by Martin Yip
When the coronavirus pandemic first hit the UK in March, I hastily left the country and returned home. My family decided that I should quarantine for fourteen days. During those days, I was confined to one room, where I would eat, work, and sleep, and one bathroom which no one else would use. In those extraordinary times, ‘home’ took on a new meaning. It was not a supportive place where I would leave and return to, but rather the sole place I could be at.
It is easy to take home for granted, until – as other things that may be taken for granted – it morphs into something new, something unrecognisable; then, the comfort of old vanishes. It is then when the contingent nature of those things can no longer be ignored. Indeed, it is a privilege for me to have a room at home to quarantine in, so that my family and I are safe but also as close to each other as possible. It is a privilege that I could have my meals delivered to me every day. This was possible because my family did not have to worry about living space or finances – a contingent state of things.
Recognising this contingency helps nurture gratitude and a sense of responsibility. We keep our homes clean and tidy, not only because we don’t want to live in a dirty and messy environment, but also because it is our homes that we are looking after. Home is unique, but it is also fragile. It cannot do without its inhabitants, and vice versa. This bond between us and our homes admits of no foreign interference; it is ours to maintain and ours to defend.
Jan Palach perhaps shared this sentiment when he set himself on fire on 16 January 1969, passing away after three days of hospitalisation. He was a university student from Czechoslovakia during the years of ‘unfreedom’, as the period of Communist rule is known in the country. Palach wanted to mobilize his people to fight against oppression, and he wanted his fellow students not to repeat his actions, but to stay alive and stay in the fight.
Palach’s funeral became a massive anti-regime demonstration. It reignited resistance against Soviet oppression and aroused society from its submissiveness after a previous Soviet invasion. Unfortunately, despite Palach’s intentions, more people followed his path. By April 1969, 26 more people had attempted immolation and seven of them had perished. The Museum of Communism in Prague proclaims, ‘the heroism of these martyrs significantly hastened the fall of the [Communist] regime’. In 1989, Palach Week was held in Prague, a series of demonstrations which preceded the ultimate fall of the Communists in the same year after the Velvet Revolution.
Twenty years after Palach’s self-immolation, it was said that ‘people could sense the end of Communism in the air from early in the year’. Yet, twenty years earlier, the situation could hardly be worse. The liberalising trends of the Prague Spring in 1968 were ended by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The reformist leader of Czechoslovakia Alexander Dubček was expelled from the Communist party, and tens of thousands of Soviet troops remained in Czechoslovakia until the regime fell.
Home is a place that its inhabitants never surrender. We do not tend to our homes because we know it can be done, but because it is what we do. We may leave home from time to time, but we always return. We carry on day by day. Home may bring us joy or despair; hope or dread; security or fear. But it never ceases to be ours and ours alone.
Palach would have been comforted by the fact that his actions did contribute to the toppling of the Communists. It was possible because people persevered for twenty years after him. His death did not plunge people into despair; he dragged them from it.
By giving up their very lives, those who self-immolated gave the strongest rallying cry to save their home. As we mourn the fallen, it is our responsibility to heed their calling, to continue what they started. After all, we share a home with them, and our goals are aligned. Defending our home is difficult – yet it is our duty. Success may never come, but it might also come sooner than anyone expected. Our mandate is to carry on.