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Stopping war from Sweden

Javier Gárate

During the month of July 2011 almost 200 antimilitarists, from different parts of the world, took part in the activities of “War Starts Here” – The war starts here in a peace camp in Lulea in the north of Sweden. The ten days of activities included the WRI council meeting, a seminar under the same title, trainings in direct non violent action, and a series of actions against NEAT, the North European Aerospace Training base.

Why Sweden?

Many will be asking themselves why one should carry out antimilitarist actions in Sweden, a country historically known for its neutrality and international solidarity. Furthermore, when I got to Lulea, one of my first visits was to the “esperanza-hope” house, run by Magdalena, one of the many Chileans who received political asylum in Sweden during Pinochet’s military dictatorship. So how come Sweden is now a country where antimilitarist actions are taking place? Sweden, although not a formal member of NATO, acts like it is one. Swedish soldiers carry out operations in Afghanistan and Libya under the NATO flag and Sweden has an active embassy in the NATO Headquarters in Brussels. In the north of Sweden, in territory historically part of Lapland, there is the NEAT base, whose size is similar to that of Belgium.

What used to be different training camps for the Swedish army is now a vast amount of land which is hired for the testing of war weapons. It is here where many of the unmanned planes, better known as drones, are tested before being used in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is also used to test the most technologically advanced combat planes. Sweden is therefore handing over a significant part of its land, which belongs to its indigenous population, to be used for the preparation of military interventions thousands of miles away. That is why we say: War Starts Here!

Ofog

Ofog is a Swedish antimilitarist network, which was created at the beginning of the last decade. Ofog members have, for several years, participated in actions outside Sweden, in particular in the actions against nuclear weapons in Faslane, Scotland, by Trident Ploughshares, and the Bomspotting actions in Belgium. Through these actions they wanted to learn about how to carry out direct nonviolent action whilst, at the same time, acting in solidarity with other European movements. It sounds strange to think that a group would first dedicate so much time to preparation before carrying out actions for themselves. Especially as one often hears about new groups carrying out all types of actions, very often without the appropriate level of training required for such actions. I am not saying that taking the initiative and simply carrying out an action is a bad idea, but it is even better if this action is supported with a level of training. Therefore, after Ofog had gained experience in participating in other actions, they then felt that they had enough training so as to be able to carry out their own actions. It was in 2004 when they did their first action in Fauske, Norway, against a radar base used by the US and NATO. It was only in 2007 when they carried out their own action and they also organised their own peace camp in Karlsloga, under the motto Disarm! This camp was focused on actions against the war industry. From 2007 Ofog has carried out annual peace camps, and the last three have been camps against NEAT. In 2008 they organised the Peace Action Forum, as part of the Malmo European Social Forum, which became an important meeting space for different European anti-militarist groups.

Ofog is a network mainly made up of young people which are based in local groups in different cities throughout Sweden. Ofog is a Swedish word which means something similar to childish mischief. It is also part of the verb to disobey, which graphically describes the spirit of this network: they really like carrying out nonviolent actions which have a very playful content. Ofog has managed to re-activate the antimilitarist movement in Sweden and that is why many people, who were from other groups in the past and who had grown disappointed by the rigidity and routine of said groups, decided to join in Ofog’s initiatives.

How do you make a campaign international?

As previously mentioned, Ofog has played a very important role in international solidarity and, from the very start, worked with several groups in Europe, carrying out antimilitarist nonviolent actions. Ofog is an active member of the European Antimilitarist network and in the past two years it has had resources available so as to be able to carry out joint actions. Ofog has focused on carrying out actions against military industry with a campaign– Avrustra –whereby, through civil disobedience actions, in this case entering weapons production plants with the (sometimes successful) intention of destroying part of its arsenal, they oppose the export of Swedish arms to countries in conflict. Participants in this action received prison sentences which were used to attract international solidarity for their cause. The work carried out against NATO is a fundamental part of the European Antimilitarist Network, which has supported several actions of a Belgian organisation, Vredesactie, carried out at the NATO headquarters. Therefore, when Ofog found out about what was happening at NEAT and its connection with NATO, it became an important focal point for their work. The group Women for Peace had been denouncing what was happing in the north of Sweden for years, and in 2004, when the parliament approved the use of NEAT by other armies in order to carry out military tests, the group Women for Peace was the first to denounce this, and this in turn attracted the attention of Ofog.

From 2009 Ofog has organised a peace camp against NEAT every summer (for the northern hemisphere). As part of the European Antimilitarist Network’s activities, it was decided that the 2011 camp would be an “international camp”. In the 2010 WRI e-council, Ofog’s application to be a member of the WRI was approved and it was decided that the council meeting would be held in Sweden and organised by Ofog and that it would be included in the peace camp activities. The fact that camp activities were part of the European Antimilitarist Network and that the WRI held their council meeting there really helped highlight the international character to the event. In the months leading up to War Starts Here, Ofog organised tours throughout Sweden, talking about what is happening in NEAT and inviting people to participate in the camp. For most of the tour, Angie Zelter, a very experienced activist with Trident Ploughshares in Britain, was present, which helped create the international link to the event.

