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Eva Zabolai Csekeme


The Iron Curtain still Exists


On the border of Ukraine and Slovakia there is a Hungarian village that was detached from Hungary and divided in 1945. For a few months people were able to cross the border, but after that the border between the two parts of the village was hermetically closed. After the change of regime, the inhabitants of the divided village hoped that the border would be opened, but they were disappointed: the visit to a neighbour still requires a journey of 650 kilometres. The villagers decided to set up a gate, that is, two halves of a gate, in order to draw the attention of the European public opinion to this division and to the fact that, in spite of the decisions taken by the colonial powers, the people of this village belong together.


To reach Nagyszelmenc, one has to drive from Budapest to Sátoraljaújhely and cross the border there. (Sátoraljaújhely itself is a city, which is divided between Hungary and Slovakia. After World War I. the newly created Czechoslovakia wanted a part of this city because it needed its railway.) Upon entering today's Slovakia, one is surprised by the poverty of this region, still inhabited by 50.000-60.000 Hungarians.

It was the Hungarian population of this region (the Ung region), which suffered most the consequences of the repeated redrawing of the borders. For centuries, the economic and cultural centre of this region was Ungvár/Hungary (today Uzghorod/Ukraine). After World War I. the Ung region was detached from Hungary and attached to Czechoslovakia, and in addition to that, after World War II. it was divided between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. Moreover, the administrative reorganization of the territory by Czechoslovakia and later Slovakia further subdivided this region and attached it to counties with Slovak majority. This resulted in the fact that in the northern part of the Ung region the Hungarian language primary schools were closed. Now the parents are obliged to send their children to Sunday schools, held in Calvinist churches.


Keeping in touch with the relatives and friends who remained in the Kárpátalja  part of the Ung region (today Ukraine) became very difficult. Moreover, the situation of Hungarians in Kárpátalja is extremely discouraging. This is why the inhabitants of the Slovakian side of the Ung region expressed their solidarity with the people in Kárpátalja at the eve of the accession of Slovakia to the European Union, which, through the Schengen borders, will further increase the isolation of Kárpátalja. Aware of the fact that the Schengen borders will also cause difficulties elsewhere, the Hungarians of the Slovak side of the Ung region also expressed their solidarity with the demand of the Hungarians in Serbia-Montenegro to be granted Hungarian citizenship.


The Hungarians of the Ung region have no illusions about the willingness of the present Hungarian government to help them. They were let down even in their efforts to set up a Hungarian monument, showing the "Turul", the legendary national bird of Hungary. Nevertheless, the monument has been erected in front of the city hall in Nagykapos, thereby indicating their love for their homeland and their will to live. Recently, a statue of Szent István (Saint Steven, the first king of Hungary (1000-1038) was set up in the courtyard of the Calvinist church.


The site at the border in Nagyszelmenc is devastating. Next to the last house in Nagyszelmenc, there is a barrier painted with the national colours of Slovakia. Five metres after this barrier, there is a border-stone followed by a Ukrainian tracing zone and a barbed wire fence. However, the most impressive site is the watch-tower. Between the last house on the Slovak side and the first house on the Ukrainian side the distance is no more than 20 metres.


This border was established during the summer of 1945. During the harvest of that year, people were allowed to go to their fields on the other side of the border, and most of the harvest could be transported to their homes, but at the arrival of the last camions, the grain was confiscated. In 1947 the border was closed for good and no one could cross it any more. On Sundays, 50-100 people gathered on both sides of the border and families could see each other and could shout messages to each other. This was too much for the Soviet authorities. They constructed a wooden wall, which existed until the end of the eighties, and both the Soviets and the Czechoslovaks made the shouting of messages punishable. After this, the people of Nagyszelmenc and Kisszelmenc started singing messages to their families on the other side of the border, thereby keeping family ties in spite of the political cruelty. Sometimes the people of Nagyszelmec stood with their backs to the border thus giving the impression that they were shouting to somebody on their side of the fence. As neither the Soviet, nor the Czechoslovak guards understood Hungarian, they could be fooled. However, if someone was caught shouting a message over the border, such as "Happy Birthday to You", he or she received a fine amounting to 10-15% of the monthly salary.


In the summer of 1947, a grandmother on the Slovak side of the village took care of a young girl from the other side. The border was already there, but nobody expected that one day, suddenly, it would be hermetically closed. The girl thus became separated from her parents and three brothers. In her case, the Soviets closed their eyes when, on her wedding day, she came to the border to show herself to her crying family standing on the other side.


The Calvinist and Orthodox churches, as well as the graveyard remained on the side of Nagyszelmenc, the Catholic church is on the other side.


After 1989, things became easier. On "village-day" a border crossing was opened two kilometres away and on other days people could travel relatively freely, even if they had to make a big detour. However, in 1991, Ukraine became independent, followed by Slovakia in 1993. Nationalist winds started blowing again and the problem of a divided Hungarian village was discarded. Nevertheless, after this period people could cross the border 45 kilometres further away. In other words, a visit to the family in the same village necessitated a trip of 90 kilometres.


Now, as a result of the forthcoming Schengen border, an obligatory visa system has come into force. Those who live on the Slovak side are obliged to demand and pick up their visa in person in a city called Eperjes (Prešov in Slovakian). One trip to Eperjes and back means travelling 280 kilometres. The required two trips are 560 kilometres. To these have to be added the 90 kilometres required for going to the next border crossing and reaching the other side of the village. In other words, people have to travel 650 kilometres to get to the house of a relative, who lives only 500 metres away. This is a nightmare!


The development of Kisszelmenc is way behind that of Nagyszelmenc. It is considered a very poor village, even in the Kárpátalja context. As a result of its isolation hardly any aid reaches it. Most aid is directed to the Beregszász (Beregovo) region and it seems that Budapest, Kiev and even Ungvár have forgotten the existence of this village. Only a few of the inhabitants of Kisszelmenc have a job. Most of them survive thanks to their few animals and small plots, and live in great poverty. As passports are very expensive and people also have to pay for the visa, most of those who live in Kisszelmenc cannot afford to go to the other side of the village. József Illár, the Mayor of Kisszelmenc, himself has visited the other side of the village only once.


As a result of various efforts, the authorities in Slovakia and Ukraine are now aware of the problem. The people of the divided village hope that they will soon be allowed to cross the border. However, the question of cross-border contacts within a limited distance is presently being discussed by the European Union and who knows whether the so called "Europe of justice, security and peace" would take human rights issues into consideration.


Szelmenc (before it became Nagyszelmenc and Kisszelmenc) played an important role in the region. However, these times are long gone. Now the people in Nagyszelmenc are trying to develop the school of the village, in the hope that it will soon also instruct the children of Kisszelmenc. But this requires the demolishing of the iron curtain between the two parts of the village.


The setting up of the "gate of the future" intends to draw the attention of Europe to this untenable situation. For, after having created this nightmare, Europe has forgotten about its own acts. The gate, which is to symbolize both the unity and the dividedness of the people, should serve as a memento to the cruelty of political decisions by those nations, which now claim to be the champions of justice and human rights. Let us hope that this gate will awaken the conscience of decision makers and will contribute to the creation of a Europe which is truly a "Europe of justice, security and peace".




Prepared by Éva Zabolai Csekme

on the basis of an article by Csaba Zsebők,

"Magyar DEMOKRATA" 2003/39, pp. 22-24.