Finland

Mountains of snow were piled all over Tallinn and trucks were beginning to haul it away. Our violent little interlude was over and all was becoming normal again. Mette raced off in the morning to meet a future volunteer as we packed up the Bus. Our old friend Kevin Bryant had arrived last night form the UK after cancelled flights due to the storm. We had worked with Kevin in Ireland during those negotiations and it was great to have him back with us now.

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Kevin was ex British military and a deminer. He was blown up by a landmine while working in Lebanon in 2002 and lost his left leg. This gives him the unique position to speak as an expert in many relevant fields. After 24 years in the British army he knows a lot about that. As a Royal Engineer he knows a lot about bomb disposal and demining. As a man who has been blown apart by a landmine he knows how hard it is to get over those problems too.

The interesting problem about getting Kevin into the Ban Bus is simply where do we put him? We are packed from floor to ceiling already so freeing up another seat and getting an extra bag in is no mean feat. Davor must have been good at jigsaw puzzles as a kid for he utilises every square inch in the van to squeeze Kevin and his bag in. We really are as tight as a drum now but luckily we only have to drive on and off a ferry then to a Helsinki hotel.

These Baltic countries are real maritime ports and we weave through the choice of ferry companies and find the one we are to load onto. ‘Ban Cluster Bombs’ is emblazoned around the bus in many languages and all we stop before look at us quizzically.

The ferry is one of those huge drive on, drive off affairs and we fit in amongst trucks and cars in the cavernous hull. As we head to the upper decks the pungent smell of vomit burns our nostrils as we enter the stairwell. Many a Fin hops on this for a quick way to get cheap booze and the results after an ocean crossing can be messy. Puffy red faced people are walking on with cases of booze, happy to be beating Finland’s more inflated prices. The lines are thrown and we turn for the three hour trip across the Gulf of Finland to Helsinki. As it’s a mid week trip, the ugly boozed up patrons are not too bad but by the time we arrive there are a few with an alcoholic wobble staggering about the ship.

Back in the ships hull its like the starting line of Le Mans. All are behind their wheels ready to drive off the ship, a huge sign says in many languages ‘Do not start you engine till instructed due to fumes’. Most pay no attention to this and the hull is rapidly filling with poisonous carbon monoxide. The bow finally lifts and we are on our way.

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I have friends in Helsinki and Mette and me will stay with them instead of a hotel. This will save some money and be great to re connect with some good people. Our campaign friends have booked Daniel, Davor and Kevin into a hostel near the docks.

Viivu meets us as soon as we leave the ship and we sort out who is going where. The boys head off in the Ban Bus and we go with Viivu. Viivu spent many years living in Australia and married another friend of mine, Dom. After so long in Australia they decided to spend the next few years in Helsinki so packed up their three kids and moved over. The night was spent talking over the cluster bomb problem then the phone rang. The place that the boys have headed to is a dump. Very noisy with communal shower halls and after so long on the road no one is happy about staying there. There is no chance of changing tonight but we get busy on finding them another hotel for the next two nights.

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We all met at the main railway station for the 9.30 am press conference and launch of the Landmine Monitor. The room was set and Daniel and Kevin arrived. They both looked a bit rough as they had had a bad night’s lack of sleep. The journalists and NGOs arrived and we launched into the issue of landmines and cluster bombs. Lots of information flowed out and the journalist from the main news network really got interested in the subject. She wrote and asked good questions and began to understand the depth of the issue and why it was relevant to them.

Finland has been a rogue state on both issues and have so far stayed outside of the Landmine Treaty. Although being still outside, they have recently made the statement that they will sign the treaty in 2012. This is welcome news but they are replacing their landmine stocks with cluster bombs.

Finland has a unique national psyche. They continually look back to World War 2 and the fighting against the Russians in the Winter War. This was a battle of fighting to the last man and a scorched earth policy. Every Finnish male must do military service and their army is largely conscript and militia. In case of war, the whole country will mobilise and fight. Within the Finnish defence model they will fight to the last man and destroy their country as they withdraw. This is a total scorched earth policy. The original plan would have had them plant landmines everywhere to hopefully slow any Russian advance. In terms of modern warfare this would achieve nothing as landmines do not provide any form of viable defence. Every army in the world can breach a minefield. It’s the returning refugees who are blown up by them after the conflict is over.

The really silly part of this strategy is that if this is actually how they plan to defend themselves then they actually do not have any form of national defence. Mette told me of a man she knew in Afghanistan. When rockets were being fired into Kabul when she worked there, the man told his children to hide from them under the table. They felt safer there although the man knew if a rocket hit, they would all be dead. All this did was give them false hope but it did stop the children crying. This seems to be the same in Finland. They create a defence based around a system that will not protect them. It will just give them false hope.

