They shared food, cigarettes and despair. They spread salve on each other's wounds and told stories to keep faint hope alive. They were prisoners in the same Czechoslovakian cell and confederates in the same anti-communist cause.

So this month at Dulles Airport, the two middle-aged men were more than a little surprised, even after 31 years, to scan the terminal full of faces without recognizing one another.

"It never occurred to me that I wouldn't know Jan," said John Hvasta, convicted by the Czech government as an American spy, who now heads a political research company in Oakton.

"I was looking at everyone who was looking for someone," said Jan Bela, a Czech citizen who went to prison for anti-communist activities when he was 17, escaped a year later and is now a millionaire land developer in Australia.

Earlier this month, the two former cellmates toured Washington's monuments together, ate lunch with a U.S. senator and celebrated the contrasts, most of them anyway, between the now and the used-to-be.

"Our faces and figures have changed so much," said the 52-year-old Hvasta, who had thicker hair and a thinner waist when he and Bela last met. "But both of us have sort of made it."

John Hvasta's story has been told before, as a Cold War epic. In 1954 when he returned to the United States after three years in prison and two years of hiding in the Czech countryside, the Saturday Evening Post bannered his first-person account across the top of three consecutive issues under the headline:


Hvasta was a 21-year-old student at the University of Bratislava in 1949 when he was sentenced to three years in prison for "espionage." The ex-GI, who was working as a part-time translator for the American embassy in Prague, insisted he was innocent of the charges that he photographed Czech military installations for the United States. His arrest, he says, was an attempt to discredit the vice consul in Bratislava who, at the time, was Claiborne Pell.

"I was a rather active vice consul and the communists disliked me intensely," says Pell, currently the senior senator from Rhode Island. "They claimed I was trying to set up an espionage network, which was not true."

Despite protests from the U.S. State Department incluidng direct intervention by Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Hvasta's sentence was actually increased to 10 years by the newly installed communist government.

"I was with my girlfriend when they came to get me," remembers Hvasta, a native of Czechoslovakia who had become an American citizen by the time he returned to his homeland to study. "They said I would be back in half an hour. It was a communist-type half hour -- it lasted five years, three months and 17 days."

Bela was 17, the son of a flour miller from a small Czech village, when he was sentenced to eight years for anti-government activities. Bela does not deny the accusations. As a high school student, he joined a Catholic organization that distributed pamphlets opposing the "Godless" communist state.

"It (communism) is a rotten system which keeps imprisoned your very soul," says Bela, who escaped once from a local jail before being sent to Prague. There he shared captivity with Hvasta for three months.

Both Hvasta and Bela eventually escaped imprisonment. Bela was spirited away from a uranium mine, where he was sent to do hard labor, by civilian miners sympathetic to his plight. He crossed into West Germany in a late night sprint against a back-drop of machine gun fire and barking bloodhounds.

Hvasta's escape was equally dramatic. After 3 1/2 years in prison, he and five other inmates tunneled their way out of Leopoldov, the Alcatraz of eastern Europe.

Hvasta spent 21 months in hiding, a period he is still hesitant to speak of for fear the villagers who helped him, or their relatives, might be discovered and punished.

Eventually he made his way back to Prague, walked up to the American embassy and plunged past a uniformed policeman. After four months of global publicity, the Czech government allowed Hvasta to return to the United States.

Since then Hvasta has worked on Capitol Hill a dozen years, for four different congressmen, as a researcher and administrative assistant. He has a wife, four children and a passion to "free Slovakia" that he channels through an international political organization known as the Slovak World Congress.

Bela, who is also a member of the congress, remains fiercely loyal to the concept of Slovakian independence. Both men speak of oppression with a practiced intensity. This month they spoke of each other with easy affection.

"What we shared together" said Bela, "is something you cannot forget in a lifetime."