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Separated Families in Slovakia, Ukraine Border Village Seek US Help to Reunite - 2004-04-22

Slovakia is just days away from becoming part of the European Union, a move the government has hailed as a success. But the change could devastate hopes of re-uniting families separated 60 years ago when their village was split right on the border of present day Slovakia and Ukraine. Activists are asking for help from the U.S. Congress.

For six decades, a wall has separated family and friends of the village of Szelmenc. The 1,100 Hungarian residents were split at the end of World War II, and today they live in two different countries, Ukraine in the east, Slovakia in the west.

For years the villagers have tried to find ways to connect with their loved ones. In order to do so today, they have to spend a month's salary on visas and take a costly bus trip to the nearest crossing point, a 50 kilometer trek to get to a place that is literally across the street.

In 2001, the heads of the split villages lobbied their governments to build a border crossing allowing them to freely travel twice a week. But so far the fence still stands.

Slovakian Ambassador to the United States, Rastislav Kacer, said during a briefing in Washington Wednesday that his country's accession to the European Union could complicate the matter. "On external border of European Union, when we open any cross border point, it would have to comply with EU norms, legislation and standards," he said.

Ambassador Kacer says his government is focusing on the issue and has brought it before the bloc.

"What is particular good news today is that E-U Council has been already discussing and is very close I understand adopting new piece of E-U legislation which would facilitate this kind of minor or small cross border personal trafficking," he said.

But the president of the Center for Hungarian American Congressional Relations, Sandor Nagy, says the EU's Schengen treaty on border controls does not affect this split village.

"It's quite clear in the Schengen treaty that it only depends on the willingness of the two countries what they would like to do. So it is important to underline here that the European Union does not oppose, it does not hinge upon the decision. So, if the governments of Slovakia and Ukraine really wanted to do that they could have done it," he said.

Mr. Nagy said the fact that the Ukrainian and Slovakian governments are now formally and publicly addressing the villagers' requests is a good sign. "We hope that now that the attention of the media and Washington is turned toward this village, that finally something will come of it," he said.

Mr. Nagy's organization has asked some members of the U-S Congress to take action on the issue. California Democratic Congresswoman Diane Watson, who attended the briefing, said she and some of her colleagues could help.

"It sounds like you're almost right there. And the only problem would be the money, the resources, to put this structure together. So what we would like to do is support you in concept and maybe point up a source of funding," he said.

Ambassador Kacer says he cannot say for sure, but he believes a time frame for implementing a new border crossing is weeks or months away, not years.