What attracts young Poles to paramilitary organisations? As it turns out, it’s not a fear of Russia. At least, not only. Close to the Polish-Lithuanian border, in a small town called Augustów, local youths train inside a school building to become paramilitary soldiers.
It's 1:30 am when a loud boom from a firecracker breaks the silence. The sound echoes in the hallways as supervisors burst into soldiers’ rooms, switch on the lights and sound the alarm. With a mix of fatigue and shock in their eyes, the teenagers jump up from their camping mats and anxiously start buttoning their uniforms. The supervisors shout tirelessly: “Run to the arsenal!”, “Faster!”, “On the floor!”
The recruits pick up their weapons, helmets and vests and lie down on the floor. One of the supervisors announces that they will be setting off for a fartlek, not saying for how long. Barely ten minutes after the firecracker explodes, two girls and 14 boys run straight into a dark forest in two rows. Now, the only person left standing in front of the building is Piotr Augustynowicz, 38, the chief of the Polish Military Organisation (PMO).
It may seem like it, but we are not at a Polish Army field training. We’re participating in a weekend training camp organised by a paramilitary organisation that was founded by Augustynowicz himself. Instead of barracks, the camp takes place in a technical college building. And instead of professional soldiers, the team is composed of teenagers and supervisors in their twenties. Instead of weapons, participants use dummy replicas.
But not everything is simulated. The subordination and shouting are real. What is equally real is one pressing question: who would choose to spend their free time this way, and why? Especially given that it’s a beautiful hot summer weekend in Augustów, a picturesque holiday resort in northeast Poland.
NATO, scare tactics and patriotism
In 2014, when the Russian military intervention in Ukraine began, Western media were writing about the fear of Russia that made young Poles join organisations such as the PMO. The Suwałki region is a cross-border area that has long attracted media and political attention. The so-called Suwałki Gap, a 104-kilometre-long fragment of the Polish-Lithuanian border squeezed between Belarus and the Kaliningrad Oblast, is considered NATO’s weak spot and an area that is vulnerable to Russian aggression. That is why, in 2017, NATO initiated a mission in which 800 American soldiers were deployed about 70 kilometres from here.
But something beyond the hostility towards Russia pushes these young people to enrol in military boot camps. “There is no panic in this region. It’s the media and NATO that artificially spice up the atmosphere and feed the fear of Russia,” explains Augustynowicz. The lieutenant colonel is in shape. His intense tan suggests he is fond of spending time outdoors.
“We all know that this is a strategically-important region. But why scare people?” he adds. Augustynowicz hasn’t noticed an increase in participants after the war broke out in Ukraine. “Young people joining our ranks are looking for friendship or a way to kill time. Some of them escape tough working conditions in agriculture, some want to get into shape and others join us for patriotic reasons,” he says.
Augustynowicz, who teaches in a primary school in Ełk, admits that membership in paramilitary organisations is not a common hobby. “Sometimes I’m called abnormal. Normal people today organise barbecues and drink beer,” he laughs.
After graduating in history, he wanted to become a soldier, but the military commission rejected him due to his inadequate humanities diploma. Embittered, he decided to join a paramilitary organisation, many of which popped up in Poland in the 1990s. He left the rank in 2012 and created the Polish Military Organisation.
PMO’s name has been borrowed from an organisation that was active during World War I and led by Józef Piłsudski, Poland’s most important political figure at the time. Back in the day, the organisation’s aim was to prepare Poles to fight for independence. To many, resurrecting its name in modern times and taking up Piłsudski’s role may seem grotesque, but not to Augustynowicz. “Historians take our organisation with a grain of salt, but they still praise us for popularising history,” he says.
The minimum age to be part of the PMO is 13, with parental consent. The equipment is financed from the communal budget (members donate anything from 10 to 50 zlotys a month (€2 to €11) depending on the unit, but many members buy gear themselves. The PMO is present in seven cities, mainly in northeastern Poland, and has about 150 active members. A dozen or so similar paramilitary organisations exist in Poland, and the total number of members is estimated to be as high as 40,000. While PMO is smaller than most organisations, it is very active in the region.
Since 2015, the Polish Ministry of National Defense has been trying to gain control over voluntary pro-defence groups. It offers them cooperation in exchange for training and exercises in military units. So far, the PMO has not joined this programme. “It’s a good solution for bigger organisations,” Augustynowicz explains.
“I like the rigour”
In the evening of the second day at camp, Marta Jarosz, the platoon leader at PMO, is finishing her workshop on current conflicts. She has already covered the war in Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She enjoys a short break while her subordinates prepare for the roll call. Marta joined the PMO four years ago. Her boyfriend at the time was bored by scouting and wanted to join an organisation that would resemble a real army. When the couple came across PMO’s Facebook page, they got a dozen or so people who liked their idea to form a unit in Suwałki so they sent Augustynowicz an application. Suwałki has 70,000 inhabitants and is located 30 kilometres from the Lithuanian border.
“I’ve never done as many push-ups in my life than during the first training here,” 21-year-old Marta laughs. Here, push-ups are a form of punishment for scruffy appearances (an unbuttoned uniform, for example) and mistakes during drills. Throughout the entire duration of the camp in Augustów, the PMO’s drills were criticised only once: a teacher who was working a weekend shift in the building made noise complaints. “I did the military service myself, but I’ve never seen this kind of treatment,” he says, outraged.