War starts here – let’s stop it here

All the activities in Luleå were organised under this slogan. The camping took place in a campsite on the outskirts of the city, where there was the option to camp outside or to sleep in small cottages hidden amongst the Swedish pine forests. When we arrived in Luleå, what shocked me most was the fact that it never really got dark there. It seemed that the evenings never ended, and that before you knew it, time had flown as we were having fun at the antimilitarist campfire and it was already past midnight. From an organisational perspective, the most important thing to highlight is the efficiency in working with working groups. We are used to them but in Luleå they worked a dream. The first day on the camp, each group introduced themselves and we could clearly see how each group had taken on responsibility for a specific area. The work groups included: logistics, food, seminars, action, media, legal support, solidarity during the action – and I am sure that I’ve forgotten something else. It is also important to mention the mix of efficiency and good humour: it is possible to do things well without being formal and boring.

On the first days of the activities, a seminar under the same name was carried out. The seminar looked at the different ways in which wars start in specific areas, and their effects. On the first day, the event was marked by the horror of the crimes carried out the previous day in Oslo, which led to an act of remembrance for the victims in the centre of Luleå. The opening session of the seminar was full of energy, with brief speeches. Throughout the two-day seminar there were many sessions, some more informative, in nature and others giving more opportunity for participation in debates. Despite the final closing seminar session where there was a reflection group in order to feed back on the sessions, there was the feeling that more concrete proposals could have emerged from such a significant effort made.

Once the seminar was concluded all the efforts were placed into organising the nonviolent action against NEAT, which would take place two days later.

Unintentional detention

The concept of the action “war starts here – let’s end it here|”, was to paint as much as possible in pink – a colour which goes against the symbol of militarism – of the NEAT infrastructure. As the test range is so vast, it was decided that we focus the action on the area near the airport. This being a mass action, the important thing was to ensure that there was a space where everyone could participate in the action. In order to do this, some guidelines were established: for example, that the action would be entirely nonviolent. Other than the obvious points, an important element was that every person who wanted to participate in the action had to form part of an affinity group and that each person had to participate in a training session before the action. This guaranteed that everyone knew what the action consisted of and that they could count on a support group, whilst also facilitating communication and decision-making processes. When meetings needed to be held, spokesmen for each group attended, so as to ensure that not everyone had to be in each meeting.

Basically, the action was divided into two parts: The first was a on a path which goes through NEAT, where it is illegal to stop or take photos of the area but it isn’t illegal to pass through. The idea for this action was to paint the ground by doing a die-in, as we were painted in pink -- thus marking the ground in pink -- and then getting up again holding helium balloons which we then launched into the air all at once. All this was carried out in a very relaxed environment, with many varied affinity groups – for example the presence of family affinity groups, with children, which helped create the feeling of a secure environment where everyone was welcome. This part of the action was accompanied by music in order to keep up our spirits.

Once this part of the action was carried out, which ended with the launching of the balloons, each affinity group had the opportunity to decide what to do, whether to stay in the area or try to enter the airport so as to continue painting it pink. Several groups decided to continue and go forward, without necessarily trying to enter the airport as it was clear that this attempt would result in arrest, but if you continued along the path, this wouldn’t be a problem. Other groups decided to enter the airport and some had even camped there the previous night so as to increase the element of surprise. And it was precisely one of these groups that managed to get onto the airport’s landing strip and paint a big pink peace symbol.

In my affinity group – Las Crudas – we had already decided that 8 of the 14 people in the group would try to enter the airport and the rest would stay behind as support. Once the balloons were launched, we made our way so as to get as close as possible to the airport. As there were many groups were headed in the same direction we decided to quicken the pace in order to distance ourselves from one another so as to be able to enter the airport, which was protected by a 3-metre fence. By quickening our pace, we quickly approached the runway and at this point we had to take the decision as to when to climb the fence. Sometimes, when one is ambitious, one always wants to go a step further. This is what happened to us. We wanted to get as close as possible to the airport installations and, at a certain point, we couldn’t go much further and we were met by a police car. At this point, we quickly turned around and in a matter of seconds we decided to climb the fence. Therefore, after having walked for almost an hour without any police nearby, we decided to enter the airport right at the point when the police were on our tail, so we had very little time in which to act.

My objective was to take photos of the inside of the airport and then try to give to someone the camera before being detained. The moment we decided to climb the fence, I thought that perhaps I wouldn’t climb the fence as they would take the camera away from me for sure, as the police were close by. Well, the tactical decisions continued to fail, because we didn't think that the fence would be unable to support all of us trying to climb it at the same time, so we therefore decided to scatter so as to ensure that we were scaling it at different points. This made it almost impossible to climb up and only three people managed to get over and three failed when the fence collapsed on them. It was a matter of seconds before the police arrived and took people by the feet, whilst I tried to help them by trying to push them up. The three who managed to get over were also detained. Then point the police started to take all our details and we didn’t know whether all of us would be detained: only those who were over the fence or what. At this point, the police call me and Rafael Uzcategui, who was making a video, to one side and said that the two of us were detained for having filmed and taken photos of the inside of the installations, and that our fellow activists who had tried to climb the fence were free. The paradox is that Rafael, only moments before, had said that he would not climb as he wasn’t going to enter as he knew that this would mean that he would be detained immediately and he would lose the film clips. That is how the two of us were detained without actually wanting to be.

