"Noored Kotkad" (Young Eagles) is a boyscout-like organization financed by the Ministry of Defense via the Defense League (Kaitseliit). Their goal: Education of children and teenagers to become better citizens and to be prepared for crisis situations – like a war against Russia.
The explosion makes the boys sit up and take notice. Just seconds ago, Joosua, Karlos, Daniel and Sten were roaming through the woods. But that sudden noise pulled them back into the here and now. Here are the woods near Pürk, in Noarootsi, Lääne County. Now is on a Saturday in the middle of April. Panic is spreading. Got someone hurt?
"Davai, davai", Joosua shouts. The four boys are running in the direction where the noise came from. On their way to the suspected injured they overlooked one landmine after another. Good for them that this is just a training scenario. Otherwise, the guys from Ardu – a small village, almost halfway between Tallinn and Paide – would be either dead or seriously injured. "Yes, we panicked a bit," Joosua confessed later on, "that wasn't entirely good."
Links to national defense
Joosua, Karlos, Daniel and Sten are "Noored Kotkad" – this translates as "Young Eagles" and describes a boy-scout-like organization in Estonia. They do outdoor exercises, learn orienteering and other survival skills. But unlike other scouts in other countries, Noored Kotkad have a clear and direct link to Estonia's national defense: They are the youth organization of the paramilitary Defense League and are basically financed by the Ministry of Defense itself. Noored Kotkad describes itself not as a military organization, though, because they are not part of any chain of command – even in case of war.
But many of the youngsters taking part in the training competition wear military uniforms or carry soft air guns, which an untrained eye can hardly differentiate from real guns. And the motivation of the participants was pretty clear as well. "It is important to teach this military stuff especially to boys, since military service is mandatory for all males in Estonia. And many boys are afraid and shy away", Joosua says. Nevertheless, his initial motivation to join Noored Kotkad in January 2022 was different: "Spending time with friends, hanging out in the woods, getting all these new skills is pretty cool, I think."
First aid and tactical movement
And the boys are well prepared. They trained for this in their regular meetings. Despite falling short in terms of tactical movement towards the wounded person – a Defense League member lying on the ground who has already lost a significant amount of artificial blood – Joosua takes the lead. He asks Karlos to take out his space blanket and wrap it around the wounded, close so the warmth stays inside, but not too tight so that a layer of heat can form between the hypothermic body and the foil. Daniel and Sten apply a perforated nylon ribbon in order to stop the bleeding. Joshua talks to the wounded man to calm him down. When they finish the first aid measures, they figure out their exact position and report the coordinates to the emergency call center.
"First Aid measures where good", the instructor from the Defense League recapitulates. "These boys acted fast and precise. But they haven't secured the area. That left them vulnerable under a potential enemy attack". Josua, Karlos, Daniel and Sten receive the coordinates for the next checkpoint and hurry. They cannot waste too much time, since they have a short time slot for their next task at the next checkpoint. "Davai, davai", Joosua says to get his friends back on track.
Their journey leads them about 25 kilometers through Lääne County. They have to pass through seven checkpoints, all of them provide different tasks eg. lighting a fire with a magnesium stick, finding, differentiating and naming several military vehicles, various police-actions like riot control or arresting perpetrators, or a simple obstacle course. "Actually, we don't think too much about that military stuff," Joosua says. "For it is more an..." "Shit!" interrupts Sten and points towards an approaching vehicle. "This could be an enemy. We have to cut into the woods. Davai, davai!" And suddenly they all disappear.
The vehicle was an olive-green jeep with red and white barrier tapes. It has a black plate – signifying a military vehicle. Cars like these are patrolling all over the area in order to keep the kids away from the roads. They symbolize the enemy. But who is the enemy? "It is fictional", says Markus Seins. The guy is about two meters tall and hides his eyes behind black sunglasses. Andres Kase, another checkpoint instructor from the Ministry of Defense, mentions the elephant in the room much more directly. "You know, we have this pretty cool neighbor in the East." And Seins admits that both volunteer organizations became more popular since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
First contact with serving one's country
"The current threat of an attack by the Russian neighbor is very low in our eyes, because their troops are deployed in Ukraine", says Martin Reisner. He is the head of the Defense Resolve Department at the Ministry of Defense. "If you are a country with 1.3 million against a country on your eastern border which has demonstrated again and again its willingness, intent and readiness to be aggressive towards their smaller neighbor, you need a formidable defense", he says. "And this is the reason why we need pretty much everybody in Estonia to be willing and ready to defend the country, whether through use of arms or other measures."
Reisner is a tall guy with a low and strong voice. His job is to increase the defense readiness of the Estonian population. "This is why Noored Kotkad and Kodutütred (Home Daughters) play a key role in our society. In essence they are the first organization in which the member gets in contact with the wider sense of serving the country," Reisner says. They also get lessons in politics and history. They learn about Estonian national defense, what we are actually defending, about NATO, the European Union. Their military capabilities, what happens in conscription, what happens as a reservist," Martin Reisner says.
Estonian narrative of the "Struggle for freedom"
According to the MoD, approximately 10 percent of Estonia's youth is engaged in both organizations. In Germany, 2.65 percent of the youth are organized in various tribes of the official scout-association, whereas 14.3 percent of Germany's boys and girls signed up for a football club.
But why is it so popular? "Estonians have this narrative of – as a colleague puts it – 'the great struggle for freedom'", Karsten Brüggemann says. The fair-haired man with the thick-framed black glasses, the side parting and the chin strap beard is professor of Estonian and general history at the University of Tallinn. "Of course, this narrative contributes to the individual will of the Estonians to defend their country. The great struggle for freedom obviously includes the element of fighting. Estonians experienced that they can gain or maintain their independence only through fighting." This understanding of history might contribute to the popularity of volunteer organizations like Noored Kotkad.
Challenges are there to be overcome
Joosua, Karlos Daniel and Sten are now sitting in the sun, chatting and eating. They have reached their checkpoint before time and use the opportunity to rest. They enjoy the sun and discuss their performance so far. On their last checkpoint they had to solve crosswords – in a messy tent, flashing lights, surrounded by extremely loud music and other people constantly shaking the roof. "It has been difficult. And we all hope that it has been difficult for the other groups as well."
Then they discuss their next task. What's up with the German Shepherd over there? Training with dogs has not been on schedule. "I hope we don't have to fight against it", Karlos says. Sten points out: "Maybe we get such arm gear and the dog will attack us." Their view is covered by bushes. From time to time they can hear someone shouting. But there is no barking. It is mostly crickets are chirping. Other groups are passing by – smiling. "I guess it is rather not dangerous," Daniel believes. Then their time has come and Jooua calls for action: "Davai, davai!" All four get up, focusing on the things to come. "Sorry, no time for further questions." But what about the dog? "It's a challenge. And challenges are there to be overcome", he says. "Davai, davai!"
Editor: Marcus Turovski