Šimon Pánek

* 1967

  • "With convoys I experienced the confrontational encounters in Montenegro, in Bosnia - where local soldiers stopped me and took me to their commander. There, strangely enough, it was enough to explain who we were, what we were doing, to show them the lists of humanitarian aid, to say, 'Well, look in the trucks. There's nothing else there. Look at it.' You just mustn't be scared. It's important when the other side feels that you are sure of your cause, that you are not doing anything wrong, that you have nothing to hide, that you have no ulterior motives. That has always worked for me. Even with the Russian soldiers in Chechnya. When we stopped with that convoy, they came armed with machine guns, ready to be aggressive. But we talked to them calmly, asked how they were, offered them a cigarette, let them see what we were doing. Most of the people had that aggressive look, at first glance, when you drove up to that checkpoint and saw these people in balaclavas, armed often with machine guns. They were demonstrating their strength, and they were probably enjoying it too, this game. It was not a pleasant feeling. But when you know that you have nothing to hide, you are confident, you are convincing, and you are lucky enough not to have jitters which I usually am - that helps. Because calmness and confidence works on everybody."

  • "We were doing a bit of journalism, war journalists were almost non-existent at that time. I remember one occasion when, with a camera on my shoulder, after we had handed over the aid, I went to wartime Sarajevo to film, among other things, the newly created municipal cemetery. It was built in the middle of the city in the football stadium, because there was nowhere to bury the dead. The original cemeteries were on the outskirts of the city, often on the hills above Sarajevo, which were even more heavily shelled, even more risky than the central city. So the locals started digging graves on the football field, removing the goals and burying the dead there. I went there with the idea of filming. The gravediggers were digging, it was obviously a powerful symbol. As I got there with the camera, I suddenly heard a strange noise – something I'd never heard before but realized very quickly what it was: a bullet whizzing a few meters past my head. The sniper saw me filming there and took aim. Journalists were very unpopular with Radovan Karadzic's paramilitary forces who were besieging Sarajevo - because they were reporting what was happening there and influencing public opinion in Europe. Without ever having experienced it before, I realised what it's like to have a bullet whizzing past your head. It was a few metres, but even so, if he'd hit me, I would have been probably dead, because those sniper rifles are quite effective. Then another bullet, and another. So I jumped into a freshly dug grave. The camera was still rolling, and later it showed footage of the mud. I lay there shivering. After some time I gathered courage, grabbed the camera and ran behind houses."

  • "In those first two or three days, when a kind of central strike centre began to exist, which was from Monday 20 November at the Department of Directing at the DAMU (The Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague) in Řetězová Street, the word got out very quickly, of course, that this was 'the' centre. People were going to the various faculties, expressing their support, bringing food, asking what they could do. So our centre, where we met spontaneously at first, and later with a mandate, became the coordinating centre of the strike. Especially on the second day, very alarming reports began to arrive about movements of police cars, trucks, police units and buses with militiamen who were brought in from more distant parts of the country. We got calls from various people, such as Prague taxi drivers, who formed an information network. I remember that Tuesday [21 November] was really tense and full of stress. I'm the type that when something happens, I don't think about the risks anymore. It's on. But there were people who were frightened. Plus, the DAMU building was under reconstruction at the time, and there was scaffolding all around our windows, which didn't add to the sense of security either. At one point, we were close to leave, to escape. Then Martin Klíma, a mathematician and physicist, a very analytical man, took the floor. He was the one who gave a rousing speech four days before at the Albertov, closing it with the words that 'servitude is worse than death'. And this Martin Klíma said in a calm voice: 'Look, we called a demonstration at Albertov, we spoke there, we called a strike, now here we are in the strike centre, and we are all known in our faculties. If something happens, they will come for us tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. There is certainly no point in leaving this place.' This calmed the atmosphere in the student strike centre. We sat down and wrote a statement - it sounds funny today - 'a statement to all the governments of the world and the UN' – stating that we do non-violent demonstrations, that we don't want violence. Two people went with this statement to two key embassies - the American and the Soviet. At the American embassy the person almost didn't even get past the reception. My classmate from science, Radan Haluzík, went to the Soviet embassy. Late at night he got to the first or second secretary of the Soviet embassy and in the morning he brought a message back to us: 'Don't worry, there will be no bloodshed.' That was good news for us. Because we were afraid of how far the Communist Party would go. Although the demonstrations were big so we hoped they wouldn't dare..."

  • "Someone came up with the idea of a student demonstration. I don't know who - it certainly wasn't me – picked the date of 17 November as a kind of trick, a date that the communists were promoting, going back to the murder of Jan Opletal, to the Nazi suppression of student demonstrations in 1939, to the closing of universities. They made 17 November the International Student Day. Here in Prague was also the headquarters of the International Union of Students. An organisation linked to communist states and developing countries, in a way an alternative structure to the student organisations in Western Europe, created on purpose. The Union probably had links to radical groups linked to armed attacks. No one knew the real history of it. But the date served well. We thought it would be harder for the communists to disperse and harder to attack if it was a student demonstration, and on this symbolic date. Everything was planned, and about two weeks before the event, a representative of the city university council, sent and instructed apparently by the Communist office in Prague, came to the Benda's apartment with a proposal, 'If you let our representatives speak at Albertov, we will permit the demonstration'. This caused a conflict between pragmatists and idealists within the Stuha movement. The idealists said, 'Not with the devil, you can't negotiate with him,' but the pragmatists eventually prevailed, so there was a kind of agreement and the demonstration was actually permitted - which was a game changer. There was less risk in going to a permitted demonstration, and it was possible to publicise a permitted demonstration. Back then there was no Facebook, there was no internet, and there were no anonymous ways of promotion. Phones were tapped. The only way was to spread the word among ourselves. We were afraid of who you could tell, who you couldn't tell. Suddenly, with the fact that the demonstration was permitted, it was possible to openly and safely put up posters in faculties, in dormitories, in corridors: 'Come on Friday 17 November, bring a candle and a flower'. For one thing, the publicity. We all know that, if we want something to be successful, we have to get the information out to the people. When it's visible posters in the corridors, it's different from people telling each other. And certainly the other factor is that it's permitted. I think a lot of young people took it as, 'I don't risk getting kicked out of school. It's a permitted demonstration, and it's in Albertov, in the middle of a university town. So I'll go."

