|AHF and Szelmenc, the Village Cut in Two: "A kettévágott falu"|
4/27/2010 - UPDATE: AHF remains concerned that authorities continue to raise barriers to divide this community... In 2004, AHF, working closely with member the Center for Hungarian American Congressional Relations (CHACR), worked to publicize the fate of villagers of Szelmenc, the "Village Cut in Two" / "A Kettévágott Falu." In 2005, a year after a successful Congressional briefing, the parties agreed to finally open a border crossing. Important historically and morally to the local Hungarian community, both sides were also optimistic regarding what a border crossing and increased traffic could mean economically. Short-term, both sides of the border experienced much needed development. But the very same Schengen guidelines used to open the border seem to have raised new barriers. The cost for the visa alone (35 Euros), exceeds monthly salaries for most in this, one of the poorest locations in Subcarpathia (Kárpátalja), making crossing the border virtually impossible. In December 2010, DunaTV issued a report entitled "Visa requirements replace barbed wire as barrier to border crossing" / "A szögesdrót helyett most a vízumkényszer választja el a szelmencieket." See the video in Hungarian [ Magyarul]
3/11/2005 - UPDATE - A Huge Victory! Szelmenc border crossing to open! - A long-awaited border crossing for the divided village of Szelmenc will soon open according to a recent decision of the Slovak government. AHF worked with its member and lead organization in the effort CHACR. CHACR was able to mobilize the American Hungarian Congressional Caucus and the Hungarian American Community to urge Slovakia and the Ukiraine to end this cold-war division.
- Successful United States Congress Briefing on Szelmenc: Congresswoman
Diane Watson calls for opening border...
The briefing was held Wednesday, April 21, 2004, 2:00 p.m. - 3:30 p.m. in the 2255 Rayburn House Office Building and was attended by Congresswoman Diane Watson (D-CA) and staffers from Congressman Lantos' (D-CA Human Rights Caucus Co-Chair) and Congressman Wolf's (R-VA, Human Rights Caucus Co-Chair) offices. The well attended event included the wife of Congressman Istook (R-OK) along with American Hungarian Federation 1st Vice President Frank Koszorus, Vice President Bryan Dawson, Director Atilla Kocsis, Zoltan Bagdy, Frank Kapitan, and Gabor Olah.
After introductions and overview by Tom Lantos staffer Rudolf Rohonyi, the panel and audience watched a short film entitled, "Szelmenc, the Divided Village" (see the videos in the top right column on this page)
"How did this division happen?" asked Congresswoman Watson. There was some disagreement as to how the Szelmenc division came to be. Counselor Scherba from the Ukrainian Embassy remarked that the division was due to the French and Americans at the Treaty of Versailles. Miklós Zelei, author, expert on the division of Szelmenc, and key figure in illuminating the injustice here, explained that was not the case. Under the Treaty of Versailles, Szelmenc in whole became part of the newly formed Czechoslovakia in 1920. The Vienna accord of 1938 granted back some of Hungary's lost territories, Szelmenc and the lower Carpathians included. In 1945, the Soviet Red Army occupied the area and tried to push it's border as far west as possible. Unfortunately for the families of Szelmenc, Stalin made that border through the middle of main street. To prevent people from seeing each other, the Soviets built a 20-foot high wood plank fence through the city, a little "Berlin Wall." Yelling across to family was a criminal offense. Today, the wood planks are no longer there, and families are "free" to continue yelling across the border to their loved ones.
The Mayors Lajos Toth (Slovak side) and Jozsef Illar (Ukrainian side) both remarked that they filed official petitions in 2001. Although "exploratory" committees were established neither side has been able to bring relief to the families of Szelmenc. The Slovak Ambassador admitted he only became aware of the problem recently due to the efforts of the Center for Hungarian American Congressional Relations (CHACR) and its President Sandor Nagy. Though "committed" to finding a resolution, Ambassador Kocak felt that with Slovak accession to the European Union on May 1st, the only type of border crossing allowed was a "full, international border crossing" that would be prohibitively expensive. AHF and CHACR disagree. CHACR President, Sandor Nagy, remarked that special "minor crossings" have precedent along the borders ofPoland/Belarus and Slovenia/Croatia. Locals can be issued resident ID's that would allow them to cross freely. Other immediate short term easements could be made to waive visa fees which can cost a month's pension and are valid for only two crossings. Counselor Scherba from the Ukrainian Embassy also called for both sides to resolve the situation and called on the European Union to accept Ukraine also as an EU member which would also serve to alleviate the Szelmenc problem.
This is a landmark event that illuminates so clearly the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles (Trianon) and the present-day humiliation Hungarians face all over their lost territories in the Carpathian Basin. AHF officials commented rhetorically that "if the two sides have not had the political will over the past 60 years to resolve this tragedy, how can anyone be confident that they have the political will now?" Frank Koszorus, AHF 1st Vice President, was appreciative of the fact that both the Ukrainian and Slovak governments sent representatives to discuss the situation in Szelmenc: "But this was a show of good faith. We are now more confident that we will be able to work with all the parties involved to bring closure to a tragic page in human history. With the continued assistance of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, CHACR, the European Union, and the Slovak and Ukrainian governments, we can deliver for the families of Szelmenc."
