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Last Updated: Monday, 17 November, 2003, 14:15 GMT
Grim reminder of Estonia's Soviet past

By Jim Fish
BBC world affairs correspondent in Vorumaa, southern Estonia

After more than a decade of independence from the Soviet Union, Estonians are still learning about their troubled history - including the extraordinary tale of the so-called Forest Brothers.

The brothers were soldiers who resisted the Soviet Occupation in 1944 and survived in the forests for years after the end of World War II.

Sixty winters ago the young Alfred Karmann fled into the forests of southern Estonia to escape the advancing Red Army.

Like all Estonians, he had tasted life under both under the Soviets from 1940, and under Nazi Germany from the following year.

Alfred Karmann
Alfred Karmann spent eight winters in hiding underground
When the Russians returned, Mr Karmann found himself on the losing side, together with small bands of Estonian guerrillas, who came to be known as known as "Forest Brothers".

"We felt we had no other choice," he says. "Being still alive, with weapons in our hands, we decided we would stand on Estonian soil - we would not give up."

He makes no apologies for choosing to fight with the Nazis against the Soviet army. "The difference between them was that the Germans enslaved us and took our land. But the Russians destroyed the Estonian nation. They opposed - and still oppose - Estonian independence."

Underground existence

Mr Karmann became a fugitive, moving from one forest hideout to another. Once he was tracked and shot by a Russian soldier. He escaped, badly wounded, with a bullet in his left arm. His life was probably saved by some Latvian Forest Brothers who brought a trainee nurse to amputate his arm.

From then on he was mostly on his own. He spent eight winters underground, single-handedly excavating secret bunkers which he lined with timber and heated with a makeshift heating stove against the bitter cold.

In summer, with no snow to leave tell-tale tracks, he snatched furtive visits to his family.

We knew all too well what was going on in the Russian prison camps. Hunger, cold and terror. You could be shot dead without even going to court
Alfred Karmann
Asked what motivated him to endure such hardships, Mr Karmann responds with one word: "Terror".

"We knew all too well what was going on in the Russian prison camps," he says: "Hunger, cold and terror. You could be shot dead without even going to court."

But Mr Karmann was eventually captured by the KGB, tortured and sentenced to 25 years hard labour.

Into exile

"They caught me by getting someone to spike my drink with drugs. Then they tied me by a rope around my hand and dragged me through the forest for a week to get me to show them all my hiding places. But when I was brought to court, I was sentenced alone, I betrayed none of my comrades."

Even after spending 13 years in Siberian camps, Mr Karmann's ordeal was not over. He was prevented from returning home and forced to spend another dozen years in exile in Latvia.

He was finally permitted to return home in 1981, where he found his wartime fiancee, Klena, still waiting for him - 37 years after he first took to the forest as an outlaw.

Meelis Mottus's farm
The bunkers have been preserved for school trips
They had 11 years together before her death. Now a spry 82-year-old, and having endured so much, Mr Karmann warns that man has a continuing capacity for evil.

"Two thousand years after Christ died on the cross, mankind has learned nothing. But surrendering to evil does nothing for its victims. One should fight against evil, and not put one's head on the executioner's block."

Meelis Mottus' father and uncle were Forest Brothers. He has spent many hours with Mr Karmann, and it was Mr Mottus who persuaded the veteran survivor to tell his story.

Mr Karmann is now a figure of some awe for parties of schoolchildren who visit Mr Mottus's farm at Vorumaa, near the border with Latvia. Mr Mottus has preserved and restored some of the underground bunkers used by the Forest Brothers. He wants to tell their story - even though his own pain is clear.

"Men like my father, my uncle and Alfred Karmann," says Mr Mottus, "were not bandits or criminals. They are part of our history, of why Estonians fought for independence. That knowledge should be passed on to our children."

In the twilight of his stolen years, Alfred Karmann is becoming a modest symbol of his country's own survival.

The BBC's Jim Fish
"Sixty winters ago, a young Alfred Karmann fled into the forests of southern Estonia"

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