  • "I wouldn't say it was new. Thinking back to the years before, at least in Somalia where we started, the key was a visit to the local warlord who gave us the green light: 'Yes, you can help here'. When I think of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the various meetings with the various armed forces and their permissions to pass through - that was a normal part of the job. Negotiating with someone who has a Kalashnikov over his shoulder, and starting by offering him a cigarette, or addressing him properly, in Serbian, Croatian, for example. Being careful of the nuances of the language. In Afghanistan, you have to be respectful and yet confident enough, find a way to communicate, remind people's needs, greet people properly and so on. That's actually part of the job of humanitarian organizations when working in live armed conflict or in close post-conflict areas - to find a way to get along with those who have weapons. There was no civilian administration in Afghanistan at that point. The real governance, including tax collection, road security, even the aid distribution in some areas - all of that was held by those commanders. Not necessarily the lowest ones, but the higher prominent commanders in the north, Ustad Atta or [Abdul Rashid] Dostum, combined the civil and military administration at that time. It was necessary to deal with them."

  • “My name is Šimon Pánek. I was born by the end of December 1967 in Prague and my dad was a political prisoner in the 1950s. He was partially rehabilitated in 1968. My grandfather was a legionary who went all the way to Vladivostok and then joined the party before the war. He was a prewar member of the party. My dad always used to tell me that while he and other students were supporting president Beneš, his dad was cheering on the Old town square. So their ways parted very much. After my dad had fled from the prison camp in 1953 he was in Prague and was seeing his mom but he couldn’t meet his dad and his mom couldn’t tell his dad about the meetings.”

  • “There’s a lot of places and a lot of people all around the world, who’re much worse off than us. We’re lucky because we’re doing great. Therefore we shouldn’t forget about all those people who’re worse off than us and try to share at least a small fraction of what we have with them. As the Czech Republic, the Czech society, we’re not able to do a great deal, but we’re capable of helping tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of people around the world to have a better future. This is something of a great and permanent value that is eventually inherent to every religion. Starting with the Talmud: ‘Those who save one human life save the whole world.’ And that’s how it is. Thanks to the support of the Czech society we’re able to save human lives and improve living conditions all around the world.”

  • “I’ve had a rather good, happy and fulfilled life. My dad always used to tell me to postpone the confrontation with the regime to a later time, when I’d already be someone. I later found out that the dissidents got the same advice in the eighties – not to confront the regime at an early moment, to go to university in the first place and wait with the confrontation till later. I didn’t know this, however. I actually never really thought about whether to sign the Charter 77 till 1989. I simply live my life within the limits that exist, I say to a certain extant openly what I think and I’m searching for loopholes.”

  • Full recordings
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    Kavarna 3+1 Újezd Praha Český republika, 20.04.2010

    duration: 01:33:29
    media recorded in project Stories of 20th Century
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    Praha, 20.07.2021

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    Praha, 10.01.2022

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    Praha, 31.01.2022

    duration: 01:24:01
    media recorded in project Stories of the 20th Century TV
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Don’t resign, don’t think only of yourself and don’t expect miracles

Šimon Pánek, 1989
Šimon Pánek, 1989
photo: současná Mikuláš Kroupa, dobová internet

Šimon Pánek was born on December 27, 1967, in Prague. In the 1950s his father was in communist prison for his political beliefs. His mother was an economist by profession, but later studied art history and worked in the National gallery in the modern art collection. They got divorced in the time of the Normalisation. Pánek talks of his youth as of the happy times he spent hiking in nature and at weekend cottages. He spent his adolescence travelling with his friends in the so-called “expedition group”. During these years he had the opportunity to meet the traveler and writer Jaromír Štětina. He studied Biology at the Faculty of Natural Sciences of the Charles University but didn’t finish his studies. In 1988 he co-organized a humanitarian collection for the victims of a devastating earthquake in Armenia. In 1989 he co-founded the student movement STUHA. He participated in all the anti-Communist demonstrations that took place between 1988 and December 1989. By coincidence (he was making money somewhere outside of Prague to finance his expeditions) he wasn’t present at the demonstration on the National avenue on November 17, which set off the downfall of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. During the student protests in early November 1989 he was elected to the presidium of the Student coordination center. He also became a member of the Civic forum and an envoy of a special team of Václav Havel that was charged with negotiating the formation of a new democratic government. In 1990 he was co-opted to the Federal Assembly for the Civic forum but he didn’t accept the offer. He refused the mandate even after in June 1990 he was elected to the Assembly by preferential votes from a back position on the candidates list. He claims that he had other plans and didn’t want to go into politics at that time. He was one of the founders of the private Information agency Epicentrum where he worked. He further co-founded the Lidové noviny foundation, which later became the NGO Člověk v tísni (People in need). He worked in the Office of the President of the Republic and was engaged in film production. Today, he’s the director of the largest Czech humanitarian, development and human-rights non-governmental organization Člověk v tísni.