Letter from Prague

And now it's time for this week's Letter from Prague, in which Nick Carey takes a look at a tragic story that has been making the headlines for several weeks now...

The case of five-year-old Tereza Cermakova is one that has left many of the Czechs that I know shocked and concerned. Tereza was reported missing by her mother on June 20, apparently disappearing suddenly from a children's playground in the Central Bohemian town of Kladno. The police in the area immediately launched a search for the little girl that included up to 600 police officers. The papers and television news for two weeks carried constant updates on the search, and as hope faded that she would be found alive, the question on many people's lips was: what is happening to this country?

I come from a country where young girls regularly go missing, abducted and often murdered and although it is always a horrifying and unnerving thought, eventually it is no longer a surprise. We are used in Britain to the fact that there are sick and twisted individuals who will abduct and kill children, but this is still quite new for the Czechs. There have been many changes since the fall of Communism, and one of them has been a loss of trust in one's neighbours, as people have discovered that without the ever-present, and brutal, secret police, some of society's more dangerous elements can operate freely. The disappearance of this little girl completely unsettled the Czechs. Several times over the past three weeks, I have seen mothers anxiously holding onto their children, lest they be abducted in front of their very eyes.

But there is a twist in the tale of Tereza Cermakova that has caught the Czechs by surprise, more so even than the possibility that she had been abducted by a stranger and murdered. Two weeks after she went missing, reports surfaced that her mother had been giving different, inconsistent accounts to the police about what happened the fateful day Tereza disappeared. Also, there were allegations that she was drunk at the time her daughter went missing. Soon after this, Tereza's mother tried to commit suicide, by jumping out of a third storey window. Although seriously injured, she survived this fall, and speculation intensified as to what had actually happened.

And the truth of the story seems to be worse than anyone originally imagined. Tereza's body was found this week, buried in woods not far from her home, after police officers questioned her mother. Further questioning followed, and mid-week news broke that she had been charged with grievous bodily harm through negligence. Mrs Cermakova has apparently confessed that she came home drunk the night of June 19, and fell asleep on top of her daughter, who suffocated. When she awoke in the morning, Tereza was dead. Panicking, she took her to the woods and buried her, and then reported her missing.

This has left the Czechs horrified. And it opens up another uncomfortable question, that of neglect by parents, and what can be done about it. I have heard Czechs complain many times about how families aren't what they used to be since the fall of Communism, but this case has been taken as clear evidence by some that things have got out of hand. And that something will have to be done to resolve the situation. Just what that will be, remains to be seen.