When I was here six of so years ago, I had this same conversations with politicians, defence and foreign affairs. Privately, a General said he knew mines were no good as a defence but needed money from the government to renew the military. Till they got a budget to do this, they would keep the landmines. The budget was finally approved and they bought cluster bombs. The type they bought were the same as the M-85s that failed in Lebanon in 2006. These with their failed self destruct mechanism will create the same catastrophe as all the others.

The Finnish defence model has now changed and they will fire masses of cluster bombs into any invading army instead of using landmines. This will destroy Finland. Since the fighting in Georgia, many countries that have shared borders with Russia have become very nervous. I don’t think that they see cluster bombs as an equaliser but they have all taken a very paranoid stance in general.

Georgia fired masses of clusters on the advancing Russians then turned tail and ran like hell. Their use of clusters did not slow the advance one metre but did create the nightmare that Georgians now have to live with. The message is not that they should be undefended but that they should have weapons systems that actually will engage their enemies in a manner that will destroy them and not create a nightmare for Finns on Finnish soil after the war is over. These systems actually do exist in a variety of ways but it would take a rethink by defence to adopt them.

Once the press conference was finished we headed to the hostel and got everyone checked out. Viivu was finding a new hotel that would be better. We headed to the ‘Peace Station’ where the NGOs work from and consolidated what we needed to do before our next event which was to be a public action in the city. It was to be a lay down action which was not that much of a wonderful thought in snow that was rapidly turning into slush.

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The sun was setting as we drove onto the pavement where the action would take place. The afternoon was miserable with rain mixing the snow into a consistency of a muddy slurpee. A dozen or so hard core activists braved the conditions anyway to make a statement. Smiles did come to our faces though when members of the media turned up. A big or small crowd can be made to look impressive, it’s all in the way you frame the shot. I took the media to an overhanging balcony and everyone spread out on a large sheet of plastic. The shots were made, some interviews given and we had made another irritation into the government of Finland’s position.

Only a few more days to go till the Ban Bus would be over but the next morning had us in parliament giving a brief to interested MPs and aids. A variety of people attended but the best was Bent Olin from Defence. After we had finished the talk he stayed to discuss the issue. He didn’t shy away from the hard issues and we had a very solid discussion. Nothing new came out of it except his happy confession of how Finland planned to defend themselves.

Yes cluster bombs would now be the corner stone of their defence. They would fire masses of them onto any advancing Russian army. The strategy was to never surrender and fight to the last man and last sovereign corner of Finnish soil. When asked would they use them in Helsinki, his answer was “of course”. They would be used where ever the Russians came.

What would be left of a country after such fighting? The simple answer would be not much.

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Who would then be responsible for clearing up the country, if there still was a country? Would it be defence? It would not be defence and anyway, that would be the problem of another department was his reply.

How would this be paid for as you wouldn’t have a functional economy after such a war and strategy? He had no answer but eluded to the international community.

There is no way the international community would clean up Finland if they willingly destroyed their own nation with a weapon system that most of the world had banned. International aid? Not likely!

Then there was the issue of military effectiveness of cluster bombs being used on Finnish soil. Finland is a cold country of dense forests and lakes with very soft soil that is under snow for much of the year. Much of their economy is based on the timber and paper industries. Dropping cluster bombs in Finnish forests will guarantee they are unusable, permanently. Clusters would be hung up in trees and working as a forester would be come a life threatening occupation. Then there are the ones that hit the ground and are imbedded into the soft soil. This will make the same danger as every other country with a sub surface cluster bomb problem.

The really stupid part of this being a defence strategy was if they would use them onto snow. If you did fire cluster bombs into snow fields you could guarantee an almost 100% failure rate. They would just dig in and stay dangerous till spring. This gets really interesting when their main argument for fear of Russia is the Winter War from the 1940’s. As the name says, Winter War. This was fought in the snow and if this is their model then they actually have no defence. They will just fail to destroy any enemy and create a dangerous legacy.

When this was pointed out to him he said they would never use cluster bombs in winter. If this is the case, then they are unprotected for much of the year and their big national nightmare of the Winter War could come true again! This means Finland only has a self destruction strategy, not a defence. Bomb the whole country including Helsinki, into forests and soft earth but don’t use it in the snow. Why do I feel that more Finns should find this distressing?

There are weapons and strategy options that are easily better. One is point target weapons to hit any armoured advance, another is to look into new systems like kinetic munitions for soft targets. A combination of systems would be able to address the different scenarios they are concerned with. Another strategy that could work very well for Finland is to surrender. I don’t mean this in a facetious way but when you have a small force up against a big one then surrender from a formal way of fighting can be turned to an advantage as you preserve your fighting force then embark on a prolonged guerrilla strategy. This can be maintained for years and did break the Russians in Afghanistan and many other conflicts have been played out with the same strategy.

