‘This is too big for a small place like this’

Locals in Czech town left stunned by mass shooting, writes Derek Scally in Uhersky Brod

Derek Scally reports from Uhersky Brod in eastern Czech Republic as the small town mourns following a shooting in a local restaurant. Video: Reuters

 

In shallow, ragged breaths, Petr Gabriel relates how a chance phone call saved his life. Exactly 24 hours previously the 33 year-old arrived for lunch as usual at the popular “Druzba” canteen in the eastern Czech town of Uhersky Brod.

He headed up the stairs to the first-floor dining hall, where the cheap and hearty lunch specials are popular with locals. He made a split-second decision to turn left to the toilet, while a man brushed past him and turned right into the restaurant.

As Petr took a call from a friend in the toilets, he heard the first shots. “I first thought it was a party or something, then I heard the glass smashing and people crying,” said Mr Gabriel, a local charity worker and church volunteer.

Only later did he realise that the man who’d arrived at the same time as him was the gunman who shot dead in quick succession seven male customers and one waitress, aged from 27 to 66. Another woman is still in a critical condition on Wednesday after being shot in the stomach.

Back in the toilet, Gabriel was fearful the gunman would remember him. He slipped into a cubicle, locked the door, called the police, and began to pray. “I had to speak quietly to the police and the shots kept coming in the background, then I prayed to Our Lady of Czestochowa that I would survive,” he said.

His wife kept him updated of developments via text messages. After two endless hours, and a final series of shots, Mr Gabriel and his wife were reunited. “I didn’t see into the restaurant but I didn’t need to,” he said.

Familiar place

Yet here they are, 200 of them, at 10am on a drizzly grey morning outside the orange building on a busy junction. Adjacent to a level crossing and down from a Lidl supermarket, the police tape flatters in the breeze as a tinny bell rings out. Heads shake and tears flow.

“This is too big for a small place like this,” whispers an elderly woman, her lined face hanging in shock. A retired woman in a mohair hat, who declines to give her name, says: “I worked with one of the dead men in the town cultural office.”

Earlier she spoke to the dead man’s sister who, knowing where her brother went for lunch, spent hours trying to reach him on his phone. The police called her at 9.30pm on Tuesday night with the bad news.

“This was perhaps the darkest day in the history of our town,” said Mayor Patrik Kuncar to the crowd after laying a wreath. Later, at a press conference, police declined to name the victims but reconstructed the known facts of the shooting, which began shortly before 1pm on Tuesday. “The gunman started firing as soon as he went in, for the people at the back there was no escape,” said police chief Jaromir Tkadlecek. “He was shooting to kill.”

After local police arrived and were shot at, they called for reinforcements. A police negotiator spoke with the gunman by phone, but when hopes of a peaceful conclusion dwindled, special forces raided the canteen.

The victims were lined up in a row heavily disfigured, according to a local media report. The gunman had hidden behind the bar with only his hand and gun visible before he reportedly shot himself. As police studied the facts of the shooting for a possible motive, the gunman’s former neighbours already have their mind made up.

Zdenek

Kovar Ten minutes’ walk from the restaurant, all is quiet on the residential street where Zdenek

Kovar (63) lived with his wife. The facade of their two-storey home is half-covered in brown tiles, has a satellite dish bolted onto the upstairs balcony and a bushy pine tree taking over the front garden.

The sixtysomething couple had been unemployed for over a decade, neighbours say. She wandered the streets and was known to verbally abuse neighbours. Another told a Czech newspaper on Wednesday that Mr Kovar had once threatened to kill him.

Out of nowhere a middle-aged man sprints up the nine steps to the front door, breaks the seal on the lock, slips inside and locks the door behind him. It is probably the couple’s adult son, Robert. He does’t answer the bell, instead lurks as a shadow behind the frosted glass. Less than 24 hours previously, the shadow through the frosted glass door was his mother’s.

After the shooting she barricaded herself in the house for seven hours, switching on and off lights but refusing to allow police in. They forced their way in just before midnight on Tuesday and brought her away to a psychiatric clinic.

“She could be nice if you were nice to her but she could be aggressive, too,” said Mrs Helena Martikonova, a neighbour since childhood. “I believe she was mentally ill, inherited from her mother. I think living alone with her may have been too much for him.”

Minutes before the shooting spree, Mr Kovar called a Czech television station and told a reporter he’d been let down by the authorities but was finally going to take things into his own hands. He urged the station to send a television crew to Uhersky Brod to film the aftermath.

A day later, the aftermath hangs heavy over an afternoon meeting of the town council. In a local cultural hall, a late-socialist extravaganza of veneer and glass globe lights, all stand for a minute’s silence. First item on the agenda: councillors unanimously back 17,000Kr (€630) financial assistance to victim’s families. Then the mayor and police chief begin squabbling. Outside a small crowd discuss the elusive motive for the shooting. One man wonders aloud why a reportedly mentally ill man was in possession of two guns.

Firearms manufacturer

CZUB is one of the world’s leading firearms companies and has 1,600 employees in its factory here. Ladislaw Krystzof is one of them, currently on leave to sit on the town council. “I don’t see a link between the shooting and CZUB,” he said after stepping out of the council meeting.

“It’s the town’s biggest employer and we’ve always been very proud of it.”

Though shootings such as this are rare in the Czech Republic, it still has some of the most liberal gun laws in the EU. With one firearm for every 14 Czech citizens, some are calling for tighter ownership rules, in particular closer checks on the doctor’s certificate required for a gun licence.

“There is a question of whether we want so many holders of gun licences in Czech society,” said interior minister Milan Chovanec in a television interview on Wednesday. Back in Uhersky Brod, as black-clad town councillors grapple with the unimaginable tragedy in their midst, Petr Gabriel looks on from the back row of the hall with the haunted gaze of a survivor.

“Talking to people about what happened is good, better than being alone with my thoughts,” he said. “And what I went through is nothing compared to what awaits the families of the dead.”