The Beginning of East (Part 3)

“Oh shit, run!” he said when he first saw them. Torches flickered behind us, as we crossed the railway tracks and made for the hole in the fence.

“up the hill”. My legs were pumping so hard, fuelled by fear and adrenaline.

“quick, down this alley” I forcefully whispered, over to Lucas.

The two policemen chasing us were thankfully overweight and as a result we were putting more and more space between us. After a few minutes, we thought that we were clear but we kept up a good jog, just in case. It was scary though, to be in a foreign place and not knowing the consequences of what we’d done, would be.

I should probably explain how we ended up being chased by the Czech police. It had been a long day, out seeing the sights of Prague. The Charles Bridge and John Lennon memorial wall, which might have inspired our brush with the law.

We’d met Lucas and Michelle that evening, in a bar somewhere within Prague 3 – a hole in the wall place, next to the park, underneath the shadow of the National Monument of Vitkov. It was ironic that we’d cooked up such a rebellious plan, right under the nose of the iconic symbol of Czech statehood.

attracted by their obvious French accents, we’d struck up a conversation about the quality of the beer we were drinking – a Pilner Urquell with a thick foamy head. I think the head is supposed to seal in the freshness of the beer. It was working, as for the oldest pilsner lager in the world, it had a very fresh taste.

Prague Czech RepublicA few beers later and the conversation turned to graffiti. Prague is peppered with the stuff, from flowing tags, to stylish stencils and huge murals. Some of it was shit but lots of it was good and it was everywhere. On this point, Lou and I agreed and conversation turned to our own past experiences of writing. Next thing you knew, we were cooking up a plan to visit the local spray can store and write a wall Lucas had spotted earlier in the town, by the railway tracks.

Praha Czechoslovakia“eees on d’ main intersection, up to d’¬†highway” Luca said, in his blunt Marseille accent, indicating the site would receive a lot of passing traffic. It meant crossing the railway lines on foot, which I didn’t much like the idea of – I had no idea about live rails in Czech and had always avoided the rail tracks before but this was too much of an adventure to pass up.

I was glad to be leaving Prague the next day. Not that it’s a bad place. I just had a bought of paranoia and felt it could only be relieved by putting distance between myself and the ‘Praha Policie’.

I ran away like a coward and soon found myself on a train across the vast Czech countryside, a coach across the border into Slovakia and then a minibus, escalating up winding roads and into the clouds.

Read more: Things go down in Poland. 

High Tatras Slovakia Forrest WalkThe High Tatras are a bitter-sweet place. It could have been just what we were looking for. Sharp mountains peaks, still covered in thick snow in April but they are occupied by an introverted community of locals, who are keen to remain separate from those who tour the area. That alone is of course, not enough to cause offence but I worry about the nationalist sentiment, spewed by the politicians they like to elect and feel a little uneasy walking into the bars and restaurants.

At one point, the Czech Republic and Slovakia had been one sovereign state of course, separating after the fall of the USSR during the bloodless 1989 ‘Velvet Revolution‘. The revolution its self did everything right – it was a popular non-violent movement in the best interests of everyone and as such, it was morally justified, bringing about a more healthy society. After the installation of democracy, it was perhaps a shame that Czechs and Slovaks, who had worked so brilliantly together during that time, felt they could no longer. Their brilliant revolution was co-opted by those with a different agenda.

By 1991 the Czech economy was 20% stronger than the Slovak and politicians decided to stop economic redistribution payments to Slovakia – very similar to the Barnet Formula in UK –¬† creating animosity.¬† Only a third of the population favoured separation but politicians ramped up the rhetoric about ethnic and cultural differences, leading to the 1992 ‘Velvet Divorce’. The problem is not with¬†separation in principal of course but with how it is done and if it is in the best interests of all the people.

The result of this kind of campaign, leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of Slovaks. Nationalism and a feeling of being looked down upon by their closest neighbors, all generate resentment. These sentiments are easily exploited by politicians who seek power and as we know from how the Velvet Revolution was co-opted, politicians in this region are not shy in exploiting situations for personal gain.

It’s very quiet in the mountains at this time of year – too late for skiing and too early for all the hiking trails to be open. We embrace the peace and slow things right down. A little reading, a stroll in the forest and dinner in the only restaurant left open at this time of year.

It’s a beautiful part of the world but it has to be said, something isn’t quite right here in Zdiar. Rumours circulate among travellers we meet and we discuss various theories; of it being a mafia outlaw hideaway; or a centre for money laundering businesses, away from the prying eyes of the more experienced city police.

Something is off but I don’t know what? And then it breaks. A man is arrested in the town but information is hard to come by. I ask around in the hostel but no one seems to know, so I wait for John – the hostel manager from Northampton – to return. I think he might have built enough familiarity with a few locals over his six months in the town, to have some idea.

“Where you been?” I ask, when he eventually comes through the door.

“At the police station” he says, sending my mind into overdrive.¬†What on earth was going on?

“He was next door” he adds, looking confused.

“Who was?”

“Kuciak’s killer. He’d been hiding out there. The abandoned hotel next door”

Abandoned Hotel Zdiar SlovakiaJohn thought I’d know more than I did. Maybe he’d been used to talking about the murders with people who were aware but I had no idea, as a fairly fresh arrival. The police had arrested Jan Kuciak’s suspected killer for a double murder in the adjoining plot to the hostel at 5.30am that morning. By the afternoon, word was going round that he’d confessed.

I scanned the internet for details on the case. The murders were clearly political and involving corruption. ‘Ex-soldier confesses to killing journalist and fianc√©e‘ read the headline on one. Kuciak had been writing revealing stories about the corrupt political elite of Slovakia and this looked like a stone cold hit.

Time to move on, perhaps. But where: click here to read the next instalment. 

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