Relive and Experience: Bearing Witness in Finland

Text by Kees Hagenaar
Translated from Dutch by Mikko Ijäs
Pictures by Stan Weyns

I knew nothing about the Finnish civil war, which lasted from 27 January to 15 May in 1918. I only heard about it when I took part in the street retreat in Helsinki, Finland in September 2017. We also visited monuments that commemorate the victims of the wars in the 20th century. These war memorials represent the event, commemorate the victims, and contribute to maintaining the consciousness that freedom is not self-evident.

We held talks and held rituals at the war memorials. One of the Finnish participants, Mikko Ijäs, organizer of the street retreat, had immersed himself in the forgotten history of this Nordic country. During the street retreat, his story was supplemented by memories of the other Finnish participants. All Finns were connected with this history. Not that it was a daily subject for them, on the contrary, they were more like family secrets.

Photo: The Fellman Field concentration camp memorial in Lahti

Civil War

The Finnish civil war had two opposing parties: the working class socialist Finns (the Red Guard) and the established conservative Finns (the White Guard). The strength of the army was between 80,000 – 90,000 troops on each side. The Reds received some support from the Russian military while the Whites received support from the German Empire. The losses were considerable. About 37,000 Finns were involved, including several thousand foreign soldiers. (Source: Wikipedia).

Photo: Ferry leaving Helsinki for Suomenilla fortres island

White or Red

Peacemakers Finland organized this Bearing Witness Retreat for the first time in July 2018, 100 years after the civil war. Belgian Zen teacher Frank De Waele Roshi from Ghent and a Finnish lutheran priest Maika Vuori from Helsinki acted as the Spiritual Holders of the retreat. The group was relatively intimate: seven participants from Finland, Frank Roshi, my Belgian Zen brother Stan Weyns and myself. Our involvement came from the special friendship that had arisen during the street retreat one year before. It was my first Bearing Witness Retreat. I had already started to process the effects of these short-lived but violent events in Finland’s history during the Street Retreat, but it wasn’t before this retreat when the influences on the next generations became clear to me. There were two sides and it doesn’t really matter, which side of the conflict you belonged, both groups were inflicted with severe traumatic damage. Especially the prisoners of the prison camps suffered from torture, starvation, dehydration and diseases.

Photo: Prison camp memorial in Suomenlinna


In preparation for the retreat I had read information available online. It gave me an idea of the numbers and opposing sides. But what do you know? The careful introduction occurred when we went to visit concentration camps and memorial monuments such as Suomenlinna, an island right off the coast of Helsinki, where even women and children were interned and Dragsvik, a vast concentration camp with a memorial site, with names of victims of this civil war. We sat there by the memorial reading the names of the deceased before a small ceremony.

In Lahti we listened to a guide who took us by the Russian made barracks, where thousands of men, women and children lived under miserable conditions. I experienced it as alienating, because the barracks have been transformed into apartment buildings. Would I be able to live in such a place where intense horrors have occurred?


And then there is Tammisaari, a still functioning garrison originally built for 4,000 soldiers. In the most violent and active period in 1918 there were more than 10,000 prisoners, plus the military personnel. The food consisted of rock hard bread, soup, salted fish and sea water. Imagine fully packed sleeping areas and insufficient sanitary facilities, along with hot summer conditions followed by heavy winter which is much more intense than here in the Netherlands.

Photo: Military dining hall in Tammisaari

“Send Me a Parcel”

Artist Johanna Hammarberg, one of the participants and members of Peacemakers Finland, had made a sound installation for the memory year with the title “Lost Letter”. It consists of fourteen fictional letters from fathers, interned in these prison camps, for their families. Johanna’s grandfather had showed her a letter from his past on one of these camps, when she was a teenager. He wanted to leave this letter to her after his death. After he died Johanna asked her grandmother for the letter, but the letter had disappeared. I experienced the artwork as a way of completing the Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemakers as they are expressed by the Zen Master Bernie Glassman. The civil war took place long before Johanna was born. Johanna has tried to re-live in the situation of hunger, boredom, guilt, anticipation for a parcel in the hope that some food or a piece of clothing would come, and for a letter from home.

The first Tenet brings us form preconceived ideas and habitual behavior into the realm of Not Knowing and into an open awareness. She describes how the fathers of the civil war relate to the situation. Johanna brings the letters alive through the voice of a Finnish actor Juha Valkeapää, who reads the letters in English, while we sat silent in an empty hall of the former Russian chapel of the concentration camp in Tammisaari. I was struck by an immense sadness. I felt how Johanna had acquired insights of the emotions of these prisoners, most of whom had not done anything, besides been captured for interrogation. For me this reminded me of the second Tenet of the Zen Peacemakers: Bearing Witness. The desire for contact, the urge to express the emotions to their families back home. Through the historical research a memory was brought alive and it has the power to invite the current generation of the Finns to acknowledge this painful history. For me, Johanna has made this artwork in the spirit of the third Tenet: Taking Action that arises from Not-Knowing and Bearing Witness, and contributed to the wellbeing of the future generations.

Photo: Some of the 3,500 names of the victims buried in the massgrave outside of Dragsvik Garrison in Tammisaari.

Perpetrators We are aware of the sad history of the concentration camps in Europe. It has been one hundred years since the camps were operational in Finland. In the more recent past, there were similar camps in former Yugoslavia. As part of the Bearing Witness Retreat in Finland we were also presented with a rare opportunity to engage in a conversation with a former Bosnian prison camp guard Esad Landzo. After being convicted by the International Criminal Court in Hague, he did his sentece in a Finnish prison. After he got out he remained in Helsinki. He had no reason to go back. He shared about his role as a camp guard: committing murders, oppressing prisoners, obeying the rules of his superiors. He also shared how he ultimately acknowledged the horrific actions, and how he has dealt with the remorse. He told about the influence of his American attorney who saw the goodness in him. She saw a human being, and this acknowledgement stimulated him into self-reflection and ultimately into psychotherapy. I was really impressed with his story as the suffering perpetrator. I noticed how I was able to listen to his testimony with an open heart. I saw and heard how he had learned how to be honest, and aware of his actions, and how he had radically taken responsibility of his own past. Based on my own feeling, I asked him, ”Are you able to forgive yourself, while maintaining responsibility? Is reconciliation with your own past even possible?” Personally, I would grant him that, but his answer was clear: “No.” His goal here right now was to live a happy life with his wife, who was also a Bosnian Muslim, who loved him unconditionally with her kids.

Photo: Retreat participants visiting the Temppeliaukio Church

Family secret

Every family has its secrets. This also applies to my family. They presented themselves on the last day during the Council Circle. It is a secret that I have paid attention to before during my psychotherapy. And while listening to the others speaking from their heart, my pain came out. I was completely surprised by it. It came out completely unexpected. Essential things that have touched you deeply can present themselves again. Even if you have worked on them in the past. Adulthood develops throughout your life. Because of that development there are moments when personal pain can reappear. I see it as an invitation to relive such an experience. To relive and experience such an experience has its own time. I was in the midst of it during that day. And ultimately, the inner pain disappeared.

My friend Mikko Ijäs from the Peacemakers Finland later made the following remark: ”Kees, your personal process and experience has its own theme during a retreat. It presents itself next to the theme of the retreat.” And this is true on my case. With warm memories I think back to this Bearing Witness Retreat in Finland

Photo: Stan Weyns from Belgium with Kees Hagenaar from the Neatherlands


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