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Czech Republic: First Czech Wins 'European Of The Year' Award For Charity Work

In 1988, a young biology student in Prague watched television footage of the Armenian earthquake and knew he had to help. The aid shipment Simon Panek organized was the beginning of a career that has since brought help to people affected by war or natural catastrophe from Chechnya to Afghanistan. Panek's efforts were recognized yesterday by "Reader's Digest" magazine, which named him their European of the Year. RFE/RL spoke with Panek before the award ceremony.

Prague, 29 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Simon Panek received the European of the Year award yesterday from Conrad Kiechel of "Reader's Digest" magazine. The prize, which is going to a Czech citizen for the first time, recognizes Panek's charity work over the past 14 years.

Panek has helped people suffering through war or natural catastrophe in more than 20 countries and on four continents, in places ranging from Chechnya to Colombia, Kosovo to Afghanistan.

It all began one night in 1988, when Panek saw television footage of the devastation wreaked by an earthquake in Armenia. Panek and his friends decided they had to help, and within a few days had collected nearly 70 tons of aid.

Kiechel picks up the story: "When that operation was over, Simon Panek went back to his life as a 20-year-old biology student, except that the impulse to help those in need had already taken root. He's quoted in our article as saying 'How can you spend your life counting birds in the forest when you have Sarajevo next door?'"

Of course, Panek did not go back to counting birds. Instead, he helped set up the People in Need foundation, a group that in little over a decade has become one of the Czech Republic's leading charities and has helped people in what Kiechel called "an ever-expanding list of 'next doors.'"

People in Need was the first international agency to bring convoys of aid to the Chechen capital Grozny after the city fell to Russian forces in 2000.

Throughout the 1990s, People in Need's drivers brought convoys of food aid -- often under dangerous conditions -- to hot spots in the Balkans, like Kosovo, Bosnia, and Croatia.

There have been other aid missions to Somalia and Colombia, as well. And the agency currently has projects in Afghanistan ranging from food distribution to school reconstruction.

Panek's group helps people closer to home, too. It provided relief and raised money for victims of last year's devastating floods. And it is active in supporting a section of the population that is used to prejudice and discrimination: the country's Roma, or gypsies.

It's not just humanitarian aid that Panek's group gives, either: It supports human rights and press freedom in countries with repressive governments, like Belarus and Cuba.

RFE/RL caught up with Panek before the award ceremony. He said he's driven to fight "idiocy," something he says is at the root of many of the problems his group tackles. "The war in the Balkans or in Chechnya, that's just idiocy. [Belarusian President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka, [Cuban leader Fidel] Castro: They represent idiocy in their own way, because they persecute their own people and are destroying their countries. The ghettoization of Roma, [and] the biased, racist attitude of many Czechs, the police, and some authorities toward Roma is just idiotic, because it doesn't solve the problem. It makes it worse, and makes it harder to find a solution," Panek said.

His group's biggest operation to date has been in Chechnya. "In Grozny, almost any amount of [help] is not enough, because it's a [former] city of half a million people [that is now] in ruins, destroyed by two wars. There are 100,000 people living there, a fifth of the population that was living there 10 years ago. How can you measure [how much we've been able to help]? The biggest operation we've done is in Chechnya with the UN: $8.5 million in three years, which is a lot of money, but it really is not enough," Panek said.

Panek said he'll use the 10,000-euro ($10,800) prize money to set up a fund for Nepalese widows and orphans whose husbands and fathers have been killed in fighting between guerrillas and government forces.

He said he hopes the prize will help boost the profile of People in Need. "We are a well-known and strong nongovernmental organization in the Czech Republic, but in European and world terms we're a dwarf. So any advertisement for us is very important," Panek said.

Panek was active in the student movement that helped bring down communism in 1989. Shortly after that he ran for a seat in parliament but then turned it down, saying he had gotten too full of himself. And a couple of years ago he signed the "Thank you, now leave" appeal by some of the 1989 students for the country's political leaders to stand down.

Some may consider the 30-something Panek exactly the sort of man to freshen the tired Czech political scene.

But Panek said he is not considering a political career. For now, People in Need has his full attention, though, he added, "never say never."