“Civil society is not a rocket science, it just takes shared responsibility!”

says Dana Němcová, the Chair of the OHF Supervisory Board.

River stream flows and time flies. Years go by the same way for everyone – slowly and easily at first, one would almost make time to speed up. Later on, as if it was invisible, we cannot even feel the time passing by because of all the rush and worries. And then, suddenly, we see wrinkles and white hair in the merciless mirror. The past twenty years went like that for Dana Němcová (81), the Chair of the OHF Supervisory Board. Ms. Němcová, it has just been 20 years since you have been at the helm of this foundation. You probably didn’t even notice it, did you? I would not be surprised as you are so active.

When you became a member of the Federal Assembly a quarter of a century ago, I mean in 1990, it was the outset of new times for all of us, times full of hopes and faith in a life we could freely manage and direct ourselves wherever we would want. What did you hope for? What kind of vision did you follow?

I would start with 1989. The November events were a great surprise to all of us. We knew we could expect some kind of change; it was in the air and already happening in other countries. However, we were not in such a position in which one has any specific political steps planned. We knew that we wanted to create an open, democratic and free society. But there were also many things we were critical about. And I wanted to push in the Federal Assembly for elimination of those things.  

Could you be more specific?
There were especially three issues on my mind: 
1.    at least a partial restitution of the church property – to enable religious orders to function
2.    abolition of the obligatory military service, with a possibility to perform a substitute service instead, as a first step
3. asylum law, resp. refugee law, as it was called then  

Was it difficult to negotiate?
Sometimes it was even a very funny and pleasant experience, for instance when it came to the main point – abolition of the leading role of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. At the time, the Parliament was composed partly by us - the co-opted ones – and partly by those, who remained from past and were used to show up from time to time, only to raise their hand while voting. So when we were voting about that crucial issue, they simply raised the hand as well and, the leading role of the Communist Party was gone. No problem! (laugh) 

But this was probably not the case for all issues, was it?
At the beginning we - representatives of the Civic Forum - shared the effort to create a society with a new face. Then, more difficult times came, when the political parties emerged as a constituent component of life in the democratic and pluralistic society. However, for me personally, those party issues were not very much to taste. I guess I do not really belong to people who can identify themselves with a single (political) party. Any party. Nevertheless, the worst problem occured in 1992, when the pressure by the National Chamber aimed to divide the Republic was getting stronger. At that time, I realized that the political career was not for me and what I really cared about was civil society. 

Do you think the question of civil society was not to be solved in the Parliament?
It was, as long as we were able to come to an agreement. Thereafter, there were different priorities that made us to become more divided than generous and capable to grasp the problem from a wider perspective. Back then, society was excited and ready to act. Those, who had served the previous regime stood back and we would have been able to get plenty of good people on our side. I hope at least some of them succeeded on a local level, from where real politicians could come up; that is what I believed in back then. It was not that easy, but we are thankful for what we have and that we still have it. 

Was it due to human flaws and lack of character that the general expectations were unfulfilled or, was it rather because of high expectations?
Both. The closer we got to the 90s the more awaken our society became, civil initiatives were increasing in number and getting stronger and, one could observe growth of the social responsibility and courage. Yet,  the problem is that we get excited about something and when we meet with resentment, resistance, dirty tricks or unfair game, we tend to give up rather than to fight for our cause. It was my case as well; I was not able to keep up with politics because the political disputes were simply not for me. Not all of us have enough of political education and experience. 

You proved yourself to be wholly successful in the fight for freedom and justice and, you needed to sacrifice a lot for the benefit of it. For instance, in the Committee for the Defense of Unjustly Prosecuted.
I think all of us act based on our own experience, be it for example a childhood experience. When I was 14, I couldn’t cope with the fact that people signed up for the death penalty of Milada Horáková. I saw families who suffered from imprisonment of their close ones - and nobody helped them, everybody was afraid to do so. And then, in the 70’s, people from the Charta 77 circle started to get imprisoned and again, their families got hurt. So I said to myself that it was our responsibility to take care of those people. And, to accuse the mendacious regime of a failure to comply with its internationally recognized commitments. It was wrong and we were willing to reveal the truth. 


And how is it with justice today?
I think that justice is not of this world. The absolute justice we long for. There is no society which would deserve to be marked as the one. Still, there are some societies where criticism works, whether from citizens or from elected representatives. Real democracy is like a laundry room, where the greatest injustices can not be concealed and have to be dealt with. They will come up to the surface, though perhaps only after years, and even the bigwigs are brought to justice. 

I don’t dare to ask whether our laundry is clean, however, I want to believe that the wheels of justice turn slowly but grind exceedingly fine.
I absolutely believe they do so, but I don't care. I do not wish anybody to get ground up. Wheels of justice see into every person deeper than we do from the surface. 

