BY JARMILA BALAZOVA
I learned of the death of Václav Havel yesterday from my younger sister, who called from Brno. "Look online," she said, "Havel has passed away."
Her message was followed by a whirlwind of phone calls and text messages telling me the news. My mother, my father, friends Romani and non-Romani, all contacted me. Václav Havel was a president who cannot be forgotten, obviously for his immeasurable humanity, which also brought him close to the Romani people themselves. He was often mentioned in our family, often contrasted with other politicians, and he always came out of those comparisons as a politician of a completely different stripe. He was a symbol for us - for my father, my mother, for me myself, for my siblings - of freedom, of the willingness to fight for it, even the willingness to lose one's external freedom (if never one's inner freedom) by being imprisoned. Václav Havel and a few others (only a couple of people, really) played a significant role in my life.
I first became aware of Havel through the media, the television screen - not through my own experience, but through the experiences and information of others. It was November '89 and I was in my fourth year of high school in Brno. I remember all of the strikes at the school. The corridors there were full of people, as were the squares of Brno and the theater. I took part in all of it with the enthusiasm and expectations of a 17-year-old. I remember chanting, shouting out Havel's name and his slogan, which would be remembered for years (ironically by some later on): "Truth and love must prevail over lies and hate."
In the summer of 1990 I saw him personally for the first time in my life. He came to Brno for the first-ever Romani musical festival, Romfest, which took place in the Líšeňské údolí neighborhood in those days. He recalled for us how he had met several Romani people during his time in prison and conversed with them regularly. He spoke of how much he respected Emil Ščuka and Ladislav Rusenko, who were there with him in November 1989 at Letná in Prague in order to make it clear that Romani people did not want to distance themselves from the societal changes, that they were aware of their significance, and that they were willing to help Civic Forum (Občanské Fórum - OF).
It was Václav Havel and a few others who offered Emil Ščuka, the founder and then-chair of the Romani Civic Initiative (Romská občanská iniciativa - ROI), 10 places for Romani candidates on the OF candidate list for elections to the representative bodies (which at that time were the Czech National Council, the Slovak National Council and the Federal Assembly). That was the historically first and simultaneously also the last large-scale representation by the Romani minority in the highest sphere of politics in this country.
My next significant personal encounter with President Havel took place during my college days. Back then journalism could only be studied in Prague, and I have lived here since 1990 for that reason. Havel was holding a more or less regular discussion session with various guests in a former hunting cottage, the Villa Amálie near Lany. Naturally, students were also included. There I got the chance to converse with the president, who was also known to me as a man of letters and a playwright.
Later I met him many times, such as at the festival of documentary films on human rights, "One World" (Jeden Svět), to which he regularly gave his auspices, or at the international Romani music festival Khamoro, to which he often gave his support and whose musicians and organizers he welcomed at Prague Castle in 2002. I saw him every year at Forum 2000, which Havel founded (as he did the foundation of the same name). I also saw him at Prague Castle during the annual celebrations of Independent Czechoslovak State Day. It was Václav Havel who awarded state honors to a leading member of the Romani community, Karel Holomek.
Havel's name came up many times when I was abroad, such as in 1997, when I was studying in the USA. "The Czech Republic? I don't know it. Do you mean Czechoslovakia?" many people often asked me. All of the activists, journalists, and teachers whom I met there immediately knew who I was talking about the moment I said his name.
I last saw Václav Havel during a public appearance in Prague at the second annual award ceremony for the Gypsy Spirit Prize. When his name was read out as a member of the jury, the entire room, which was at least half-full of Romani people, gave him a standing ovation.
Václav Havel prompted feelings of respect from people in a rather curious, natural way. Yesterday, as I watched the documentary film "Citizen Havel" (Občan Havel), I realized this once more. I had of course already seen it, but one becomes aware of some details even more clearly on a second viewing. For example, how uncommanding he was, even as president! How he did his best to seek non-conflicting solutions that would be best for the state. How he did his best, and fairly, to stand his ground in a position he viewed as one of service.
Understandably, his mistakes could be remembered as well. Many are doing just that. Even now, during a time of reverence, so-called "objectivity" is the most important thing for them - but who doesn't make mistakes? Who doesn't have a right to them in a position where one is so intensely under public observation? As the documentary film tells us, he was in the position of a person after whom many were modeling their own consciences.
Václav Havel, for me, will always remain a person who was greatly responsible not only for the political changes in this country, but a person who fought his entire life and who did his best to live the fight for freedom and human rights. If only we all could have his humility and strength!
Mi del o Del leske lokhi phuv…. May the Lord God let the earth lie lightly upon him….