PRAGUE – Upon settling into Youth Journalism International’s cottage in Statenice, Czechia, I naturally found myself gravitating towards the bookshelf in the living room.
Filled with books from our lovely host, it was here that I came across Letters to Olga by Václav Havel, the writer and former Czech president.
While I was already familiar with Czech literary giants like Franz Kafka and Milan Kundera, Havel was largely unknown to me.
My curiosity was initially sparked when I landed in Prague, greeted by the sight of its orange-roofed cityscape and the prominent Václav Havel Airport sign.
This prompted the question in my mind, “Who was Václav Havel?”
During the course of YJI’s 2023 Global Conference, I gradually learned more about Havel, initially through the borrowed, worn-out copy of “Letters to Olga” from the cottage shelf.
While reading the book, I found myself enamored by the portrait of the revolutionary intellectual.
In the book, I learned about Havel from the letters he sent to his wife Olga during his nearly four-year imprisonment.
Flipping through the pages I learned about the man through his own words and about the complexities of his life under a repressive regime.
Havel’s lifelong dedication to upholding human rights and democracy mirrors the challenges most intellectuals in my home country of Bangladesh face today, and this is what resonated with me the most as a student journalist.
But my exploration of Havel’s world extended beyond the pages of the book. Discovering Havel while actually being in Prague added a special dimension to the experience.
Our resident history enthusiast and conference leader, YJI co-founder Steve Collins, told the group of us about Havel and I asked him even more, realizing that there couldn’t be a better person to enlighten me about Havel’s history.
He took time to elaborate on Havel’s legacy, the formation of Charter 77 and its significance. This, coupled with the insights from my borrowed book, provided me with a comprehensive understanding of the philosophical foundations that shaped Havel’s lifelong work.
Learning about the instrumental work Charter 77 did to document human rights abuses and how its signatories were intellectuals deeply inspired me.
The events of Charter 77 and the Velvet Revolution – this chapter of history felt inspiring, knowing the potential when intellectuals fulfill their responsibilities.
Prior to coming to this conference, the distressing state of my own country made me think about the responsibilities intellectuals bear.
As democracy hangs by a thread in Bangladesh, I thought, “Why are our intellectuals silent?”
Historically, intellectuals have played a crucial role in the democratic fabric of a nation.
In 1971, just two days before gaining our independence, Pakistan – realizing its impending defeat in my country’s war to claim what was then East Pakistan – orchestrated a series of killings to eliminate the intellectual class which included authors, writers, poets, professors, physicians and more.
Indeed, their target was directed at the heart of our new nation of Bangladesh, recognizing the remarkable influence intellectuals had. And as Havel has shown, intellectuals can shape the course of history.
I found myself captivated by Havel’s unwavering commitment to upholding human rights and democracy.
When visiting the Václav Havel memorial and witnessing the heart sculpture crafted by artist Kurt Gebauer with my YJI peers, I was deeply moved by the experience. The sculpture had heartfelt messages from people about Havel.
It’s a testament to the impact that he continues to have on the younger generation. It felt like encountering Havel’s timeless legacy in a tangible and profound way.
During my stay, another YJI student, Viktorie Goldmannová from Czechia, helped me with the correct pronunciation of Václav Havel’s name.
Initially, I was pronouncing it as “VAK-Lavh,” but my friend explained it’s actually pronounced “VAHTS-lahv.”
While it may seem like a minor detail, Prague introduced me to Havel in so many ways, and for that, I am grateful.
Meeting Havel in Prague left me more optimistic than when I first arrived.
I came to Czechia believing I would fall in love with Kafka and Kundera’s Prague, but I left, having fallen more in love with Václav Havel’s Prague.
Usraat Fahmidah is a Senior Reporter with Youth Journalism International from Bangladesh. She wrote this piece.
Photo contribution by Youth Journalism International Senior Correspondent Bilge Güven of Türkiye.