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The Drowners: Exiles still meeting to remember past lives

On the damp green banks of Liptov Lake August 5, with cauldrons of goulash and flasks of spirits, against a chilly breeze and grey skies, the living dead gathered.
The group was doomed to life without a true home when, in April 1975, four kilometres west of central Slovakia's Liptovský Mikuláš, the flow of the river Váh was halted by the newly-built Liptov dam, flooding a 22 square-kilometre plain comprising 12 villages and over 900 homes, each picked bare and levelled in advance.
The dispossessed residents scattered across Slovakia (many resettled in the Liptov region, some went as far as Bratislava and Košice) and took on the monikers utopenci (the drowners) and zatopenci (the flooded), names which have stuck to this day.


Where sites such as the Ráztoky Manor House (inset) used to stand, Liptovská Mara today is a rec centre.
photo: TASR (inset courtesy Kvetoslava Daneková)

On the damp green banks of Liptov Lake August 5, with cauldrons of goulash and flasks of spirits, against a chilly breeze and grey skies, the living dead gathered.

The group was doomed to life without a true home when, in April 1975, four kilometres west of central Slovakia's Liptovský Mikuláš, the flow of the river Váh was halted by the newly-built Liptov dam, flooding a 22 square-kilometre plain comprising 12 villages and over 900 homes, each picked bare and levelled in advance.

The dispossessed residents scattered across Slovakia (many resettled in the Liptov region, some went as far as Bratislava and Košice) and took on the monikers utopenci (the drowners) and zatopenci (the flooded), names which have stuck to this day.

"It wasn't bad enough we lost our homes and land," said Kvetoslava Daneková, 75, from the now underwater village Ráztoky. "They had to give us that awful nickname."

But every year, on the first Sunday of August, Daneková and scores of other Ráztoky 'drowners' return to the north-east corner of Liptovská mara (Liptov Lake), to a bank overlooking what was once a meadow in their village, but which is now 36 metres under water.

They read a poem, make a speech, eat, drink, kick around old times, observe a moment of silence for their deceased village, and for one day out of 365 come close to a reprieve of their government-imposed exile.


Displaced former Ráztoky inhabitants at a reunion in 1987; the group meets every year.
photo: Courtesy Kvetoslava Daneková

"We feel easy and good here when all of us are together," said 73 year-old Gustav Plávka, gazing with old friends at ghosts in the waves. "We feel at home."

During the first year the lake existed, Plávka said he came to that bank every Sunday, as if mourning a dead relative. "Here were our lives," he said. "Here we had friends. No matter where we went from then on we were strangers."

Nearby, a huddle of senior citizens with bowls of goulash looked into the lake and reconstructed the layout of Ráztoky, once 56 homes, three streets and 250 people. A sprawling ranch was nearest today's shore, they agree; a train station somewhere below a white buoy in the middle distance; a manor house and courtyard perhaps just under a stranger's sailboat. One woman swears she used to climb a tree now half-submerged and pick its plums in the fall.

The price of power


Despite their dispossession, 'the drowners' have remained upbeat.
photo: Courtesy Vlado Škuta

When the Czechoslovak government decided to dam the Váh to generate hydroelectric power following World War II, the inhabitants of Ráztoky and 11 other villages were given 30 years to move out. But plans to build a new village for the displaced were abandoned, and in the end, home-owners were given only 40 haliers (now worth between one and two cents in U.S. currency) per square metre - barely enough, say the living drowned, to cover the costs of laying foundations for similar-sized homes elsewhere.

Some families held out until 1973, when it was made clear that their homes would soon be destroyed, with or without their compliance. One man lived in the dirt basement of his removed home until the first water trickled down in 1975.

"It was hardest for the older people. They didn't know where to go," said Plávka. "They wanted my mother and I to move into a concrete apartment building, but she refused. She moved around several times before she died."

"When my parents came to live with us in Liptovský Mikulaš they were embarrassed to come during the day because they didn't want their new neighbours to see them crying," said Danková. "We had to bring them over during the night."

Established in 1979, the meeting of the Ráztoky drowners is believed to be the longest-running of several reunions of citizens from the 12 flooded Liptov villages. Attendees said that what keeps them coming is a taste of the communal and cultural life that perished with the village.

"Ráztoky was like one big family," said Štefan Danek, age 75. "That's what I miss most, the sense of closeness and support, going from house to house in the evening on visits, knowing anyone would help you any time."

"Ráztoky and the surrounding villages had an active culture," added Daneková. "We used to stage plays, for example, five or six a year, all the Slovak classics - The Old Man in Love, Women's Law, and so on."

Sitting on the shore once a year, remembering old times, the Ráztoky drowners have remained by and large a festive bunch. They rebuilt their lives elsewhere, had children and grandchildren, worked and retired. But for all their joys and successes, waves of homesickness still wash through their conversation like the water that moves and breaks over their birthplace.

"You know, I've lived 10 minutes from this lake for over 20 years and I hardly ever come here," said Daneková. "It still makes me sad to see it."

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