Most days have been a bit grey and windy recently, but full of joy and good experience outdoors, so time keeps flying. After a long period of abstinence, forced upon me by the pandemic, I enjoy being outside and that’s definitely the focus these days, rather than spending time on the computer. There would be more than enough to write about, stories and pictures from Spitsbergen’s stunning nature, so many beautiful impressions …
But that has to wait right now, we’ll get there later.
Things keep happening also up here in Spitsbergen, and it would be quite out of place to write about being in the outdoors, with stunning scenery, wildlife encounters and interesting “discoveries” of phenomena such as fossils and others, without having written about certain other events first.
Mark Sabbatini left Spitsbergen involuntarily
Especially when it is about someone who had to leave the island after more than 10 years (13, to be more precise). Someone who didn’t have plans to leave.
The power of the Sysselmester, the Norwegian government’s highest representative in Svalbard, includes to expel someone from the islands. This is something that happens rather rarely, for example in cases of persons repeteadly found to have used or even sold illegal drugs, something considered even more dangerous to a relatively young community in the far north, with several months of polar night, than elsewhere in the world.
Also tourists who arrived without any means to support their stay in Spitsbergen have already been sent back on the next flight. The authorities don’t want people to sleep in the streets or to camp wild in or near Longyearbyen, something that is a) forbidden and b) dangerous (polar bears).
So far, so understandable. But someone who has lived here fo 13 years?
Mark Sabbatini: 13 years of Spitsbergen, 13 years of “Icepeople”
The American Mark Sabbatini, per default a newspaper- and media person, had already spent considerable time in places including Antarctica when he came to Longyearbyen 13 years ago and started publishing his free, English newspaper and website “Icepeople”, an alternative media platform next to the local newspaper Svalbardposten and language-wise certainly more accessible to an international public. Since then, Mark has been part of Longyearbyen’s inventory, sitting at a table in a corner of Café Fruene and focussing on his computer while live is busy around him, keeping his newspaper and website updated.
But economically, “Icepeople” never became a source of wealth (something that its editor and author had never primarily intended): paper edition (the “fishwrapper”, as Mark himself calls it) and the website are fully accessible for free, and advertising has never brought much business. The hardest of several economical blows that Mark had to suffer, however, was the Gamle Sykehjem (“Old hospital”) story. This is a long story in itself (click here read more about it). In short words: Mark was one of several who bought a flat in this house which then showed structural damage due to melting permafrost, so it had to be evacuated on short notice and those who had bought a property there suffered more or less a full loss (some more than others, depending on circumstances). Other blows that Mark had to suffer affected his health, including falling and getting hurt badly in times of clear ice on the street in Longyearbyen. This all is well-known local gossip and Mark has never made a secret of it.
Economical and health-wise downhill development
Finally all reserves were used up, and Marks economical situation in the northernmost settlement (if we exclude Ny-Ålesund, which does not have a normal population) of the rich country Norway reached a point where he had increasing difficulties to fund his daily spendings. So it went on for a while. Many did this and that to help, and it went on, with better and more difficult times.
It is one of the consequences of the Spitsbergen Treaty that there is no network for social security beyond what is provided by everybody’s home countries. And as the Norwegian authorities do not accept people living in unsettled situation in Spitsbergen, they reserve the right to expel people from Svalbard who are not economically able to take care of themselves on a level accepted by the authorities.
New Sysselmester Lars Fause has a different viewpoint on this whole question than his precursor, and he decided to “take responsibility” as soon as he came into power recently.
Mark himself has told his view of this story in public a number of times, including Svalbardposten, his own website Icepeople and social media and in personal communication, also to this author. He emphasizes that he does not only understand and accept the Sysselmester’s decision, but he also considers it to be the right decision, in the light of the development in recent years.
Back to Alaska
Mark left Spitsbergen last Wednesday, headed for Juneau in Alaska, where he wants to recover health-wise and economically. Then, he wants to find himself a place in Alaska’s media landscape, preferably with a focus on remote communities.
Mark Sabbatini during his goodbye in Longyearbyen last Wednesday. Photo: Icepeople.
Mark wants to continue with Icepeople, so the page will be active and updated also in the future, supplying an international public with interest in local matters with all sorts of detailed information, presented in Mark’s own way, often with a touch of humour and written in a style that may occasionally be slightly challenging for non-native English speakers.
By the way, Mark has contributed with proofreading to a number of texts used in various publications, print and online, by this author, including shorter texts such as quite recently in Svalbardhytter or longer ones including updates of the English version of the guidebook Spitsbergen-Svalbard. According to Mark, he will be happy to make similar contributions also in the future, something I’ll be happy to make use of (as a paid service, as before)
If you want to read more about the circumstances of Mark’s departure, then you will find plenty of stuff on his own site, Icepeople.