A Report from a Seventeen-day Pilgrimage in Sweden, Bearing Witness to the Effects of the Arms Industry on Communities, Veterans, Refugees and Caregivers.
By Pake Hall, ZPO Member
(Top photo by Lennart Kjörling. All other photos by Pake Hall)
SWEDEN. During the summer of 2015, forty individuals undertook a pilgrimage from Gothenburg harbor to the industrial district of Bofors in Karlskoga, to bear witness to how war and arms exports are present right here in the midst of the idyllic Swedish summer. It was an interfaith group and people joined and left at different points along the way. So why did we do it? How can walking along open Swedish roads, listening to stories and meditating have importance in connection with this subject?
In spring of 2014, I became ensnared in the net of endless discussions around refugees and Swedish arms exports on Facebook. That spring, the rise of the extreme right wing Sweden Democrats party and a new arms deal between Sweden and Saudi Arabia were the reason that these issues were being so hotly debated. The discussions soon became more like polarized monologs and in my opinion led lead nowhere. One thing that struck me was that many of those who were very critical of allowing refugees to come in to Sweden often wrote things like:” They are not real war refugees” and ”Those who really need to flee are not coming here. Those who come are just luxury refugees.” For my part, I was just as convinced that they were truly refugees and that they were fleeing from inhumane conditions and terrible suffering. The discussions became very strongly polarized, with people just talking past one another and separation grew with each exchange.
When I looked at what others wrote and at my replies, it struck me that I had very little direct experience of war and of refugees in Sweden. In many ways, I live in an insulated world where I mostly just heard stories that reinforced my worldview. How would it be to actually listen to a Swedish soldier who had been in combat? Or to people that actually work in the Swedish arms trade? To refugees? To people working in the refugee camps… I felt a strong impulse to take the time to dwell on questions around war, the proximity of war and how the Swedish arms export business affects me and the world I live in.
My first idea was to walk by myself from the harbor of Gothenburg, which is Sweden’s largest export harbor, to Bofors in Karlskoga, which over the years has become symbolic of Sweden’s arms export industry. During the journey I planned to meet with people who in various ways have experienced war and arms exports, so I could listen to their stories with as open a mind as possible, and see what grew out of that. My inspiration for doing this came for the most part from the experience of participating in the Zen Peacemakers Auschwitz-Birkenau Bearing Witness Retreat in in November 2013. But I was also inspired by the accounts of Zen monk Claude AnShin Thomas of his experiences during Peace Pilgrimages he made all over the world, which I read in his book called At Hell’s Gate: A Soldier’s Journey from War to Peace. My idea was to try and ground this pilgrimage in the Three Tenets which the Zen Peacemakers Order uses in its work of uniting meditation practice and social engagement: not-knowing, bearing witness and taking action that arises from not-knowing and bearing witness.
There was soon a group of us planning this walk in September 2014. I really wanted it to be an interfaith walk with different perspectives and soon there were four of us: Rebecka Arman and me (from Gothenburg Zen Center), Annika Spalde (a deacon in the Swedish Church, as well as a peace activist and writer) and Olle Sahlström (from the Allhelgona congregation of the Swedish Church, experienced with pilgrimages and a writer) who together drafted the outline of the walk itself. Unfortunately we did not get Muslims or Jews to join us in the preparation for the walk – or to join during as representatives for any congregation.
From Gothenburg to Bofors in Karlskoga in Seventeen days
The evening before the walk officially started, the Masthuggs church held (and broadcast) a ”Pilgrims’ mass” for us, and we gave readings from Christian and Buddhist texts relevant to our walk. We had also invited a South African researcher who worked on Swedish Arms Trade as a research field. He told us among other things that Sweden has one of the highest ratios of arms trade per capita in the world. But also in total numbers, this little country that tries to profile itself as a country of peace ranks very high on the global arms trade market..
In the morning we went to the very busy port of Skandia in Gothenburg to meet up with the Port Four Trade Union, which historically has been regarded as one of the most militant unions. Some of its members take care of Swedish arms shipments as they are leaving the country. We all expected there to be a very stiff atmosphere and perhaps a defensive tone when we went there to listen to their thoughts around the question of loading weapons for shipment to other countries. To our surprise, the atmosphere relaxed after the first five minutes and we had a very open, vulnerable and warm meeting with the chair and vice-chair of the union. They spoke about the invisibility of goods in today’s world and how the unions have been forced into a defensive position, fighting to retain existing rights, in contrast to earlier times when they could fight for solidarity and for betterment for themselves and others.
On the first day, we were guided by Marie, who hosted pilgrimages for the Swedish Church. We learned the principals of the Swedish Church pilgrimages: Freedom ; Simplicity; Silence ; Carefree mind ; Slowness ; Spirituality & Sharing.
