Remembering Terrorism: Visit to Utøya

Remembering Terrorism: Visit to Utøya

On Utøya, where Breivik killed 69 people, survivors have found ways to commemorate the victims and return for the annual Workers’ Youth League Summer camp.

On June 20-21, the Society for Terrorism Research (STR) held its annual conference in Oslo. The Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) and the Center for Research on Extremism (C-REX) of the University of Oslo led by Professor dr. Tore Bjørgo hosted one of the main academic conferences in the field of terrorism studies. The central theme was the data revolution in terrorism research: implications for theory and practice.

Two days were filled with dozens of interesting panels, two roundtables (including one on the question of possible repatriation of children from former IS territory which I participated in), and two excellent keynotes on grievance fueled violence by Dr. Emily Corner and the importance of studying foiled plots by Dr. Petter Nesser. On Saturday, many of the participants joined a visit to the island of Utøya.

Utøya, located approximately 35 km away from Oslo, was one of the two places of attack by the extreme right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik on July 22, 2011. On that day, the Workers' Youth League (AUF), affiliated to the Labour Party, held its annual Summer camp on the island, a long-standing tradition. During the 72-minute shooting, Breivik killed 69 of the 564 people on the island, 33 of them younger than 18. After listening to a lecture of Breivik’s target selection by Cato Hemmingby, Professor dr. Grete Dyb presented her research on the prevalence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among the survivors, showing that “Post-traumatic stress levels were more than six times higher in survivors than in the general population”. Her research emphasized the long-term struggle of survivors, something that is often forgotten when speaking about the victims of terrorist attacks.

Ever since 2011, survivors, relatives and the AUF leadership have put tremendous effort in trying to answer questions about the future of the island. For instance, should the buildings where Breivik shot people, such as the main cafeteria, be demolished or kept for families to visit? Should the Labour Party return to Utøya for the Summer camps or should it not do so? When we visited on June 21, the director of the island, Jørgen Frydnes, told us how difficult it was to find answers to such questions.

After years of sensitive and delicate talks with approximately 85 families of those killed, the AUF decided to return to the island in 2015 for the annual Summer camp. New buildings, such as the visitors centre, were erected to facilitate meetings of educational groups and tell the stories about the island and its important place in Norwegian democracy. Around the cafeteria, the Hegnhuset (“safeguard house”) was built, with 69 pillars supporting the roof, representing the victims and 495 “safeguarding planks”, representing those who survived. Once you enter, you can still see the windows of the cafeteria from which many youngsters jumped in order to escape from the shooting. A memorial was made on one of the more distant places on this very small island where no people were killed, representing a more neutral place for families to mourn their loved ones.

After we had visited the buildings and the memorial, one of the survivors gave a speech. He tried to raise awareness for the fact that in his view “Norway had failed to address and fight the political views behind July 22”. Shockingly, he told us that many of those survivors have ever since 2011 been threatened by right-wing extremists in Norway. So fiercely, that some of them have decided to leave politics altogether, also because they felt police protection was lacking. He emphasized that the link between hateful ideologies and violent actions should not be underestimated and that societies need to stand up more clearly against hate speech.

As researchers into terrorism, the stories we heard that day were shocking and showed the need to do more research into the aftermath of terrorist attacks. This includes topics such as victims support, mental health issues and finding the balance between remembering and showing resilience, which could (seemingly) be antithetic. At times, the stories were also inspiring. The strength and dedication portrayed by those who led us around the island were moving. Jørgen and others seemed to have managed to find their own tailored ways to answer the question as how to remember such horrific and tragic events as the terrorist attacks on July 22, 2011. Now, on the walls of a very small museum on the island, visitors can read that they “arrive at a place with an unyielding spirit, which keeps the memories of those we lost on July 22nd in its heart, a place that never forgets, and a place where new generations can carry forward the ideals that were attacked. Utøya did not go dark. Utøya stood strong”.

For a longer overview see the ICCT perspective.