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As Europe Widens, a Town Remains Divided Between Slovakia, Ukraine - 2003-05-16

Voters in Slovakia are expected to approve EU membership in a referendum Friday and Saturday. But in neighboring countries like Ukraine, some people are concerned that EU enlargement might lead to new divisions in Europe. Stefan Bos visited the divided Ukranian border village of Solonci, where local people are concerned that the fence dividing their town now may never come down.

People are often shouting in the Ukrainian village of Solonci. It is the only easy way to communicate among residents, including some brothers and sisters, who live on opposite sides of the same street. They have been separated by the barbed wire of the Ukrainian-Slovak border for nearly 60 years.

A post-World War II treaty drew the border down the middle of their village. From one day to the next, part of Solonci was given to what is now Slovakia, and the other to Ukraine. On the Slovak side, the town is called Velke Slemence.

To cross the street, people must travel about 50 kilometers. The trip, and the travel documents are too expensive for many of the impoverished townsfolk.

And with most Slovaks expected to vote in favor of European Union membership, people like 73-year-old Erzsebet Veres fear their dream of a re-united Solonci will never be fulfilled.

Ms. Veres still recalls the day that her life took a dramatic turn. She says it was her sister's wedding day in October 1945. She was 16 years old. Ms. Veres says everything was fine until her friends and family members tried to return to what is now the Slovak side of the village. Soldiers stopped them. After long negotiations they were finally allowed to go home. But Ms. Veres says, she never saw them again.

Now the estimated 1,100 people in the divided town live in two different worlds.

On the Slovak side, shops are increasingly filled with Western products. Across the border in Ukraine people lack even basic items. The Ukrainian village is not even marked on many maps. Mail sent from the Slovak side is often returned with the simple message, "Address Unknown."

On the Ukrainian side, elderly women are making jam, one of the products they are otherwise not able to buy. Some days they postpone the jam-making and walk to the border fence to try to listen to a funeral service on the other side.

The people of Solonci have missed many funerals of loved ones across the fence. They built a wooden cross near the border so they have a place to go lay flowers and mourn.

Seventy-year-old Stefan Ignac lays flowers there almost every day. "I could never bury my family members," says Mr. Ignac. He missed the funerals of his grandmother and aunt, who died on the Slovak side, and he regrets that he was not even able to bring flowers to their graves.

Mr. Ignac says he feels like a man in East Berlin under Communism, before the wall came down.

Many residents believe Solonci is a symbol of a division between East and West in Europe, a division they believe will only increase when the EU takes in Slovakia and nine other countries next year.

EU diplomats say their "European House" has still "many rooms." But elderly residents of Ukrainian Solonci doubt they will live to see the day their country joins the EU, and the border fence in their town disappears.