Petra Procházková – A foreigner in her own land
Written by: Monika Mudranincová & Kateřina Zapletňuková
Photo by: Vojtěch Vlk
A courageous journalist who survived the bombardment of Grozny, she’s also a modest woman with a big heart. Petra Procházková’s desire for adventure led to a life devoted to helping others.
How does a journalist who was writing about health diets and birth control ten years ago become a renowned and highly acknowledged war correspondent?
It was the last thing on my mind. Around 1990 I wrote an advice column on birth control and other women’s issues for Lidové noviny. At the time it was a new topic, as terrorism is now. But then I lost my enthusiasm for it, and I felt an urge to travel abroad. The problem was that my language skills were almost nonexistent, but because I knew that no one wanted to go east, I chose Russia. The greatest adventure I could imagine was spending three months there, filing a few reports, and then going home. Instead I was there for ten years.
What drew you to countries like those of the former Soviet Union or the Far East?
Nothing’s happening here. True, it’s terrible that journalists flourish when others are experiencing misery, but that’s simply how it is. When I got to Moscow, shortly after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, there was a putsch and insurgents were firing on the “White House”. (Ed. note: Procházková was the only foreign reporter to stay on the scene during the firing.) Then war broke out in Abkhazia and Chechnya. Little did I know that it would be so interesting from a journalist’s point of view. Frankly, I must say that I can identify better with people who don’t have electricity and live in primitive conditions. They haven’t been spoiled by civilization, and there’s more time to build ties and communicate with them.
You filed reports from Grozny when it was under bombardment, and you witnessed the death of your Russian driver when a mine exploded as your car drove over it. How have such experiences affected you?
I’m more fearful. But fear numbs the senses to a certain degree. I can remember when Suchumi, the capital of Abkhazia, fell and guerrillas were flooding in from the surrounding hills. I circulated among them with my curly hair, unaware of what was going on. A journalist naively ascribes to himself supernatural properties, that nothing can happen to him. Most reporters feel this way. It really sinks in when someone you know is killed.
Do you have any advice on how to avoid becoming the next victim?
They say that when the bombs are falling you shouldn’t flee, you should lie low. But I always get so frightened that I run as fast as I can. I crawl into a trench only when I need to take a picture of something. It’s also said that only rarely do terrorists strike twice in the same place on consecutive days. There’s a much greater probability that there will be an explosion in the ten minutes after the first strike. But war correspondents don’t die on the front most often, they are far more often robbed or killed well behind lines. I found myself in trouble when two boys with knives attacked me on the street in Abkhazia. I gave them everything I had, and fortunately they let me go. It certainly pays to hide your money in at least ten places so you’ll have something left after you’re robbed.
War correspondents often confront the issue of the extent to which they should be impartial observers and when they should become personally involved. Have you had to deal with similar situations?
There’s a precept that if another person’s life depends on your acting you must set your camera aside. People often died in front of me, but more competent people than I were always there. But there are also situations where I have to think about it. For example, in Chechnya the mother of five children was killed in the bombardment and the father wasn’t there. We were taking pictures there and needed to go somewhere else, but we didn’t want to leave the children alone. We finally rented a car and brought their aunt to them.
In 2001 your Russian visa was taken away, but you said that if they gave you another one you’d go back. Is that still the case?
Chechnya is a closed chapter in my life, but if they hadn’t thrown me out I’d still be there. Do you know what drives me? Pure pragmatism. I won’t find another job in the Czech Republic. No one’s going to send me to the National Theater to write reviews. I haven’t been here for ten years, so I can’t report on domestic news. So I still travel to regions I know better than I know the Czech Republic.
You once wrote that Czechs quarrel over trifles, that we have no idea of what misery is, that we’re spoiled. Would you like to amplify on your statement?
I don’t want to make anyone feel bad, I’m a die-hard Czech myself, but it’s in our nature to take the easy way out. We lack the experience of a nation at war. We can’t understand a person who’s willing to die so that his family won’t have to live under occupation. True, we admire courage, but if we have to choose between dumplings and freedom, we choose the dumplings. This was also the case during the collapse of communism in 1989. What kind of a revolution was it, when everything around us had already been ruined?
Did your war experiences help you learn to live differently?
For example, I don’t waste water, and I won’t get a mobile phone. I don’t enjoy frittering away my money, I don’t buy many clothes. It seems excessive to me, when I think of how much time Chechnyan and Afghani women have to spend keeping their families alive. They face staggering criminality, there aren’t any jobs, nothing works properly, there isn’t any heat in winter. The women and children hunt for aluminum they can sell so they can buy bread. I was so terribly cold there that I couldn’t take my clothes off to wash. In Afghanistan I had to learn to bathe and even wash my hair with just five liters of water.
You founded the Berkat home for children in Grozny, and a civic association of the same name. Who’s taking care of the children, now that you can’t go there because of your expulsion?
They are currently being taken care of by Charita. It’s distressing that I can’t go there. I’d really love to be able to combine journalism with that work. In Afghanistan, to which I can still travel, we established a women’s center, where they can make carpets that Berkat tries to sell so that the center can have some revenue.
Berkat is also trying to prevent the expulsion of several dozen Chechens from the Czech Republic. How well do you work together with the interior ministry?
In their hearts they understand, but there isn’t much they can do. It’s terribly complicated, and no one can say as yet how it will all turn out. Overall, I think that Czechs are somewhat xenophobic; they don’t have much love for Roma or foreigners in general. They’re afraid that if they help someone they’ll get stabbed in the back for their effort. Security and calm are of paramount importance to Czechs. I can see it in myself – in my apartment house in Vysočany I’m not very popular, because I’m always bringing “strangers” who speak foreign languages.
Russian-Czech relations have gone through great changes. Under communism, the Czechs hated the Russians, but officially the Soviet Union was our role model. Now we look to the west for role models. What is your take on this?
People shouldn’t lie to themselves. Czechs are certainly able to understand the Russian soul much better than the American one. We’re closer to the Russians culturally, and at the end of the day, we’re all Slavs. The Czech Republic is a bridge between western and eastern Europe, and we should see this as an advantage.
In the last five years you have received seven awards for journalism. In 2002 Madeleine Allbright gave you the monetary part of her prize from the Hanno Ellenbogen fund. How did you use the money?
I heard about it when I was in Afghanistan. Thanks to her gift we were able to extend our stay there. Some of it went to repair my camera, and the rest went for costs and the women’s center project. The money was all spent before I actually got my hands on it! (laughs)
What is next on your agenda?
This year I’ll write a book about Afghan women, and I have many debts to repay. In order to make money for that, I’ll continue to work as a freelance journalist for Lidové noviny.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
I’ll already be an old woman in menopause! (laughs) But in geographic terms, I see myself somewhere in Asia.
How would you describe yourself in a few words?
Chaotic, optimistic, and hard-working.
How would you like people to remember you?
As a person who traveled where they couldn’t and acted as a go-between. Something like an antenna.