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Slowly, Norway reclaims the land where it lost its innocence

The cheers of 1 300 Norwegian teenagers carry far over the still grey waters where, on July 22 2011, children swam for their lives.

They are returning to Utøya to re-establish the annual summer camp of the AUF – Arbeidernes Ungdomsfylking or Worker’s Youth League – on the island. The return of the youth league is a show of defiance to Anders Behring Breivik and a tribute to the 69 people he killed there – most of them teenagers, the youngest just 14. The organisers of this year’s event include survivors of that day, but the camp has attracted many new faces.

“We are sending a message that we are taking the island back; there’s a good energy,” says Victoria Øverland (17), here for her first camp. There were anxious moments when she and her friends boarded the ferry to the island, but the camp spirit quickly took over.

“It is a part of the grieving process to take back the place where terrible things happened,” Øverland says. “Everyone here is aware of what took place and they have been through a process in their head, though for some people it is really hard.”

The camp’s return marks a turning point in a national tragedy that is still unfolding. It is the culmination of a long and painful attempt to find a balance between politics and grief, courage and remembrance, youth and parenthood, moving on and looking back.

Utøya has posed the question of how, when the fabric of society has been torn, the threads can be woven back together. It has forced Norwegians to weigh the concerns of those directly affected against the wider needs of a nation living with the knowledge that Breivik came from within, and that the virus that spawned him has not gone away.

Dilemma of reclaiming
For some, a refusal to reclaim the island would be a victory for terrorism and an affront to the dead. Others want Utøya left as a memorial, unable to countenance laughter, music and selfies on the site of slaughter.

“I don’t think Utøya will ever be that paradise again,” says Lisbeth Røyneland, whose daughter Synne lost her life, aged 18. Røyneland is happy the camp is reopening, and that young people are getting on with their lives.

“On the other hand, for me it is a time with many feelings, because Synne isn’t with them anymore,” says Røyneland, who chairs the national support group for survivors and relatives. “But, because of the memorial, the 69 who were killed that day will never be forgotten.”

In a quiet clearing on the island’s highest point, suspended from three tall pines, is a massive steel ring cut with the names and ages of the dead. In the circle no one is first, and no one last. The soil below has been planted with flowers to attract butterflies. When the thick mist pours into Tyrifjord, it condenses, and the steel weeps.

Utoya Norway memorial of Breivik killing spree that left 69 dead
Etched in memory: The memorial recording the names of those who died. (AFP)

The spot was proposed by Kolbein Fridtun, who lost his 19-year-old daughter, Hanne, on the island; a dozen parents of children who died have worked to clear the site.

But space on the ring remains for seven names missing from the memorial – for some it is still too soon, and the emotions too raw, to imagine their child’s absence fixed in metal. Each person’s despair moves at its own pace.

“The parents feel their loss in very fibre of their bodies,” says Åsne Seierstad, a novelist and the author of a bestselling book on the massacre. “Maybe there are longer periods now when they don’t think about their children – half an hour, or perhaps an hour – but it is there every day.”

And for most of them, Utøya was not their main concern, she says. It was never their island – it belonged to the young people who went there every year since 1932. Many future Labour party leaders cut their political teeth at the annual summer camp.

“These young people were so in love with the island,” Seierstad says. “The terrorist killed them because they were there, so strong, so political and independent-minded. They would probably have wanted their names to be on the memorial.”

Biggest camp ever
The decision to return was taken on the day after the attacks, according to Mani Hussaini, the leader of the youth league. This will be the biggest summer camp ever, with talks and workshops on internationalism, feminism and anti-racism, preparation for the next elections, and a lot of fun.

“Our response is more openness and more democracy in our fight for equal rights. Utøya is at the heart of the youth league.”

But the left have had to temper their passion to reclaim the ground that Breivik took away. On the day after the attacks, the then prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, said he would camp out on Utøya in a year’s time. There was a rush to commission a memorial and prepare for an uninterrupted return to the island.

The following year a firm of architects called Fantastic Norway presented sketches of bright new buildings and smiling young people. Buildings where children died would be torn down. It was too much, too soon.

Plans to commemorate the first anniversary on the island excluded the parents of the dead. “It seems they did not understand the force of grief,” says Seierstad. “For traumatised young people, it was all about moving on. That mistake destroyed a lot.”

Ragnhild Kaski, the youth league’s general secretary, who was 21 when she fled from Breivik on the island, admits blunders were made. “The project has changed. It needed to change,” she says. “The things you think are right at first are not necessarily the right things to do a few years later … It has been a bumpy road for many of us. Our plans have changed and we have changed as well.”

Talking to the parents helped them to find a balance between learning how to shape Utøya’s future and remember its past, Kaski says. Tens of millions of krona have been donated by unions, businesses and individuals to build conference and learning centres as a resource for the labour movement. Meanwhile, for the past two years the youth league has held a summer camp on the mainland.

“When they came forward in 2012 with the plans for a new Utøya, almost all the survivors and relatives of the dead said they needed more time,” Røyneland says. “We talked to the Labour youth and gave them our advice, which they followed – after that we have had very good communication with them.”

With the reopening of the camp this weekend, earlier divisions about the reconstruction have been laid to rest. The event has reawakened public debate, which had died down since Breivik’s trial in 2012. In last year’s extravagant bicentenary celebrations of the Norwegian Constitution, the nation’s unity after the attacks was barely mentioned.

But there have been moments that threatened to undermine the consensus in Norway about how to respond to the attacks. On the third anniversary last year, 19 mothers of the island’s dead wrote to Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg asking for Utøya to stay closed, and to remain as a place of remembrance.

