakia in 1970s and 80s was a cat-and-mouse game with the State Secret Police. At the time he was a dissident himself, filing from Prague for the Czech sections of Radio Free Europe and the BBC. During the Velvet Revolution he was one of the most prominent figures in Civic Forum that led the country through its first free elections in 1990. He is now an editor and commentator for Czech Radio. Here he remembers an experience that in its grim absurdity was typical for dissidents in the last years of the regime.

"In August 1988 the regime and the State Security Police were in panic, because of the 20th anniversary of the Soviet-led occupation of 1968, and all known dissidents were herded and put in prison at least for a few days. It was clear that if they got me I would enter prison for a long time. So I was hiding more or less. At ten o'clock in the evening there was a knock on the door and the guy from the local army office handed me a warrant ordering me to come at six in the morning to a small military base outside Prague. I knew this was it. If I go there I'll end in prison. So I escaped from my home at four o'clock in the morning and ran around Prague until six, when I visited a hospital where I knew about a friendly doctor of a friend. And when he came we saw each other for the first time. I told him: doctor I am either going to prison or you'll help me. He looked at me and he said: I see, so it's hard to breath, you have chest pains, you don't really feel well. And I said: yes. And he laid me in a bed and in a few hours there were State Security Police looking for me. So they took me swiftly to an intensive care unit and put all the wires on me. The State Security was literally sitting twenty-four hours on a bench in the corridor, watching after me. A few days later this doctor came and said: let's be cynical. We have had to report every day since you came - me and my boss - to the director of our hospital about the state of your health. Luckily enough in your case, there is another man named Urban dying one floor up from here. So when he asks about Urban's state of health, we report on the dying guy and everybody's happy. After six days I was able to escape and hide outside the hospital for another ten days until it became safer, and I was able to report to Radio Free Europe and the BBC through that time."