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Slovaks flock to ‘condolence room’ to express unity, sympathy with US victims

Hundreds of Slovaks of all ages, from school children to pensioners, lined up today at the Foreign Ministry to sign a book expressing their condolences for Tuesday’s terrorist attacks in the US.

“They’ve been trickling in since yesterday, when we opened the centre at noon, but today a lot more people have come, mostly ordinary Slovaks,” said US embassy chargé d’affaires Gregory Orr.

A sombre and respectful mood reigned among those in the queue.

“It’s an unbelievable tragedy, and has brought us all closer together – Slovaks, Americans, people all over the world,” said Radovan Grohoľ, 35, CEO of the Slovak branch of the Mayer/McCann – Erickson advertising agency. “I feel it’s like an attack on the entire democratic world, on all of us,” added Grohoľ’s partner, Dan Jurkovič, 40.

A young man wearing a knapsack, after signing the condolence book, stood up and saluted the American flag hanging behind the signing table. When asked why he had done so, the man – student Peter Kuric, 23 – said he had attended a scout course in Louisville, Kentucky for the last two years, and had grown accustomed to saluting the US national emblem.

“Basically, I’m a scout, and that’s what we do,” he said. “We’re here to show our deepest sympathies for the American people. I have a lot of friends there.”

His companion, student Ivana Bielíková, 19, said she too had attended a scout course in Los Angeles last year. “We’ve already placed candles in front of the US embassy [in Bratislava],” she reported.

Both young people expressed concern that events in the US might lead to isolationism, to postponement of the Nato alliance’s next expansion round, planned for next year. Slovakia, left out of the 1999 Nato enlargement, hopes to join in 2002. “We belong there. The whole world belongs together more now than ever before,” Bielíková said.

At the local Bakchus wine cellar, patrons were also talking of the terrorist attacks at lunchtime today. Anton Šmotlák, 47, a project manager with the Doprastav construction firm, sat at the bar over a glass of white wine, talking quietly to a nearby customer.

“My heart is still breaking,” he said, reaching for a handshake and apologising for the sweat on his palms. “It’s just terrible. I can’t stop thinking about it.”

Asked what he though of today’s statement by Anna Malíková, leader of the far-right opposition Slovak National Party (SNS), that the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania were “the concrete result of US foreign policy in the last decade,” Šmotlák said “they’re an extremist party, and I couldn’t care less what they say. I think it’s more important that the other opposition party, the HZDS [Movement for a Democratic Slovakia of former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar] has expressed sympathy and support for the US. They have 30% in the polls, and what they say counts much more than what a bunch of fanatics say."

The SNS consistenly attracts from 8 to 10% voter support in opinion polls.

"I know that 95% of people in my company are totally shocked by what happened,” said Šmotlák.

Further downtown, at the 17’s restaurant on Hviezdoslavovo Square opposite the US embassy, bartender Michal, 25, said he felt sympathies among Slovaks were more evenly divided between those who were shocked and “those who feel the States were asking for it, they are always interfering in other countries’ affairs.

“But of course, people only think that about the US government. No one in their right mind is celebrating the fact that so many people died.”

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