Thousands of volunteers are standing silent vigil next to the graves of Finnish war veterans today, as the country marks 100 years of independence.
The event has been organised as part of the ‘Suomi100’ commemorations, and stand in contrast to tens of thousands of more festive events that have marked the centenary year.
As many as eight thousand men and women will stand next to the grave of a war veteran who died during the Winter War of 1939/1940; the Continuation War of 1941-1944; or the Lapland War of 1944/1945. The volunteers will be paired where possible with fallen veterans of the same age, in local graveyards throughout the country.
“It’s extremely powerful, when you think that the average age of war dead is 25” says Tiina-Kaisa Laakso-Liukkonen, part of the Suomi100 organising committee in the Finnish Prime Minister’s Office.
“We were somehow surprised [at the response], even though we thought this is the way to engage young people to the history of our independence. I thought this is a way of telling our history, and telling why the veterans had such a significant role in our independence celebration throughout the years” says Laakso-Liukkonen.
Although these silent vigils have been held for several years in the city of Tampere, it was one of more than five thousand suggestions received by the centenary organising committee, to find a way to expand the silent vigil to other parts of the country.
“When you think that these young people, already their parent’s grandparents have been taking part in the war, and this is one way to give people the possibility to take part in something they might remember. You always remember if you have been part of some moment, rather than just having a party” she adds.
In the southern Finnish town of Lahti, Joona Sipi will take his place next to the grave of a fallen soldier today, and stand in silent remembrance for half an hour before a service at his local church.
“My grandparents were so young during the war times that they have only some faded memories from their childhood, but not much. So I am standing by the grave of someone who I am not related to” says the 30-year-old special education teacher.
Sipi posted about volunteering on Independence Day to his Facebook page, and it encouraged two friends to also say they will be part of the silent vigil memorial.
“I think it will be a very memorable thing for me, and a beautiful moment standing there in silence” he says.
In Lahti, here is one main cemetery for local war veterans. During times of conflict, Finland brought its war dead back from the front lines to bury them in local church yards, so there are some 95,000 war graves in more than 600 cemeteries dotted around the country.
The Suomi100 organising committee knew they couldn’t hope to have silent vigils at every grave, so at first they concentrated on finding volunteers for half a dozen key locations. That effort ballooned when thousands of mostly young people, men and women, came forward to say they wanted to participate in the memorials. Today, there will be silent vigils at 40 graveyards.
In the city of Tampere, 26-year-old student Annakaisa will participate in the memorial events, standing by the grave of a war veteran. She preferred not to give her last name.
“I don’t have a specific reason why the honour guard feels so important, but the very moment I heard about it, I knew I wanted to go” she tells News Now Finland.
“To me this honour guard is an important reminder of Finland’s history, and the fact that the wars weren’t so long ago. Standing next to the grave of someone who is the same age as me, respecting his memory, makes me think” she says.
Finnish women served during the wars, mostly in an auxiliary role as part of the ‘Lotta Svärd paramilitary organisation, in hospitals and doing social work. Some Lottas also fought in combat roles, manning anti-aircraft battery positions in the later stages of fighting.
The Finnish military, and their war time sacrifice, are playing a significant part in the independence commemorations.
In Helsinki, the country’s first national monument to the Winter War was unveiled at the end of November. The ten metre high polished steel statue is illuminated from within, and a display of photographs tells the history of the 105 day conflict.
Also in Helsinki, one hundred military conscripts will take part in a wreath-laying ceremony attended by Finnish President Sauli Niinistö.
“We will put an honor guard to Hietaniemi cemetery” says Lt Col Rainer Kuosmanen, Deputy Commander of the Guard Jaeger Regiment.
“The guard will be exactly 100 soldiers, our conscripts from Guard Jaeger Regiment, the infantry unit in Helsinki, one for each of the year of independence. The soldiers will be located so that they’ll surround the area where war veterans are buried. Soldiers will be dressed to winter camouflage, and the timing will be matched with the presidential wreath laying” Kuosmanen explains.
The Guard Jaeger Regiment will also supply several hundred sets of winter camouflage uniforms for the silent vigil volunteers participating in Helsinki.
The Finnish military’s main focus on Independence Day is a parade in the central city of Kuopio.
More than a thousand military personnel, vehicles and planes will take part in a church service and wreath-laying ceremony; parade and troop review; and a fly-over.