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NATO membership prospect brings relief to border Finns

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HIIVANIEMI, Finland (AFP) — Troubled by the war in Ukraine, Finnish pensioner Martti Kailio, 73, keeps his hunting rifle to hand at his home in Hiivaniemi, overlooking the Russian border on the other side of a lake.

“It makes me so angry that I would be among the first volunteers to go out there with a loaded gun, even though I’m not young enough to be a soldier anymore,” he says.

For many Finns living on the eastern border, the prospect of their country applying to join North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has been greeted with relief.

“We should have joined earlier. No point in dragging it out anymore,” Kailio says.

Sharing a 1,300-kilometer (800-mile) border with Russia, Finland has in the past stayed out of military alliances.

But after its powerful eastern neighbor invaded Ukraine in February, political and public opinion swung dramatically in favor of membership, with the Finnish president and prime minister on Thursday calling for the country to join NATO “without delay.”

For some Finns, Russia’s assault on Ukraine has brought up painful memories of the 1939 Winter War, when Red Army troops invaded the Nordic country.

As in Ukraine, the small Finnish army put up a fierce resistance and inflicted heavy losses on the Soviets.

Nevertheless, Finland had to cede vast areas of land to the Soviet Union.

‘A necessity’

Veli-Matti Rantala, 72, whose farmhouse is just a short walk from the Russian border in Suokumaa, holds a rusty army helmet and tells stories of the battles that took place in the surrounding forests.

“I’m not too worried about the situation anymore, now that we’re joining the Western community, help is coming,” he says. To him, Finland joining the alliance is a “necessity.”

Living just a few hundred meters from the Russian border in Vainikkala, teacher Jaana Rikkinen, 59, grew up hearing the Russian border guards on the opposite side of the lake.

Rikkinen, who lost her uncles in the war, also feels “relieved” that Finland is now joining NATO, even though previously she had her doubts about the bloc.

She recalls how even after the war, there were regular illegal border crossings near her home.

“It always happened at night. First, you heard the hounds, and then the gunfire,” Rikkinen says, adding that she hoped she only ever heard warning shots.

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