MRZEŻYNO — Sleeping mats, camouflage clothes, military boots, a compass and a penknife. Kuba Michalski, 12, is packing for a trip.
In Gdańsk, the northern Polish city where he lives, he is also preparing physically. He runs every day knowing he'll have to be in shape for what lies ahead. His destination? A "tough" camp about 250 kilometers west, along the coast in Mrzeżyno.
"You know, surviving a 24-hour mission in the woods isn't easy," Michalski explains.
Mrzeżyno is a small town in Zachodniopomorski province. Here, about 350 meters inland from the Baltic Sea, is a 50,000-square-meter chunk of land that serves a number of different youth camps. The military-themed "tough" camps are the most popular. The camps are surrounded by forest areas where, for many years, Polish military units were deployed. These fortifications are now used for camp activities.
"Tough camps are already popular. And in my opinion, if the paintball trend passes, even more interest will be directed toward them," says Bogdan Zwoliński, owner of the tourism agency Wonderlands that organizes youth military camps in Dąbki, Zamrzenica, Dziwnówku, Mrzeżyno and elsewhere.
"I don't see anything strange in this. Boys have always run around with sticks and slingshots. Now they'll have fun in armored vehicles," he adds. "There are currently a lot of military games on the market as well as various war movies. The possibilities are completely different than 10 or 20 years ago. Today, shooting with wooden weapons isn't enough for the children, so we have replica (guns), that in terms of weight and size are almost identical to the real deal."
Have gun will travel
On a good morning, participants receive air guns in rifle and pistol form. The only thing that sets the replicas apart from the originals is the plastic ammunition. The number of bullets the boys can use is nearly limitless.
The camp training includes talks on gun safety, classes on arming and disarming the weapons, and speed competitions for reloading magazines (cartridges of bullets). Campers also learn to shoot — at different distances, under stress, from different positions. The children even learn to use machine guns and manual grenade launchers, and receive instruction on how to battle the enemy psychologically. There's nothing light about the curriculum.
"It's like in the army," says Łukasz, a 14-year-old camper. "It's wake up, drills, then classes. The breaks aren't long. There's no time to be bored. The best part was fighting with a weapon in my hands. Nothing else could compare."
What kid doesn't have bruises, anyway?
Some children arrive with their own uniforms. Some even have their own weapons. "This is my third summer at these camps," Łukasz explains. "My parents got me a air gun for my birthday this year. Other kids also have guns, and we shoot together during the year. But it's not the same as at camp. There is more adrenaline here, because it's the perfect setting, with firecrackers, smoke bombs."
The replica guns can easily be purchased on the Internet at prices that range from a few hundred to even several thousand dollars. No one checks if the buyer is of age. Camp organizers encourage anyone, of any age, to come to the camps, and note that there are no skills required of the participants to use weapons.
Camps of this kind can be found throughout Poland. The more extreme the conditions — mountains, swamps — the better. In some cases, there are no openings for years. Prices can reach $500 dollars for a 10-day stay. A less expensive option is to attend a similar camp in Egypt.
'Crossing the line'
Organizers vouch for the safety of the programs. Classes are taught by licensed shooting instructors or retired army officers. Each group has a teacher. Participants wear glasses or protective masks at all times when shooting.
"This is about learning certain skills, tactics and strategies. Participants learn first aid, field navigation, survival. So far, no child has suffered any injuries other than bruising. But what kid doesn't have bruises, anyway?" one camp organizer explains.
The people in charge of these camps also believe that organizing play with toy weapons prevents the children from seeking out real ones. "Emotions from the game stay on the field of play and do not translate negatively into camp life," the organizer insists.
Experts say that the armed forces benefit from the popularity of youth military camps. "There are more uniforms in school. More students choosing a military route over university," says Jarosław Jędrzejczyk, a former policeman and domestic security expert.
Last year, when Newsweek reported on the military camps and quoted experts criticizing them, some Poles clapped back, accusing the "left and left-wing media" of conspiring to disarm the Poles. But others share the kinds of concerns the U.S. magazine raised.
"Today's young people are heavily influenced by an abundance of rapidly changing stimuli provided by computer games among other things. It is no surprise that they want to experience virtual emotions 'live,,'" says Dr. Marta Majorczyk, a Polish educator and university advisor. "The only question is, Why do we need weapons for children? These are 'toys' for adults. We're crossing the line here. What will happen when it gets boring? Will camps then offer real weapons?"
"Teenagers are impulsive," she adds. "They act emotionally and often transition in and out of depressive states. It may happen that during these 'games' with replicas, an accident will eventually occur."
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