Friendship and Freedom; the Czechoslovakian Velvet Revolution of 1989 Saw V[beta]clav Havel, Who Died on Sunday, Become President. His Friend Miroslav Bernard Talks Exclusively to the Journal

Article excerpt

THE sound of tanks driving into the city streets had brought people out of their houses, curious to find out what was happening.

The town hall square began to fill with people - but this was where the tanks headed, to do most damage.

The caterpillar tracks turned and the line of Soviet tanks filed into the Czech street. As young Miroslav Bernard watched from the pavement, the hatches opened and Russian soldiers clambered out, aimed their Kalashnikov rifles into the crowds and fired.

A young girl was the first to be hit, shot in her father's arms as he stood watching. Windows exploded in showers of glass; people were shot dead in the street. Miroslav saw the smiles on the soldiers' faces as they machine-gunned the crowd, before one turned his rifle to him.

The first bullet hit his knee; the second passed through his hand and into his lung. In all, the 14-year-old was shot eight times, yet miraculously stayed conscious as he fell to the floor.

"The first moment is like you are kicked by a horse," he said, "a really big punch. The second is really hot; the third moment, all your muscles relax. It is terrible, seeing your muscle and blood."

Decades on, he still wakes up at night screaming. He sees things and has nightmares.

But the terror is not always about being shot as, he says chillingly, "it was not the worst moment of my life".

But as he bled on the side of the road, two off-duty firefighters battling to save his life, Miroslav was not to know that this was not the end. Rather, it was the beginning of a journey that would see him alter the course of history in Eastern Europe and, arguably, the world. It was a journey that would see him meet future president V[sz]clav Havel, and the pair would become lifelong friends. Today, sitting in the living room of his semi-detached house in Jesmond, Newcastle, Miroslav, known as Slavek to friends, recalls every detail of the events and tears form in his eyes. It was August 21, 1968 and the Red Army had entered Liberec, in the north of the Czech Republic, to put down the pro-democratic Prague Spring movement.

Then just a young boy, he had had no direct contact with the Russians but hated them because they sent his uncles and grandpa into the uranium mines for being enemies of the state, spies. His uncles' crime was fighting for the Allies in the war, his grandpa's was being released from Buchenwald concentration camp by the Americans. He heard that Soviet tanks were heading for his city, but felt only anger, not fear. A gang of six lads headed out to see what mischief they could cause. "Mum was scared - she cried 'do not go anywhere!' I promised but, of course, I went," recalls Slavek. "I felt hate, like you feel to the occupant who is raping your country.

"It was a group of us - six people - and some were on a bridge to throw stones on to the tanks, but I said 'that's stupid - they will kill you'. So let's send them to the forests. They are large forests: 100 kilometres. When they come out they will be in Belarus!" Working together, Slavek and his friends turned the signs round and watched with satisfaction as the tanks rolled on, not towards Liberec but into the huge Czech forests. Of course, the ruse could not last. The StB, the dreaded Czech version of Communist Russia's KGB, called them back, and then began the terrible retribution. "I was shocked," says Slavek. "I see tank after tank after tank. Over 200 tanks. It was a massacre. I have seen terrible things I cannot talk about." Slavek was among 47 injured. Some were shot, others were crushed by tanks. Nine died. Amazingly, he held on to consciousness as the firefighters applied tourniquets to his shattered limbs, even asking their names. But they told him to stay quiet, before a car arrived and took him to hospital. Even there, he held on to consciousness long enough to tell staff his name before passing out. The first operation lasted eight hours, removing a lung. …