Detention, Swedish style

Once we were detained we were taken by car – without handcuffs – to a place where other people were detained. We saw how quickly those of Swedish citizenship were being freed, as they would send the fine via post, and those who weren’t were put into buses – using public transport which the police hire when they need to transport a lot of people. On the journey, we could move about freely and we could even talk on our mobile phones. I used the journey in order to take a much needed siesta after so much activity.

When we got to the police station, they quickly took our personal belongings and they put us into cells, with two to a cell. I was sharing with Rafael and we couldn’t stop thinking how funny it was that we were detained for having taken photos and filmed when we didn’t want to be detained. After a couple of hours we were called separately to be interrogated. A very friendly policeman took me to his personal office, where I could see that he was an avid runner and that he loved to fish. The interview was carried out with the help of an interpreter by phone as these were the rules, even if the policemen spoke good English. He asked me what I had done. Instead of focusing on what I had done I focused on why, explaining what NEAT was, and that not even the Swedes themselves knew about it, and what it was being used for. At that time, the police asked me whether I would be willing to pay a fine of 2500 Swedish Krona, about 250 euros, so as to be freed, without knowing whether this was an option, as it was the final decision of the Prosecutor. I told him that this was an option but that I had to know the exact sum. Afterwards, I returned to the cell and Rafael had already returned from his interrogation. Then the food arrived, the type of food which has been heated up in a microwave. Luckily I am a vegetarian and not a vegan, otherwise I would have ended up without food, as was the case for some fellow activists who had been detained. By the time “nightfall” came, from our cell we began to hear chants and shouts of support for those who were detained. That was when the same policeman who had interrogated me told me that the prosecutor had decided that we were to spend the night at the station and then they would evaluate the situation the next day. The cell had a vent with glass as can be found in bathrooms whereby you can’t look out and only light is let in, but this allowed me to hear the sound of the support demonstration. It was so encouraging to know that there were people out there supporting us. Everything was white in the cell, which had a bathroom which could only be used with the police’s permission, and only the police could use the flush. When it was time to sleep and when Rafael and I were preparing to sleep in the same bed, a policeman came over to transfer him to a cell opposite mine. The rest of the evening passed without any further incidents. In the morning I was woken up for breakfast with completely frozen yoghurt -- they keep the food deeply frozen.

In the morning there was a policewoman who interrogated me. She very kindly asked if everything was alright and asked how I was being treated and she told me that I probably didn’t know this but that my friends had been camping outside the police station in solidarity. The interrogation was once again carried out with the “help” – or rather, on this occasion, the “unhelp” – of an interpreter, so in the end, the police decided that it would be easier to communicate directly without the interpreter’s assistance. She went back to read the same declaration as the day before and she again asked me if I was willing to pay a fine. It was obvious that they wanted to get rid of me as soon as possible but not before taking my money first. Then I was faced with the dilemma; What to do? Pay and be freed or not pay and possibly have to spend two more days in the station and miss my return flight to London where we had prepared a presentation given by Rafael on Venezuela. The problem was that I had no idea of what was happening outside of the police station and that my detention was having an impact on the Latin American network. Without knowing this and thinking that I didn’t have much to gain by staying in the police station I decided that I was willing to pay the fine. However, I still had to wait for the Prosecutor’s decision.

Therefore, after my nutritious lunch, the police came back to my cell telling me that the prosecutor decided to free me if I paid a fine for 2500 Swedish Krona. I said that I couldn’t access that sum of money but that I could take 2000 with my card. I therefore left my cell in order to collect my belongings and I met Rafael who had also agreed to pay the fine. He said that he didn’t have any more than 200 dollars and a look between the policemen said, “200 dollars? Ok then.” The thing was that Rafael had his money at the camping site. That is how the police took us, in a private car, first to a cash machine and then took us both to the camping site so that Rafael could get his dollars.

Furthermore, I then asked the police to take me back to the police station as I had seen that most of my affinity group were there and I wanted to see them. So the police took me back while they asked me what I thought about northern Sweden and they invited me in the winter to make the most of the snow and, if I had the necessary clothing, carry out another action against NEAT. That is detention, Swedish style!

When I returned to the police station I met the people who were outside so as to tell them what was happening and to continue to call, from the outside, for the release of the rest of the fellow activists who decided to pay the fine and who were therefore released throughout the day. The next day, there were those who attended a hearing, but they now have to return for the trial. It was great to feel the embraces of my fellow activists from many different countries, when we had been released. Money was collected between us all, so as to collectively pay our fines.

Once we were released from the station, fewer people stayed in Luleå, and with the passing of the days more and more people returned home, after ten days of intense activity. This shows how war starts from much closer than one believes, and it shows that we can do something to stop it.