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Small Town Divided By Changes To The Czech-Slovak Border

U Sabotu, Czech Republic, Feb. 8 (RFE/RL) - Nestled among the gently rolling hills of the southern Moravian countryside is the small village of U Sabotu.

It is an unassuming little town, consisting of two streets lined with modest homes. The far end of the east-west thoroughfare is interrupted in three spots by border checkpoints into Slovakia. The north-south route winds its way toward open fields that lie at the foot of a tree-covered hillside.

For years the 120 residents of the small village went quietly about their business, unnoticed by the rest of the world. "We all got along well, were neighborly and helped each other," says a long-time resident of U Sabotu, Anna Kavicka.

"We were all like a family, here," agrees the female bartender at the closest bar in Javornik, about three kilometers west of U Sabotu.

But a family feud that has attracted the attention of international media has put the small village in the spotlight. It began with the split of Czechoslovakia. U Sabotu found itself on the negotiating table as Czech and Slovak governments drafted a new border agreement. In an effort to straighten the border out, the two governments agreed to trade two small villages. The village of Sidonie, currently on the Slovak side of the border, will be part of the Czech Republic under the agreement. In exchange, the Slovak territory will include U Sabotu.

The agreement has been two years in the making, and initially the majority of residents of U Sabotu did not mind the change. In fact, the majority approved of it in 1994.

But as years dragged on, feelings began to change. Many of the residents of U Sabotu obtained Czech citizenships, took jobs in the Czech Republic and did not like Slovak politics. Now, a deep chasm has broken the village apart.

"It's like lightening has struck and people don't like each other anymore," says Kavicka, "We are Slovaks and all the rest are Slovaks except they forgot that they are Slovaks. They went to school in Slovakia. They went to work in Slovakia, took their pension there. Their children went to work in Slovakia and they forgot that. They forgot."

Vladimir Masnica says he didn't forget. But he says that doesn't mean he wants the home he built in 1972 in southern Moravia to suddenly be located in Slovakia. "Those Slovaks in America, I don't know, did they ask that America be joined to Slovakia? This is free Europe and people here are in the Czech Republic, no? It works for everyone else, but for us it doesn't work?"

Masnica said that if the Czech government offers adequate compensation, he'll sell his property in U Sabotu and move to the Czech Republic.

"I am humble," he said when asked how much compensation he wanted. "I come from a humble family. We didn't have anything. With the help of my family we built this (large, two-storey) house. If we have to move we'd like to live at a resonable level."

That's why he said a million crowns ($37,500) compensation would not be enough. "This house for a million, I could not built anywhere now."

He made the comment before the Czech cabinet approved a 50 million crown ($1.9 million) compensation package to 38 residents of U Sabotu, who are Czech citizens with permanent dwellings in the village. The compensation package includes 1.5 million crowns for homeowners who wish to relocate. Property renters would get lower compensation. Each resident who qualifies would also be eligible for a 400,000 crown settlement (children under 18 would get 200,000 crowns).

"That's all," said Kavicka. "Nothing else." Her neighbor, standing beside Kavicka in the driveway agrees. "We don't want to be bought off with money. I'll say it like that, like Judas who sold out Christ for a little bit of money."

Kavicka said "We don't begrudge their compensation. We're not jealous...We wish them well, but just wish they would get it over with so it would belong to Slovakia."

But one resident, washing a car in his driveway, disagreed. "It's not the money," said the young man. "People who want to remain in the Czech Republic already got their citizenship a long time ago. They only started talking about money in the last month. Before that, no one talked about money."

He would not give his name, but said he would relocate to the Czech side - if he could afford it.

"We work here. My wife works on the Czech side too."

The mayor of Javornik says that's the real story. Martin Kruzica accused the Czech Cabinet of failing to understand that most people in the village are not concerned with money, but with their home and country.

"Why can't (Prime Minister) Vaclav Klaus admit, just once, that he was wrong, or that an official at the interior ministry made a mistake. It's just human and everyone would understand."

Not Kavicka. She said the mayor has sided with those who wish to remain Czechs and doesn't like the opposition in U Sabotu. "He's not interested in us, in how our kids get to school."

She said the village did not get any benefits when it was part of the Czech Republic in the district of Javornik.

"We don't have a store. We get everything from Slovakia, our electricity, post office, daycare, school..."

She said the only thing they do is pay Czech taxes on their property, which she says is a problem as well.

"We get Slovak pensions, but the taxes we have to pay, the 800 crowns we have to pay, in Czech. So, we have to pick ourselves up and exchange our money.

"He who doesn't live here doesn't know, can't understand what kind of problems we have," agreed her neighbor.

Mayor Kruzica defended his record though. He said the town helped construct a grocery store in the village, but when it was privatized it could not stay profitable and closed. The empty shell is still evident at the only intersection in the village.

He said if the Czech parliament approves the compensation package, it also has to consider the property the municipality owns in the village, including a fire station, the store and other parcels of land.

The debate and the battle is far from over - even if parliament approves the new border treaty.

About 40 of the 74 adults in the village intend to file a complaint with a high court, charging their basic human rights are being violated. It's an argument in evidence at the town hall, where the Czech-Moravian Central Union (CMUS) party posted a large sign saying "The constitution says citizens will not be forced to leave their country... but the residents of U Sabotu are."