So you think it is not feasible to set the over-reaching justice in this world.
No, it is not. However, we still have to strive for it, it is our daily task. 

And what about our perceptiveness towards the needs of other people? Has anything changed in the past twenty years? 
I wouldn’t dare to generalize. Our society is pluralistic, after all. I am excited about the young people working for humanitarian organizations like People in Need, Doctors without Borders and others. Or for the NGOs, where they literally fight for every single inch on which they can demostrate good deeds and reach their helping hand to someone. Olga Havel’s idea was that a state was not able to give a hand to the ones in need and that it was upon us to help the needy people. 

Why can’t a state do so? Why can’t it show the needy ones a more receptive face?
As the state tries to shield everybody in the most general terms. And then, when all the individual specifics get eliminated and eliminated again, only a single pattern remains to be - more or less – filled in. However, I know that politics is a harsh job. If one wants to manage or take too much, it shows. It’s impossible for anybody to really get into the core of the problem when one is buried under four piles of legislative filings, proposals and counter-proposals, sometimes even aggressive or disputable. We need a dialogue - dialogue with a society as well as a dialogue in coalition and opposition. However, when engaged in a dialogue, one has also to listen to the other participant. And who does it these days?

Our people do not listen very attentively; they rather attack and blame others. 
Politicians become a target - that is for sure, unjustly quite often. It is really no easy task to do politics in a right way. I still believe that it should be Mayors and people with specific responsibilities on the local level who would explain to the public what politics is really about. They should show us how they take care of their “polis”(community). 

Are you saying that we should focus on the place where we live and be active in the community there?
Indeed. However, we need to stay open enough. These days, we face a high risk to become self-concerned. We are willing to care of our small Czech pond; we close ourselves from the surrounding world as we are still afraid of something. But, we cannot live in isolation! 

Now, you have made a pass in my direction! I have a feeling, in light of recent refugee crisis, that we would barely manage to pass an exam in how to feel compassion for the needy. Why is it so?
We are lead by fear. We fear the unknown.  We fear change. And the truth is that the world is changing significantly and abruptly in this millenium. We are not ready for such a situation. Moreover, we are not ready to change accordingly. The roots of our stereotypes run deep under the surface. Older generation carries on stigmas of the past and passes them on to the younger ones. So, it would take some time to change. If we have the time.

Czech citizens did not use to be so disapproving vis-a-vis immigrants in the past. You could tell us something about it…
I used to work for the Czech, then Czechoslovak Helsinki Committee back in 1992, when the war in Yugoslavia began and the first wave of refugees came to our country. The Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees started to be active in the Czech Republic and contacted us so, we have, together with one lawyer from the Helsinki Committee, established an advisory office for refugees. I think that Czechs acted in a quite proper way those days. They were able to show empathy, maybe because of our trips to Yugoslavia, which brought us closer to the culture of that country, though there were religious and ethnic differences among local people. We brought those muslims in, as the mujahideen (warriors in the holy war) came here to help the persecuted, mostly secular Bosnians, who had, by the name, something in common with earlier Islam. 

We are not so open towards the current refugee flow. On the contrary. We fear a culture that is strange to us and seems to be cruel. 
And, because of the ignorance, we fear so much. Instead of making an effort to understand the refugees and to get to know them, in other words to be reasonable, we get horified and we frighten each other. 

You used to live in a daily fear for years. You and your husband were part of dissent, your house was searched on a daily basis, you were afraid of losing your jobs, you worried about how to raise and make a living for your seven children. It must have been a burden. How can one confront fear? How can we prevent fear from taking over in such a way that it would finally affect our sences of humanity and empathy?
One has to fight fear. One must say it is worth it! I was interrogated in 1977, when I rejected to testify, so they came to our home. They would stand behind the door trying to threaten me, by asking whether I would not like to take the Charta 77 back since I have “the kids”… So I, despite my lamb’s nature, shouted back at them. Exactly because of the kids! And I slammed the door. 

And the consequences came soon…
My kids were put behind the bars briefly on any possible occasion, they were not spared even from physical attacks, still, they stood by us. Such things could be also a source of strength and faith - not to give up! Young people understand it. It is not about fanaticism, it is rather about how strong and persuasive is the truth, not a human being. People might express themselves through their attitude but, the truth has the power to persuade you that it is better “to be here than to be there”. 

„We wish that the right for dignified life is also enjoyed by those who live with handicap or mental illness, abandoned and old people, those who have a different skin colour or a different way of life, those in poverty or attacked by a malignant disease.“ Olga Havel
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