The atmosphere in the Czech capital was somber on Wednesday as thousands of mourners followed ex-president Václav Havel’s casket on his final journey through Prague. Along the entire route from Prague Crossroads in the Old Town over Charles Bridge and up to Prague Castle people lined the streets, some holding candles, others photographs of the late ex-president, paying their last respects to the man who more than twenty years ago led his country to freedom and democracy.
A hush fell over the Czech capital as the funeral procession set out from Prague Crossroads where the body of Václav Havel had lain in repose, for two days. The ex-president’s plain wooden coffin was loaded into a black Mercedes hearse and covered with flowers as it slowly wound its way through the cobbled streets of the Old Town, across Charles Bridge and up to Prague Castle, the seat of Czech presidents. Walking behind were family members – Václav Havel’s widow Dagmar and her daughter Nina, his brother Ivan and his wife, Havel’s close friends and co-workers and members of the public. Bells tolled in the distance as the almost silent procession made its way across the bridge and up to the Castle Guards Garrison on Loretánské náměstí.
There the casket bearing the late ex-president’s remains was transferred to a gun carriage, the same which bore the remains of Czechoslovakia’s first president T.G. Masaryk, draped with the Czech flag and flanked by members of the Castle Guard. Close to 500 soldiers of the Czech armed forces, some of them bearing the historical banners of Czechoslovak legions, marched behind the casket to the sound of a military band.
As the cortege reached Prague Castle, where flags were flying at half mast, it started to rain and as the coffin entered the castle gates the crowd began quietly applauding and jangling their keys in a final spontaneous tribute recollecting the protest gesture people made during the 1989 Velvet Revolution to signal the final bell on the communist regime.
The ex-president’s casket was carried to the historic Vladislav Hall where the country’s elite was waiting to pay their last respects to the country’s first post- communist president. His successor in office President Václav Klaus said the country owed Václav Havel a huge debt of gratitude.
“We are gathered here to honour the legacy of the country’s first post-communist president Václav Havel. His name will always symbolize the Velvet Revolution and Czechoslovakia’s return to freedom and democracy. We are gathered here to pay homage to a great statesman, a man so respected internationally that he became a symbol of the fight for democracy and human rights world-wide; a man who did more for the country’s prestige and position in the world than any other.”
Mr. Klaus said that many people regarded Václav Havel’s demise as the end of an era and appealed to the Czech people not to let this come about. He said Czechs owed it to the late president to do everything in their power to keep Václav Havel’s ideas alive and live by his moral convictions.
Václav Havel’s body will now lie in state in Vladislav Hall until the funeral ceremony at St. Vitus Cathedral on Friday noon.