From iron rods to anti-tank weapons

  • 2001-01-25
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis
VILNIUS - The Lithuanian Defense Volunteer Force, known as the national guard in other countries, celebrated its 10th birthday on Jan. 17. Ten years ago, the Lithuanian Parliament adopted a law setting up a volunteer defense service, which was renamed the Defense Volunteer Force in 1998.

The Lithuanian Parliament officially established this military force after Soviet troops occupied the TV tower and TV and Radio Center in Vilnius, killing 14 and injuring more than 700 unarmed civilians who stood in their way on Jan. 13, 1991. A similar attack on the Parliament was expected.

According to Jonas Gecas, in charge of defending the Parliament in January 1991, the Lithuanian national guard started to function de facto at the very beginning of January. Hundreds of volunteers were living at the Parliament playing chess, eating and sleeping on the sandbag barricades. They were ready to fight if Soviet troops entered Parliament.

Gecas says that most of the volunteers were armed with iron rods and Molotov cocktail bottles. Only every eighth volunteer in the Parliament had a hunting rifle or similar gun, donated by the security services of Lithuania's fledgling banks.

After the Soviet troops' attack on the TV buildings on Jan. 13, elderly veterans of Lithuania's partisan war against the Soviet Union in 1944-1953 brought machine guns they had kept secretly during the decades of Soviet occupation.

Gecas became official chief of the volunteer defense service on Jan. 17, 1991. He left the national guard some years later and has been vice minister of defense since the end of 2000.

"Ten years ago, joining a volunteer force meant danger and courage. The volunteers' prospects were uncertain," President Valdas Adamkus said in front of volunteers at the Cathedral Square in Vilnius on Jan. 17.

Adamkus compared the volunteers of 1991 to the Lithuanian volunteers of 1918 who defeated the Russian Bolshevik army's invasion and ensured their nation's independence.

"The volunteer force, created at the Parliament's barricades, is a real part of the Lithuanian armed forces now," Defense Minister Linas Linkevicius announced.

Today, the Defense Volunteer Force consists of 2,000 regular officers and more than 10,000 volunteers serving throughout Lithuania. It is divided into 10 territorial units and has two air squadrons. It closely cooperates with the 13,000-strong regular army.

Volunteers are not paid. They exercise in training grounds at least 20 days per year, mostly on weekends. Volunteers have the right to ask for days off from their workplace if exercises are held on workdays.

Arturas Andriusaitis, 38, was an active volunteer force member from 1995 to 1997. "Now I'm a businessman in the food processing industry. I have no time for military exercises. When I left for England to study English for a few months I asked the force's headquarters not to call me for exercises. But I'm still on the list of non-active volunteers. My machine gun waits for me at the volunteer base," Andriusaitis told The Baltic Times.

He says that patriotic motives led him to join the volunteers. In January 1991, Andriusaitis helped defend Lithuanian government building (now the Foreign Ministry on Tumo-Vaizganto Street).

"I was there from Jan. 9 to Jan. 15. We had even fewer guns than the volunteers did at the Parliament. My guns were an iron stick and a Molotov cocktail. I was a member of the counter-intelligence and intelligence unit of the country's defense department," Andriusaitis said.

He said that he was sure he would die then, and dressed in a senior boy scout's preparation uniform. Death in such clothes seemed better to him somehow. Only the policemen and men from the Lithuanian Security Department had real guns.

"The Eisiskes border guard unit left their post on the Lithuanian-Soviet border and were in the government building. I was with Vidmantas Zagunis, one of several border policemen and customs officials who were later killed by Riga OMON, the Soviet special terrorist brigade, at the Medininkai customs post on July 31, 1991," Andriusaitis said.

He says that a lot of such idealist patriots who experienced Jan. 13 were members of the volunteer force in the mid-1990s. "Now many young people join the Defense Volunteer Force because volunteers are not called to serve in the regular army. It's understandable - there are young people who want to study and make careers and not waste too much time on the army.

"I'm proud that the volunteer force is armed with the most modern Swedish antitank weapons and German heavy machine guns. The main job of the Defense Volunteer Force is to organize a partisan war in case of foreign aggression. These guns are very suitable for this task," Andriusaitis said.