Our last meeting in the parliament was with the Green Party and they were the only ones on the side of a ban. We did a briefing for them and tried to raise their ability to wage a more concrete battle with those in government who we opposed to a ban.

When we were packing up I was acutely aware how tired I was. The next day had us on the ferry to Stockholm and our final run to Oslo.

Viivu cooked up a feast for us all and another old Finnish friend came over and the night was a pressure release for all. Good wine, great food and lively conversation awakens the senses and this is what surrounded the table in abundance. Dom has a great brain and enjoys the mental gymnastics of solid debate and was getting his teeth into the issue. I hope that Viivu and he might get more involved in the future as they would both be fearsome lobbyists.

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We found the ferry the following day and had the very last tickets to get ourselves across the sea to Sweden. Queues of cars and trucks waited at the docks to load and a party atmosphere was all around. It was Friday night and many were heading to Stockholm for a big and wild weekend.

Once the Ban Bus was secured in the hold we found our cabin. The ferry is an over night boat and you can’t ride without a bed. Daniel, Kevin, Mette and me were sharing one cabin while Davor had another. The cabin was minuet and an internal one with a fake porthole painted on the wall with a Mediterranean scene on it. This is not the place to spend along time in so we dumped our bags we went for a look around. The bars had been open awhile now and many were half way hammered already. This was going to be another very ‘special’ ferry crossing I was sure.

The place became weirder and weirder with many a ‘Bucks’ or ‘Hens’ party wandering by. They have a pension for dressing up here so a real menagerie was on parade. There was a guy dressed as a ‘pink rabbit’ with ‘school girl’ who looked like she could suck a tennis ball down a garden pipe, the ‘Village People’ trotted by with their pet ‘Gorilla’ while ‘Elvis’ and the ‘Pirate got drunker and drunker.

Every spare spot was invaded by one gambling machine or another with a casino down the hall with roulette and poker played there. Herds of young kids rampaged the decks till they found a bank of poker machines and settled in to lose their pocket money. They displayed all the mannerisms of addicted gamblers by cheering when they won and punching and kicking the machines when they didn’t. The ship staff couldn’t care one bit and walked on by with imbecilic smiles. This was going to be quite a night.

The cabin was starting to look like a good option till our 8.30 pm dinner time. Mette and me snuck off for a nap. Davor met the other guy who was to share his cabin and he was going to be one of these wasted drunks. Always the tactician, he offered the guy an extra 10 euro if he would drink all night and not come back to the cabin. The guy happily accepted and was never seen again.

The booze continued to be drained by the punters when we walked into the restaurant. A feeding frenzy at the trough was well under way. The crew have no idea of passenger service either and are about as disinterested and rude as they could possibly be. We ate and left. I am not one to go to bed at 9.30 but tonight I was happy to make an exception. The rest of the guys kicked on for awhile and more tales of fun on the high seas came back to the cabin. There was the guy who poured the beer over his mate at the roulette table. A few face plants on the floor and finally they too headed for bed when they walked into the disco and Daniel yelled out, “Play some Abba” and immediately Dancing Queen struck up. At that, they had met their Waterloo and ran away.

The decision to go to bed early had paid off as that was to be the only sleep for the night. Once Daniel and Kevin arrived we entered round one of World Championship snoring. They both got the vocal chain saws started up and sawed through the night. I think Daniel was winning as he was getting it from both Kevin and Mette. They were both reaching up and dragging his bedding off to shut him up. That would only work for a second then he would be chugging away again.

Kevin had had enough and got dressed and went for a smoke. As soon as he shut the door he realised he had neither his smokes or the key. Being a gentleman he didn’t knock and wake us but went and watched the pond life in a further state of inebriation. He should have knocked as who could sleep with the Daniel symphony at full crescendo. A pounding came up the hall with some drunk trying to find his girlfriend who was probably equally as drunk and trotted off with someone else.

“Bente, Bente!” came banging up the hall on all the doors then disappeared into another corridor.

I could just see the headlines now, “Pissed school girl found in compromising position with pink rabbit and pirate. Elvis goes ballistic!”

As the sun began to rise we stood out on deck and watch the ship weave its way through the many islands that are the coast of Sweden. This is a magnificent sight and if ever I am back I’ll be doing this crossing during the day, mid week, without 2000 drunks I hope. The Ban Bus was loaded for the last major time as we drove off the ferry. A gauntlet of police were lined up with breath testing equipment getting every driver to blow for alcohol. Go right, you are safe, left is straight to jail.

One thought on “Finland”

  1. Hi guys! I’m really sorry that you had to do this sociological excursion into Finnish culture. Unfortunately all ships are pretty much like that on Fridays. That is the most important reason for me to fly to Stockholm.

    I hope it all went well anyway, are you already happily in your own homes?

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