“I like the rigour. Usually, at the age of 17, people start rebelling by drinking and smoking. I didn’t need it though, because my parents never excessively tried to control me,” says Marta. Her long blonde hair has been dyed to a lighter colour than her natural one.
These days, she is the boss of the Suwałki unit, which counts 20 members including her brother. “The organisation teaches autonomy, discipline and cooperation with other people,” she says proudly. “I feel responsible for them and get a lot of satisfaction seeing their progress,” she explains, praising her subordinates.
A father figure
On Saturday, the third day of the camp, the group sets off for a 35-kilometre march. Leaving the town, they sing military songs. Later, in the forest, they walk silently in two rows. Augustynowicz marches at the rear of the group. “We do not attract people from good or wealthy families. Many of our members come from broken homes. Their parents work abroad or need their kids to help them out on a farm,” he says. The organisation gives them a sense of belonging.
Augustynowicz describes the role of the family in this conservative region: “Today, fathers spend less and less time with their sons. Things like going fishing together are rare events.” He knows what he’s talking about, he himself spent summers helping his parents at their farm. Relations with his father were not at their best.
The PMO chief is still single. His free time is completely devoted to PMO and its members. Augustynowicz recounts a story in which one of the group members called him late at night. The boy was too drunk to go back home and Augustynowicz let him crash at his place. Another time, he lends a PMO member money to pay a fine, saving him from prison. “My biggest reward is to see them creating a life [for themselves], finding a job, starting a family. It’s really nice to chat when we see each other on the street, or when they invite me to their military sermons celebration,” he says.
PMO members love talking about history. They mention Piłsudski and the so-called ‘cursed’ soldiers – Polish partisans who refused to lay down their weapons after 1945 and continued to fight the communists – as their role models. Suwałki’s inhabitants also preserve the memory of the Augustów roundup, a tragic event in which about 600 people disappeared, presumably killed by the Soviet Army and the NKVD.
According to Augustynowicz, the history curriculum taught in schools is not interesting to young people. “We need to attract their attention to positive characters, especially to the local heroes who are numerous in this area,” he says. “It’s important to give them the sense of pride, to promote right attitudes.” But what if history gets more complicated? Augustynowicz is aware of the fact that for some historians, the ‘cursed’ soldiers were accused of crimes on minorities. However, his protegés lack this awareness.
“Suwałki is used to uniforms”
After the camp ends, on Monday, we meet Marta in the Army Recruiting Command in Suwałki. In September, she will be starting a four-month training for the real army and she came here to deliver some documents. She hopes to be assigned to the local unit because she doesn’t want to drop her logistics studies in the nearby Ełk. Her young brother, who has accompanied her today, is also itching to enrol in the army.
Marta wants to start a career as a border guard. In the command, she feels like a kid in a candy store. “Everybody knows me here,” she smiles, knocking on the following door. She comes here once a week on average to deal with her organisation’s business. The son of the officer who receives her documents is also a PMO member. “Suwałki is used to uniforms,” Marta explains.
The documents of Suwałki’s PMO unit are stored in black binders in Marta’s room, filling up half of her wardrobe. The other half is occupied by uniforms – she has seven of them. Her room is where a teenager and a soldier’s universes meet. It has yellow and violet walls. Shelves carry history books including titles such as The Girls of the Raising and The Monte Cassino Battle. The window sill is a kingdom of cosmetics and potted plants, among which lie five dummy grenades.
“Initially, I was against storing this in the apartment, but I ended up helping them,” laughs Marta’s mother, inviting us for a coffee. “The oldest of my three kids has been a professional soldier for two years. I’m proud that my kids deal so well with life. Maybe thanks to this it will be easier for them than it was for me and my husband, both manual workers,” she says.
In Suwałki, Marta is known for her active engagement and she receives positive reactions. While walking through a park, we meet members of staff of the nearby museum. One of them praises her energetically, exclaiming that “she incarnates active patriotism.” However, Marta underlines that PMO is an apolitical organisation and that she refuses to be associated with any political party. This is not an easy task if we take into account that Suwałki, like the rest of the country, is strongly divided when it comes to politics. The town has an independent mayor, but the strongest force in the town council is the currently governing Law and Justice (PiS) party. “This has reached the point where they [the conflicting groups, e.d.] organise separate celebrations for the same holidays and invite us separately. It’s irritating,” says Marta.
In spring, Marta went for a two-week trip to Berlin. Her German friends couldn’t understand her involvement in the organisation. She showed them films from camps, for instance, the one when the PMO spent a night in a forest at -20 degrees Celsius. “I felt satisfied that I have been doing something with my life, proud of my development. Berlin has everything and nothing to offer. People spend time drinking beer and wasting their lives. In Suwałki, everybody knows that at 6 am, the PMO members will be marching across the city,” she says. Certainly, this is how Suwałki has been getting used to uniforms.
This article is part of the Borderline project of Cafébabel: Eight reports made by young journalists and photographers that provide a different perspective on the youth of seven border regions of Poland, a country that celebrates the centennial of its independence this year.