Volunteer workers during the floods

Prague's ZOO, photo: CTK

This week's edition of Profile is not dedicated to one person as usual. During the recent floods Pavla Horakova went out and talked to people who together with the rescue crews were the real heroes of the recent events... the voluntary workers.

Prague's ZOO, photo: CTK
It's a sad heritage of communism that voluntary work does not have a positive image in the Czech Republic. The regime constantly asked people to work for free after hours and declared it as volunteering. Therefore to this day many people are hesitant about working for free. Earlier this year a campaign promoting voluntary work took place in order to try and change Czech people's perceptions. However, the recent events showed that when an urgent situation arises, many people don't think twice to offer a hand.

I'm standing near the river in the centre of Prague. The Vltava has been rising steadily threatening to overflow its banks and flood the adjacent streets. Groups of young men are helping the emergency crews to fill large bags with sand and they are heaping them along the embankments.

"My name is Libor and I am a civil engineer and when I saw the pictures on television, I decided to come here and help. I am here in Vysehrad, filling bags with sand but we don't know if our work will be useful because the river is growing."

During the floods, voluntary fire fighters helped to evacuate the affected towns and villages. Newspapers and radio stations established telephone help-lines and e-mail addresses where people willing to volunteer could send messages with their contact information. People from around the country offered accommodation, water pumps, cars, industrial dryers or their own two hands.

I'm now in a flood relief centre in the north of Prague, where individuals and organisations are bringing humanitarian aid. I can see both the young and the old bringing in detergents, disposable diapers, bottled water, canned food and other things which people who are coming back to their flooded houses are in urgent need of. I spoke to Jitka, a young woman who is helping to sort out and distribute the aid.

"I came for the first time last weekend, on Sunday. Yes, it was Sunday morning."

So it's how many days?

"Five six."

And how long is your working day?

"It depends. Usually eight hours, but for example yesterday it was twelve or thirteen."

Are you a student or do you work and is this your holiday?

"No, I am a public officer but my office is in Karlin but I cannot work there because it's closed now so I decided to help here."

And what exactly do you do here?

"Partly I was at a call centre where I helped to answer people's question about the situation in Karlin and partly I'm in humanitarian stock. We collect humanitarian aid from people and also from organisations which come here, from international organisations. For example yesterday we received three planes from Greece and also we are distributing humanitarian aid to people from Karlin or to other centres in Prague or North or South Bohemia."

What do people bring here?

"We have a lot of clothes and we ask especially for disinfectants, toothpaste, toothbrushes, a lot of gloves, brooms etc."

Many people who were evacuated from their homes were put up in schools where they were provided with a mattress and food. Among them are many old people who are most vulnerable in such extreme situations. I spoke to Rosta who came to volunteer in one such school in the centre of Prague.

"I am a student from Prague and I'm helping old people who are affected by the flood. Our block of flats is in the flooded area too, so I thought I should come here and give them a hand. What exactly am I doing here? Well, I always ask the lady who is organising the work here what exactly needs to be done. So I mop the floor in the bathrooms, help the old people, distribute food and so on."

Around the country thousands of volunteer workers are helping to carry soaked furniture out of flooded flats, clean up mud from houses and streets and do jobs which are most needed at the moment. Not only human dwellings suffered in the floods. One part of the recently renovated Zoo in Prague was almost ruined by water and so every hand is needed here. Lucie is a student from Prague.

"I came this morning because I just decided to help here when I found out the animals need help."

Do you live in Prague?

"Yes, I live in Prague?"

How did you get here? Is it difficult to get here to the Zoo because the bus isn't going...

Prague's ZOO, photo: CTK
"The bus goes to Bohnice and then you have to walk from there."

How long did it take you to get here?

"About an hour."

What exactly are you doing here? I can see you are stained with mud all over...

"We are cleaning the buildings for large animals, such as tigers or lions."

What does it look like inside? Is it really bad?

"Yes, it's horrible, the mud is everywhere. The damage is very big and it looks very bad."

I presume you are high school students.

"No, I just finished secondary education and I'll start at university after the holidays."

Is that right that universities will start later this year?

"It's possible because the university I'm going to is in Karlin and there were floods so I expect it will start later."

Would you like to get a job here after you graduate? Do you feel attracted to the zoo?

"I like the Zoo but I think I won't work here because I have no education for it."

When images of the Czech Republic hit by raging waters appeared in the international media, many countries immediately offered assistance, and in many cases individuals too, decided to come here and offer their help. Here at the Zoo, I spoke to a Frenchman called Daniel.

Can I ask you where you are from?

"I'm from France."

And why did you decide to come to the Czech Republic?

"First to visit Europe because I'd like to know all the countries and also I wanted to help after the floods."

And did you find out about the Zoo?

"It's too long to explain. First I wasn't supposed to work here. At the beginning, before the floods I was supposed to work in Pruhonice garden. But after these events they told me I could be more useful in the Zoo than in Pruhonice."

Mizuki, a young student from Japan, changed her summer plans in order to help out in Prague's Zoo too.

"I'm from Japan. I decided to come to the Czech Republic in July before the floods and I didn't expect this situation at all. Yesterday I decided to come here because I heard of the flood so I thought this working camp could take place. So I stayed in Budapest for four days and I waited for more information about this zoo."

Some say that extreme situations such as the recent floods bring out the best and the worst in people. Well, this programme has tried to concentrate on at least one positive aspect of the disaster.

Life will have to go back to normal soon and all the volunteers will go back to work or school. However, their help came at the right time and maybe the stereotype about Czechs not willing to work for free isn't so true anymore.