Just north of the island, residents are attempting to sue the government to prevent a national memorial on the mainland. Some locals picked up survivors, the dead and dying from the fjord, and believe that a proposal to dissect a peninsula of rock at Sørbråten, creating a symbolic wound in the landscape, would aggravate their trauma.

Utoya Norway disputed proposal of second memorial of Breivik killing spree that left 69 dead
A proposal for a second memorial, on the mainland where survivors were rescued, is disputed. This is an artist’s impression of what it would look like. (Jonas Dahlberg Studio)

At the new July 22 Centre in downtown Oslo, inaugurated last month, there are also seven blank spaces where parents have asked that their children be excluded from photographs of the Utøya dead. Disagreements broke out about whether to exhibit artefacts of the attacks in the office block Breivik bombed. There were rumours that the museum planned to exhibit the gun he used, and that it could become a traumatic, daily reminder to civil servants. The exhibit visitors now see includes the remains of the car bomb Breivik detonated outside the prime minister’s office just hours before the Utøya shootings, killing eight people.

John Christian Elden, a lawyer whose firm represented most of the victims at Breivik’s trial, branded it the “museum of Breivik”, and likens displaying his possessions to placing photographs of Hitler at Auschwitz. For others, labelling it the Breivik museum is just as absurd as calling the 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero in New York a museum to Osama Bin Laden.

The blown-out windows of the office buildings awaiting demolition at the Oslo bomb site are a far more visible reminder to workers than the museum, tucked away in the wrecked basement of the central block. Since its opening on July 22, it has received about 1 000 visitors a day, the museum said, big numbers in this country of five million people.

Rather than a story of division, however, the new museum and the coming together of parents and activists for the camp represent a remarkable tale of unity in facing up to the tragedy.

“The 9/11 memorial took a decade to agree, and lots of conflict,” Seierstad says. “For us, it has been four years. It could have been so much worse.”

And yet doubts linger that the deep scar on the national consciousness can heal without concerted effort at the top of Norwegian society. “The nature and magnitude of the crime mean that the response to the tragedy cannot be decided only by those directly affected,” says Arne Johan Vetlesen, a professor of philosophy at Oslo University.

For survivors and relatives, wounds inflicted by Breivik might not be visible, but they are no less real. They find it hard to hold down jobs or study, and there is lasting depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress.

‘Quite a long way to go’
“They have had a lot of problems; there is still quite a long way to go before they are back to their normal health status,” says Professor Grete Dyb of the Norwegian Centre for Violence and Traumatic Stress Studies in Oslo.

She has followed survivors and their parents, and advised youth leaders on how to approach the big decisions they have faced. Tears will flow on Utøya island this weekend, Dyb says, but she is confident that the organisers have taken every precaution to ensure any outpouring of emotion will be healthy.

Elisabeth Haukeland’s eldest son and daughter survived the massacre, and they aren’t going back to Utøya. But her youngest daughter is. Just 13 at the time of the attack, she went straight out to join the youth league.

“I think she is very brave,” Haukeland says. All the same, she tries not to dwell on the thought of her daughter on the island this weekend, in a place where her other children suffered so much. “I am convinced it would be worse if she was afraid and didn’t want to get out and do things.”

The keenness of AUF leaders to get back on to the island makes sense, Haukeland says, because with each passing year the numbers of survivors eligible to attend the camp would fall, and the memory of 2011 needs to be passed on. Without a grasp of Utøya’s enormous significance to the labour movement, she adds, it could seem provocative to stress the need for continuity.

But, despite the strong association of Utøya with the left, party politics are largely absent from the public debate in Norway about Breivik. Despite the attacks, in 2013 the country elected a right-wing coalition, which, for the first time, included the anti-immigrant Progress Party, of which Breivik was a member for nine years until 2005.

People did not vote for the right because they were sympathetic to Breivik, Seierstad says. He had never been cited in political debate, even on immigration or jihadism. The Progress Party is less extreme today, she says, and, in any case, has never been linked to the attacks. “The Progress Party has never been made to pay for Breivik’s membership. People are too decent in Norway.”

Even the youth league, which is to the left of the Labour Party on immigration, has moderate views on asylum. “We want more liberal asylum policies, but we also have an understanding that too-liberal policies will cause right-wing ideas to grow, if you can’t accept 20 000 each year and integrate them,” says Håkon Knudsen (23), a survivor of the attack and a member of the youth league leadership.

Outside the July 22 museum people queue up at lunchtime to get in; as they emerge, many are tearful. “It’s difficult, but to see it makes it more real,” says Karolina (27), who works in an Oslo law firm. It is important to see the car bomb itself and its effects, and the faces of the dead. “For me, it’s a way to show respect for the victims and their families. It’s important for Norway to remember that these things can also happen here.”

On the island this weekend, the fresh crop of teenage socialists is more interested in the football tournament and making new friends than discussing the unspeakable presence who robbed their movement of its innocence.

“No one is talking about him,” Øverland says. “It’s really surreal – I know that it happened but I can’t imagine that someone would come here and do that to young people.”

The tragedy has changed her perspective on politics, she says, especially on the extreme right, which she fears is growing. “It made me think, okay, I can make a difference here. I have to join, I have to do something, I have to help. Everyone is trying to grow from this experience.” – © Guardian News & Media 2015

Utoya Norway the spirits of those returning were high
The spirits of those returning to the island were high, and their thoughts were largely on football and on making new friends. (Odd Andersen/AFP)

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