Conscripts living it up in the high north

Despite the challenges and political controversy of their presence, conscripts in the Norwegian border guard service say it is the best assignment to take on as a young soldier.

Up a long and winding gravel road often closed to cars, the Korpfjell border station sits in stark and rugged hills of Jarfjord. The troops at the station are tasked with guarding 30 km of the 196 km border between Russia and Norway. In the process, they are collecting memories and experiences sure to last them throughout their lives.

The impressive group of young professionals, mature far beyond their 18-22 years, has been tasked with protecting Norway’s northern most borders in conjunction with their Russian counterparts. Conscripts at Korpfjell are a unique group of motivated young people. They have taken on one of the most challenging assignments at one of the most challenging border stations in Norway.

Korpfjell is deep in the Jarfjord area and is inaccessible by normal cars seven to eight months of the year. The winters are cold and the spring and autumn bring mosquitoes and flooding. Throughout the year the conscripts must patrol the isolated area with little access to civilian life and only rare opportunities to visit home.

After a rigourous selection process that accepts 180 conscripts among 320 applicants, the conscripts spend 6 months of their service training to become part of what has become an elite group of soldiers tasked with protecting the northern border.

-These are some of the best people we have in Norway, said border commissioner, Colonel Ivar Sakserud.

An experience like no other
It is a tough assignment but the current conscripts say that in many ways it is worth it. Andreas Sandbu is a the team leader at Korpfjell and said his service has given him the opportunity to do things he wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to do like live and work in the high north. The dark haired soldier smiles widely as he describes his experience so far.

-You’re so free and you’re out so much and it’s an active service where you actually do something important, he said.

It is also an experience like no other according to Sandbu who with his team of four, patrols the border on assignments that can last up to ten days.

The only other people in the world who may have a sense of what the soldiers go through are the Russian guards across the river. The soldiers see their Russian counterparts from time to time across the border, but communication between the patrols are rare while working unless there is an incident to address.

-There are no civilians here so you’re far away from a normal life and you don’t have cell phones. But you get used to it and it’s a great experience, said Marten Enofsen another team leader at the station. -You learn a lot which you wouldn’t have learned anywhere else, Enofsen said. The serious faced young soldier is quick to laugh and said he plans to become a police officer once his service is over.

The conscripts live like any other young Norwegians, making meals, cleaning their rooms and checking their emails during free time. But they are also being challenged daily by their task.

Korpfjell is isolated and the soldiers at the post have little to no contact with civilians. They spend much of their time on duty which means patrolling the border carrying packs weighing up to 40 kilograms on treks through the northern Norwegian wilderness in any and all of the vicious weather conditions in the north.

Both leaders say their service has been a very valuable experience in their lives and both are glad they chose this most difficult of assignments.

According to Sandbu, it is also an honour to serve.

-It’s an important mission because we do something of value for the country—we guard the border.

The conscripts in the border service also have a high level of independence which they say is important. They are assigned missions by the officers at the station and plan them as a unit.

A unique northern post
But according to Sakserud, Norway has been criticized among the Schegen countries for using young and inexperienced conscripts at one of Europe’s northernmost borders. He counters with the fact that border service in the north is a vigorous and often challenging assignment. It would be hard to assign soldiers to the posts for longer than the six months the conscripts currently spend there.

-It would be a study in suicide and alcoholism, he said.

He added that the conscripts are young and motivated and eager to do well, which makes them perfect for service on the border. They are ever alert and aware of their responsibilities as guards at the border.

The soldiers spend six months preparing for service at the Sør-Varanger Garrison where they become experts in a specific field either radio, first aid, scouting or team leading. From there they are put into recces or patrol units of four soldiers. That group works together for the six month assignment at any of the six stations along the border.

-All the people coming to the garrison, they want to be there. You don’t get put there you have to do something active to get there, said Sandbu about the competitive process to serve on the border.

Most of the conscripts plan to go on to university and into other fields. But this year of service will stay with them as they continue on their chosen paths all across the country.

-They will remember this year for their whole life, said Colonel Sakserud.

Written by Chantaie Allick