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Deep in the woods, under canopies and roots, hide old and modern artifacts. Some are cared for, while others – forgotten. For more than 100 years, the forest of Bukta has guarded a unique site. It is time to tell its story.
Winding through agricultural fields, a dirt road ends at a wall-like Bukta forest. Certified by FSC, this key woodland habitat is home to many protected species. Blossoming and humming, they are waking up from their winter slumber.
Right on the edge of the forest, past the pinching thickets, lays a circle of sunlit tombstones. Forty-five of them dot the forest floor, barely peaking above wildflowers. This is the last resting place of German Imperial soldiers, who died on the frontlines of World War I (WWI) in 1915.
The Bukta forest and its surroundings were among the first to witness the horrors of WWI in Lithuania. Like the rest of the country, this area was colonized and split between the German and Russian empires in the late 18th century. As soon as WWI began, local communities were forced to fight on opposing sides. One day to another, families and friends were turned into enemies.
G. Petkevičaitė-Bitė – Lithuanian educator, writer, and activist – wrote this in her diary during the war: "Our land is a war field, and our people are cannon fodder for both sides... <> I treat the sick, while diseases and robbers rule our land... My nerves are frayed, I'm most afraid of going mad...”
Between August 1914 and the summer of 1915, this region was the epicentre of the East Front battles. The frontline moved back and forth. One of its battles took place here, in the Bukta forest. It was won by the German Imperial soldiers, who buried their fallen comrades and marked the site with tombstones we find today.
Well managed by the independent Lithuanian state since 1990, the Bukta forest received an FSC forest management certificate in 2017. The burial site, as a place of historical value, fell under FSC’s protection which means special measures are in place to preserve it.
“When this forest was assigned to our care, we became responsible for its natural and cultural objects,” recalls Arūnas Pranaitis, Senior Ecologist at Žuvintas biosphere park. “We felt we had to do our duty for these people who died here.” Together with the state forest manager – the Kazlų Rūda regional branch of the State Forest Enterprise – they did more than pay respects. In 2018, they brought life back to the long-forgotten site.
“When we planned the management work, we wanted to involve the local community. We thought it is best if students from a local school collected information about the burial site and its history,” says Arūnas. Soon the Žuvintas biosphere park found volunteers. Sigita Dzimijonienė, a young biology teacher from Kazys Boruta high school, and her nature-loving students were up for the task. “The assignment for my students was to collect information written on tombstones. Back then they were only in the 6th grade. Soldiers and war were nothing but a game for them. Today, sadly it is our reality, and students' attitude to war has changed,” says Sigita.
“The first time we came here it was October, already autumn. There were so many leaves on the ground, and the tombstones were covered with moss,” remembers Lukas Cikana, one of the students. “It looked so interesting, the way the graves were set in a circle,” adds Šarūnas Mikšys, another student.
The graves were hard to find. Together with foresters, students cleared the area of branches and leaves. Soon after, they realized it would take time to understand what is written on the tombstones. First, the moss had to be removed with chisels and sticks. Then, German letters were deciphered and transferred onto paper. The students compiled a list of the soldiers' names, ranks, battalions, and dates of death. This information was later used to register the site as a cultural heritage.
Around the same time, the Bukta forest was visited by an FSC working group leading the development of the National Forest Stewardship Standard (NFSS) for Lithuania. Aidas Pivoriūnas, the moderator of the NFSS, recalls the Standard Development Group having an ongoing discussion on how to ensure protection for cultural values in the country’s forests. A representative from the Lithuanian Fund for Nature - Žydrūnas Sinkevičius - proposed a field trip to the recently discovered Bukta forest graves.
“None of us had heard about them before, it was an eye-opening experience,” says Aidas. Inspired by the site, the working group decided to widen the scope of FSC-protected cultural values. From pagan hillforts and burial sites to natural riches: the standard now safeguards all that is important to locals. It also allows FSC certificate holders to demonstrate the added value of daily forest management practices.
“We must protect and love nature. We have to take care of its values: trees, tombstones, even the deadwood,” says Šarūnas, reflecting on the lessons learned at the Bukta forest. Without realizing it, he does what many in the country do: treat nature and human culture as one.
In Lithuania, forests have always fed, protected, and inspired the locals. This connection is reflected in Lithuanian names, language, and everyday culture. Even the younger generations, born into the digital world, maintain this closeness.
"My uncle has taught me that forests are like people. If you take care of them, they will take care of you," says Kamilė Gelčytė, an 11th-grade student at Kazys Boruta high school. Together with other students, she made sure that the Bukta burial site is preserved for generations to come. “I'd like to discover more places like this and help everyone remember what had happened,” she says.
Each day Kamilė spends at least an hour in the forest, in a place she calls her own. “A fallen tree lays there and I often sit down on it to draw. A couple of mice pass by from time to time, right under me! I call them my friends,” laughs Kamilė. For her and her schoolmates, forests are an integral part of life.
During the last century, many more historical sites were established in the Bukta and other forests across the country. Graves of foreign soldiers and local freedom fighters, underground customs offices, and bunkers of those who fought the Soviet occupation – the 20th century still echoes among the trees.
In the case of the Bukta burial site, the list of soldiers' names was sent to the German War Graves Commission. This NGO maintains a database of German soldiers found buried outside the country’s borders, enabling the relatives of missing soldiers to find out where they were laid to rest – a century later. With support from local communities, FSC standards in Lithuania help preserve the history and the memory of those who came before us.