'I heard Vaclav Havel speaking on New Year's Day'

PASSPORT: URSULA OWEN
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The Independent Travel
Ursula Owen's current passport dates back to her days with Virago Press, the feminist publishing house she helped found in 1973.

A stamp for Czechoslovakia dated 22 December, 1989, reminds her of a trip she made with the Guardian journalist Bill Webb with whom she was living. They visited Prague where Bill was reporting the death throes of the Communist government. The police had beaten up a group of drama students and Ursula remembers wandering along the streets where the students had fled, and seeing in every shop front an array of candles and flowers and, sometimes, still blood on the windows. Bill and Ursula spent New Year in Wenceslaus Square and Ursula says: "I've never been so excited in my life. Vaclav Havel came and spoke and everybody was offering each other drinks and hugging - it didn't matter whether we knew each other or not."

Ursula, who left Virago to become cultural policy advisor for the Labour Party up to the 1992 election, joined Index in 1993. Her passport shows that in 1994 she did a great deal of travelling for the magazine. She visited Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa to winkle out writers and find ways of working with newspapers and organisations about issues of free expression.

"I suppose the place that most gripped me, because it was just after the elections, was South Africa," she says. Although she has never met Nelson Mandela, she is proud that when he was shown a copy of Index by the Channel 4 newsreader Jon Snow, Mr Mandela said: "Tell Index to keep an eye on us." Says Ursula, "We relaunched the magazine just around the time the elections were on and Mandela said, 'The magazine has changed format,' - so he must have read it in prison."

Now in its 25th year, the magazine has also taken Ursula to Russia and Bosnia. In 1994 she travelled across Bosnia to a conference in Tusla. "There were nine bus loads of journalists and academics from all over Yugoslavia, Britain and America. I was in a bus with people like Michael Ignatieff and Julie Christie. The roads were still mined, so we all had to pee in the middle of the road." Her most enduring memory, though, is of destruction. She says: "We went past Mostar and the roofs on the Muslim side were missing - every single one smashed as if someone had gone to it specially with a hammer. It made a deep impression on me."

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