Speaking to a room full of reporters and a large audience, Congresswoman Watson found it difficult to believe that such a situation was allowed to continue and vowed that she and the Congressional Human Rights Caucus will continue to monitor the issue and will seek European Union support to make Szelmenc a "model" precedent and eliminate this inhuman separation of families and loved ones.
CHACR President Sandor Nagy emphasized to the Slovak and Ukrainian representatives that "CHACR and the Hungarian American Community will continue to monitor the situation and look forward to working you to bring closure to this unfortunate situation." According to CHACR, "Recent developments on Capitol Hill forecast a major victory for the Hungarian grassroots campaign to save Szelmenc. Several members of Congress signaled their agreement to sign a letter to Slovakian Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda, and Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. The letter calls on the heads of government to facilitate the opening of a border crossing in Szelmenc."
In a touching farewell and show of appreciation for Congresswoman Watson's and the Congressional Human Rights Caucus' efforts, Mayor Illar thanked the panel and presented Congresswoman Watson with a key to Szelmenc.
Hand-engraved on the beautiful item were the symbols of peace, prosperity, and freedom of travel. Congresswoman Watson told him she looks forward to using the key to cross a newly opened border. - Bryan Dawson, AHF Information Office
The Center for Hungarian American Congressional Relations (CHACR) and the AHF are fighting this injustice and relic of Stalin and the cold war...Although brother and sister have lived in the same village all their lives, Maria Ivan and her brother, Arpad, have been able to hug each other only twice in the past 53 years. As a result of a post-World War II treaty, a barbed wire fence marking borders has divided them, reported the Associated Press.
Szelmenc (called Solontsi in Ukrainian and Velke Slemence in Slovak) is found near where the Ukrainian, Slovakian and Hungarian borders meet. After WWII, the Soviets took this part along with half of the village for themselves. The other half was given to Czechslovakia. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Soviet part became part of Ukraine. The Soviets constructed the border at the end of World War II and was typical of the inner Iron Curtain of the Communist block. The border cut the villages into half and today one part of Szelmenc belongs to Ukraine and the other part to Slovakia. The border not only divides buildings and streets, it also separates people.
The most painful division
Crossing through this border fence is illegal. According to the Ukrainian Weekly, when the border fence was initially raised in the middle of Szelmenc, villagers were allowed to cross borders freely to visit family members, attend church and tend to crops. One day those rights were forbidden and strict border regulations were enforced.
Many of the people who were on the wrong side that day have never been allowed toreunite with their families. A little girl who was sick with the flu was resting at her grandmother's house on the Slovak side while her mother worked in the fields in Ukraine that day. She was never permitted to return to her parents.
The division is most painful for the families that have been forcefully separated. Even today, when people on the Slovak side send letters to the Ukrainian side, most of their letters are returned, stamped "address unknown."
"I could never bury my family members.”
The nearest boarder crossing is 30 miles away and the cost of travel documents and traveling is too expensive for most inhabitants.
Ms. Veres attended her sister’s wedding in 1945. Accordingto her, everything was fine until the family tried to return home after the wedding. While they enjoyed the wedding ceremony, Soviet soldiers set up a barbed wire fence and divided the village. After long negotiations the family members were able to return to their home but never to go back to visit their family on the other side of the fence.
Stefan Ignac: “I could never bury my family members.” His grandmother and mother lived and died on the Slovak side. Since Stefan Ignac lived on the Ukrainian side, he missed their funerals. He cannot even bring flowers to their graves.
The Silent Protest
The Ukrainian village cannot be found on the map. There is also a major difference between the two sides of this fence in terms of living conditions. While the shops in Slovakia are increasingly filled with Western products, people on the Ukrainian side lack even basic commodities. Similarly to the former wall between East and West Berlin, the fence dividing Szelmenc is a Cold War relic. Protesting their division, the inhabitants of the divided village cut a wooden Szekely gate in half, and erected the parts on each side of the border on October 28, 2003.
AHF worked with C.H.A.C.R. to resolve this crucial problem with the help of the U.S. Congress. We organized a nation wide grassroots campaign to call on members of Congress to come to the rescue. What the villagers ask for is a border crossing to end their 60-year old separation. We are working to convince members of Congress to sign onto a letter to the governments of Slovakia and Ukraine regarding this issue.
In 2005, the parties agreed to finally open a border crossing. Important historically to the local Hungarian community, both sides were optimistic regarding what a border crossing and increased traffic could mean economically. Short-term, both sides of the border experienced much needed development. Sadly, a December 2010 report by Hungary's Duna TV demonstrated that visa requirements and their associated costs (that can exceed an entire month's wages) have replaced the barbed wire once preventing villagers from meeting.
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