THE VALLEY of Death battle field attracts collectors and profiteers looking for war relics.
The so-called Valley of Death area leading from Svidník up to Dukla pass on the Slovak Polish border is one of the country's best known second world war memorial sites. Nearly 100,000 Soviet, Czechoslovak and German soldiers died there in a two-month-long battle at Dukla in autumn 1944 as part of the Soviets' offensive against Adolf Hitler's troops.
The vast majority of the bodies were exhumed and given proper burials in war cemeteries shortly after the war. In recent years, however, grave robbers have become interested in the war memorabilia left behind in the old graves. The relics, including soldiers' identification tags and helmets, are sold to local collectors or to Western memorabilia dealers.
In their search for the items, the looters - who come mainly from Poland and the Czech Republic according to Jozef Rodák, head of the Eastern Slovak Military Museum in Svidník which manages the site - often uncover lone unmarked graves, or field graves as they are known, scattered around the valley.
He said the situation has become so serious that action must be taken.
"The whole Valley of Death is dug through. [The diggers] are searching for weapons, soldiers' identification tags - anything that has a swastika sign or an eagle on it," said Rodák.
A law on the protection of war graves, approved in July of this year, does not sanction grave robbers, instead concentrating on assigning responsibility for the maintenance of the graves. The Interior Ministry, however, agrees that the vandalism cannot be left unpunished.
Jozef Neuschl from the Interior Ministry's public administration section said that his ministry was aware of the situation and has taken preliminary steps to prevent the looting.
"This is not a new thing for us. Although we still don't know the extent of this problem, about four or five months ago we told all local municipalities to be on the alert and to work with the police to prevent these acts," said Neuschl.
"We think that financial sanctions should be introduced at least. Obviously we don't want to cut their hands off but this is a dishonour that no nation that cares about its culture can allow to continue to happen," Neuschl said.
According to those who fought in the liberation battles, these acts are "shameful" and must be punished and condemned.
Ján Jurcišin, 78, who joined the Czechoslovak troops shortly after the Dukla battle, told The Slovak Spectator: "It's horrible, worrying and sad that there are people like this who have no respect at all for those who sacrificed their lives in the battle."
"Those were difficult fights. We fought day and night. It was painful and terrifying," said Jurcišin.
"How do you think it felt seeing so many young men dying all around you and blood and dead bodies lying on the white snow? Every time I am asked to talk about this I can't because even now, decades after the war, it makes me cry," Jurcišin said.
Peter Sitak, secretary of a local branch of a war veterans group called the Association of Anti-Fascist Soldiers in Svidník, said: "We are disgusted by the fact that there are people who smash up and rob from such places. These soldiers fought, shed their blood and lost lives for the freedom of the country."
He also added that a different group of vandals was stealing heavy metal parts from combat equipment exhibited in the site's open-air museum and later selling the pieces as scrap metal to recycling centres.
"Not only are there people who rob graves but there are also those who take any metal parts they can find and sell them on to recycling centres for a handful of cash. If they could, they would even steal the tanks from [the Valley of Death] and sell them on," he said.
Ján Tomko, head of the Society for the Maintenance of German War Graves in Slovakia and director of Sapex, a company licensed to exhume German war graves, said that, according to his information, the looters come in greater numbers in certain seasons, mainly in the spring and summer.
Although he believes that an even greater problem with looters exists in some areas of the former Soviet Union, "where the biggest battles took place in the war," he admits that it can often be difficult for authorities to stop such vandalism.
"It is often difficult to act because when somebody goes to a forest you don't know whether he's going for a walk, to pick mushrooms [a popular Slovak pastime] or to raid war graves," Tomko said.
Rodák said that in the Valley of Death, looters concentrated on German mementos, as they were particularly desirable to Western collectors. While collectors in Slovakia would pay up to Sk2,500 ($60) for an ID tag, for example, in the Western market the price could be twice as high.
The Slovak daily Pravda recently quoted Slovak war memorabilia collector Ľuboš Tupý as saying that some of the looters saw the activity as an adventure rather than an act of disrespect.
"I know some of them; they are after the experience of the discovery itself, the excitement that comes with uncovering the past," Tupý told the daily adding that he did not approve of such views.
He also said he thought many of the items left in the valley were too damaged to be sold at lucrative prices.
"After so many years up to 90 per cent of these [memorabilia] are damaged and no one can [make any money out of them]," he said.
Whether the looting is a pastime for thrill seekers or a profitable business, opponents to the activity all agree that further action is needed.
While insisting that the state authorities must take the first step by introducing sanctions for grave robbers, Tomko of Sapex said he also thought locals should be educated to help prevent the looting.
"We have to educate locals in these areas. Many times these [looters] come to a village and ask the locals for directions. Instead of sending them away or telling the authorities, the locals go with them into the forests and show them where the main battle sites are," he said.