Old "soldiers" remember days in Communist forced labour battalions

The members of the Pomocne Technicke Prapory, photo: CTK

Hundreds of elderly men took part in an emotional gathering at the Czech Ministry of Defence this week, recalling their days in the "army" as young men. But they weren't regular soldiers - not allowed to carry weapons, they were in reality forced labourers, punished by the Communists for their class backgrounds.

Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek, photo: CTK
Monday's ceremony was held to mark the anniversary of the foundation in 1950 of the Pomocne Technicke Prapory, or Technical Assistance Battalions. Members were officially soldiers, but the estimated 50,000 young men forced to join were used for other purposes.

Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek was among the guest speakers.

"Overnight they joined this strange military service without weapons, in which they never knew how long they would have to serve. In reality they had to work deep in mines, in quarries and forests, on the building of tunnels, roads and airports. It was forced labour."

The hardest and most dangerous work was in the mines. Some were killed and others suffered poor health for years afterwards. In 1951 Vladislav Soucek was sent to Orlova, a town he had never heard of. His story is not unusual.

"On the train they were playing miners' music, so I understood that I was going to the mines. It was really hard work, and we got very little training. The mine I worked in was one of the most dangerous, and there were frequent explosions. It had actually been shut after a big explosion in 1947, and they sent us soldiers in instead of regular miners. So we were like guinea pigs! Imagine going underground without ever being certain that you would come back up."

The members of the Pomocne Technicke Prapory, photo: CTK
Mr Soucek, now in his 70s, was forced to join because his father owned land, and he was therefore regarded as "unreliable" by the Communist regime. One of his "brothers-without-arms", Mr Hirs from Jindrichuv Hardec, served three years in the Technical Assistance Battalions.

"The worst time for us was in 1952, when they said we would have to serve indefinitely. By the way, we know today that there were even plans to send us to Siberia...Unfortunately, when we got out we bore the tag 'politically unreliable' our whole lives, and through our working lives. So it stayed with us until our retirement, and thank God for 1989."

Since 1989 the former members of the Technical Assistance Battalions have built up a close, brotherly organisation. May they have many more reunions.