We ended the first day at the Hjällbo church, where Gothenburg Zen Center had for the past two years been organizing interfaith weekend retreats. We met its priest Lisa Westberg. The evening ended with a meditation in the church and with sharing the impressions of the day.
The following day we were getting to the outskirts of Gothenburg, we were joined on the path by a priest called Henrik Frykberg and as we were making our way up a hill, he shared his story besides a little creek out in the woods about how he and others back in the eighties had engaged in non-violent protests against the export of canons made in Bofors. Then we continued, one step at a time, one breath at a time, towards the Bofors industrial district in Karlskoga.
The group changed during the walk. Sometimes as many as fifteen people walked with us, another time six. In total forty people walked some part of the way. When I planned the meetings and the walk itself, I imagined that it would be difficult to listen to some kinds of stories. Difficult because they would not be in accordance with my own opinions and thoughts, difficult because they might hit me like a punch in the stomach, but also rewarding and transformational. I thought that new seeds might sprout in the groups who got to hear the stories of others. The idea that it might be deeply transforming to be able to tell one’s own story, to be listened to without reservation, had not really occurred to me during the planning stage.
In another church we met with the highest officer of the Nordic Macedonian Mission in 1998 and listened to him recount how he had left the army and was working to help Swedish soldiers who had been in combat (he calculated that there were about 100,000 Swedes who had seen active duty with the United Nations), many of whom suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), but who are not getting the care and help they need. In the middle of his very professional presentation, he suddenly started telling us about how once a vehicle had come from the Serbian side of the UN compound, a panel van with no windows. And how the soldiers surrounded the vehicle, weapons ready as he moved to open the back door. When he opened it, he saw that the van was packed with small children, wrapped in blankets. Children whose parents had chosen to send them into the arms of unknown soldiers, because keeping the children with them was an even worse choice. As he told this, he broke down, his throat constricted and tears flowed. He said: ”Even today when I see a small child, that van, those children and the choice their parents were forced to make are the only thing I can think about.”
He thanked us for listening and invited us to try and influence politicians and other relevant decision-makers to give the neglected war veterans in Sweden the support they need to cope with their suffering.
A few days later we meet a priest who was a staunch pacifist up until the war in Bosnia. But one day he heard about Tuzla, Srebrenica and other massacres on a current affairs program, he called the army and enlisted as a chaplain. Currently he is an advocate of the idea that ”sometimes we need to create the conditions for peace-building with weapons and the threat of violence.” To listen to his story was deeply troubling for some of the participants who had a strong pacifist beliefs.
By chance one day, in the middle of the Västgötska woods, we met a friendly old lady who wanted to show us a medieval roadway (the medieval equivalent of a motorway) in the woods. We went with her in spite of the fact that it was a bit of a detour and we were tired out by the summer heat. As we stood there, a man came walking through the forest holding a clearing saw. He had a child in tow. It turned out that he had done four tours of duty with the UN in Bosnia and Afghanistan. Now he was working as a refugee coordinator with the Essunga municipality. We had a long talk about experiences of war, the Swedish army, PTSD, racism, small Swedish communities and how war is present in our everyday lives. As we were about to part, the old soldier said, based on his experiences: ”The Swedish army should be disbanded and the money should be used for something that would actually do some good.” And both he and the old woman talked about how the presence of war in their little village – through the refugees that had arrived and stories like the old soldier’s – needed to be heard. The old lady laughingly told of how afraid she had been before the Afghan children had arrived, but now worked hard to convince other locals that they were sweet and in need of help. “Racism is rampant among the local population”, she said, but added, “but how can we continue to say they are any different when we meet them and talk to them?”
Many of our group had strong views about Bert Karlsson, who is very famous in Sweden for starting a populist right wing party in the 1990’s and now making a lot of money out of the refugee situation, and about for-profit entities running refugee facilities in Sweden. We visited Stora Ekhaga, one of Bert Karlsson’s big refugee facilities. It was run-down and looked really depressing. We spoke to some of the people living there and with the person in charge of the facility. Although in many respects the place seemed to leave a lot to be desired, we were all struck by how many activities were organized for the residents. One of the pilgrims who volunteers at a charity-run refugee facility in Stockholm, where the underlying philosophy is philanthropic, noted that, though the accommodation in Stockholm was better, here the refugees were being given a chance to live and to take care of themselves. Here they could get involved in growing things, in acquiring skills and they could make their own food and so forth. In the philanthropically run facility in Stockholm, they were not allowed to use the kitchen and no activities were organized. Many were sitting there in total passivity. Once more, I thought, the world is perhaps not so black-and-white.
