Thousands gathered in Prague’s historic city centre on Wednesday as the Czech Republic began three days of national mourning to bid final farewell to Vaclav Havel, the icon of the 1989 Velvet Revolution.
In the early morning chill, some 10,000 mourners mostly in black, some carrying Czech or Slovak flags, joined a solemn procession taking the former president’s coffin from a church through Prague’s narrow cobbled streets to Prague Castle, the seat of Czech presidents. Havel died on Sunday, aged 75.
A dissident playwright, Havel led the nation through the bloodless 1989 Velvet Revolution that toppled Soviet-backed communism in then Czechoslovakia.
He then went on to serve as president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992 and subsequently the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003 when the former Czechoslovak federation split peacefully into two states.
“Mr Havel was a model of a man who longs to live in truth and in harmony with his inner conscience, and who is not afraid to suffer for that,” said Jaroslav Mino who had travelled to Prague from eastern Slovakia.
“I studied nuclear physics in Prague and now I’ve come back,” said Mino who had travelled some 650 kilometres (400 miles) to pay his respects, dressed in a traditional Slovak embroidered vest and a black hat.
“It’s time to remember Havel and some of his moral appeals which are absent from today’s politics — it’s all about business and money, and I think they should start with the people themselves instead,” said Mino who was also carrying a Slovak flag.
Slovakia has declared Friday, the day of Havel’s funeral, a day of national mourning.
Flags flew at half mast across the Czech Republic on Wednesday, the first day of national mourning, as theatres, cinemas and music clubs cancelled performances.
After arriving at Prague Castle, the coffin was placed on a horse-drawn gun carriage also used for the funeral of the first Czechoslovak president, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, in 1937.
Six horses took the coffin draped in the red, blue and white Czech flag to the castle’s vast, vaulted-ceiling Vladislav Hall, where it will lie in state for two days.
“Vaclav Havel was a remarkable personality who is difficult to classify clearly and assess superficially,” President Vaclav Klaus said in a speech at Prague Castle.
“He became a symbol of changes under way and people projected their hopes in him” after 1989, added Klaus, who described his predecessor as “a brave man of firm opinions and standpoints”.
Wednesday’s procession started at the Prague Crossroads, a spiritual centre created by Havel in a disused church, where his coffin had been viewed by the public for the past two days.
In the clapping crowd in downtown Prague, Vladimir Dlouhy, minister of trade and industry under Havel’s presidency, remembered his former boss.
“Some loved him and some disagreed with him, but he fundamentally changed our lives as the leader of the Velvet Revolution,” Dlouhy said.
Martina Smith, Havel’s secretary in the 1990s, was also in the procession.
“It’s a personal affair for me. I wanted to bid farewell and accompany him on this journey,” said Smith whon now lives in Australia.
“He was very popular and people felt close to him. And for me, those were wonderful years, and he a fantastic man.”
On Friday, the coffin will be taken to St Vitus Cathedral for a memorial service and a requiem mass.
Friday’s event will be attended by scores of leaders including French President Nicolas Sarkozy and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with her husband, former US President Bill Clinton.
Among dignitaries who have confirmed their presence at the funeral are the presidents of Germany, Poland, Austria, Slovenia, Georgia, Slovakia, Lithuania and Estonia.
The office of Klaus said the guest list would be completed by Wednesday afternoon.
After the service, Havel’s body will be cremated in accordance with his family’s wishes.