Syrian refugees in Mariestad
One of the most moving meetings during the walk was in Mariestad. A group of refugees from Syria came to the church to talk with us. Many members of the local congregation also turned up to participate. A lot of us felt a bit nervous before the meeting about whether in telling us their stories, the refugees might come to feel in some way exploited or treated as objects of prurient interest. We started and two men came forward and shared their stories about life in Syria during the war.
The atmosphere was electric and there were tears in people’s eyes as the refugees spoke of the changes the war had wrought in their lives. How suddenly there were youths selling weapons in the streets and how loved ones were dying around them. How reason slowly disappeared from everyday life and polarization increased with the logic of war and violence. One of the men spoke of how he tried to protect his children from the daily nightmare of dead bodies in the street. What do you say to a four-year-old who asks you if the man with his face in the gravel is sleeping? They also told how upsetting they found the oversimplified news reporting in the west, where war is usually portrayed as good versus evil. A Kurdish man whose teenage cousin had been shot by the PKK for refusing to fight with them said: ”The Assad regime bombs, the PKK shoots, ISIS burns. Their victims are equally dead.”
Something that really struck me was the absence of any talk of vengeance. They had lost their homes and families and been forced to leave wives and children in refugee camps on the way to Sweden, but said with one voice: ”The only winners in war are those who sell weapons. Everyone else loses. We just want peace.”
Our concern to be perceived as voyeurs turned out to be unfounded. They told us at the end: ”When we came to Sweden it was like arriving in paradise. We had beds, food, roof over our heads and no need to fear the police. We were filled with the desire to give something back to this fantastic country. But we have not been allowed to. Instead, we have to sit and wait. And wait. We are not locked up, but here we are in a big house in the middle of nowhere, with no money and no possibility to leave since we don’t know anyone. No one wants to listen to our stories, what we have been through. It is a kind of slow death. The fact that you want to hear what we have to say has given us life again. If you ever plan another pilgrimage, let us know so we can come too.”
And after the meeting they did start to have contact with the local priest and her congregation, meeting at language cafés and that sort of thing. From one conversation and from listening, new seeds sprang up straight away.
Ceremonies at the Gates of Bofors
After many miles on foot, we finally arrived in Karlskoga. As we emerged from the forest and caught sight of the Bofors factories and of Karlskoga across Lake Möckeln, many of us needed to rest. We chose, however, to go down to the water’s edge and listen to Annika Spalde tell us stories of her non-violent and disarmament activism against Bofors. We ended up sitting in the Bofors camping grounds (where workers at the arms factories camped) and diagonally across the lake – the very location of the factories we had chosen as our destination. In the evening we met with some local people who had lived in the city of Karlskoga for twenty-five years, who spoke of how important the factories are for the city and the people living there.
The following day after breakfast, we walked in silence towards the Bofors factory district, along the barbed wire. Then we gathered outside the main gates and performed the same purification ceremony that we do for our own temple. In the end, we dedicated the place to peace. Then we listened to a couple of hymns and a reading from the verse in the Bible where it says that swords shall be beaten into plowshares. The ceremony ended with a minute’s silent meditation. The police showed up during the ceremony and watched. When we were finished we spoke to them and told them what we were doing there and shared some information about our walk. They thanked us and said: “Yes, you must understand that they get nervous easily here at the gates.”
One could ask whether we got what we were looking for. But that is not the right question, since there was no specific agenda, other than to bear witness around war and Swedish weapons exports. Some of the people we met (and some who walked with us!) on the way found this very provoking, but now in hindsight I believe that this absence of agenda was what enabled so much to come out of it. If we had had some fixed idea of what was to be gained, it would probably have led to more separation between us and those we met on the way, and also between us and the experience of walking itself.
I am very grateful that I had this opportunity to dawdle along dusty country roads beneath the blazing sun, nursing my blisters. Grateful to be able to take my zazen off the cushion and out into meetings with people I would never have met otherwise. Grateful for realizing how war is present in every little corner of this country that has ‘formally’ been ‘at peace’ for over 200 years, through veterans & refugees from war, an economy dependent on arms trade to waring countries… Grateful for the things that came out of those meetings: volunteer work with refugees on the island of Lesbos, language cafés, pilgrims writing books about the experience, renewed energy for non-violent action, pilgrimages with refugees in Stockholm and probably many other things that I have not heard about.
ZPO Member Pake Hall is the sangha leader of Göteborg Zen Center in Sweden as well as a yoga teacher. He participated in the Zen Peacemakers Auschwitz-Birkenau Bearing Witness Retreat in 2013 and 2015. See more of Pake’s work at his website www.pakehall.com.