A Visit to Utøya

Aerial view of the island Utoya on May 31, 2017

In late June, as part of the Society for Terrorism Research annual conference held in Oslo, Norway, myself and other attendees were given the opportunity to visit the island of Utøya: the site of the 22 July 2011 mass shooting committed by Anders Behring Breivik, which left 69 people dead; 33 of whom were under 18. Another 8 were killed in a car bomb explosion in Oslo’s Government Quarter. The day was a profoundly moving experience.

As part of this visit organized by Dr. Tore Bjørgo, the Director of the Center for Research on Extremism at the University of Oslo, attendees had the opportunity to hear from law enforcement, a psychologist focusing on trauma, and a survivor of the attack. The purpose of this blog post is not provide an authoritative account of the 2011 Norway attacks, or a summary of the speakers’ presentation. Instead, I aim to provide an account of my experience visiting Utøya, which I have endeavoured to do with sensitivity and respect. In doing so, I acknowledge that other visitors may have had different, and possibly conflicting, experiences. In fact, my colleague Jeanine de Roy van Zuijdewijn has also written her account of the visit.

For a researcher like me who mostly focuses mainly on digital ethnographies and theoretical work, the chance to visit the site of this atrocity provided me with a new understanding of the events of that day, and more importantly their long lasting impact on survivors, and on Norwegian society as a whole.

After an hour drive from Oslo and a short ferry trip onboard the MS Thorbjørn to Utoya, we were greeted by Jørgen Watne Frydnes, the operational manager of the Island. Mr. Frydnes began by introducing us to the island’s history. Owned by the Workers’ Youth League (AUF), Norway’s largest political youth organization and a Norwegian Labour Party affiliate, Utøya is located 38 km northwest of Oslo city center. Since the early 1950s, the UAF has organized a summer camp on the island for its members, which mix traditional summer camp activities (such as sports, bonfires, cookouts), with civil engagement, political debates, and seminars covering topics (such as international solidarity, environmental issues, education and vocational training). The history of the island as a place of great importance in youth engagement with Norweigian democracy, and as a place of fun, is what stood out to me. The idea that young people have been congregating here for decades to learn, make new friends, and, according to one previous attendees “to flirt” (indeed, one path on the island is known as ‘The Lovers’ Path’), makes what happened here in July 2011 all the more shocking. Mr. Frydnes emphasised that this island is so much more than what Breivik did there. Indeed, whilst the AUF summer camps were suspended in the aftermath of the attack, in August 2015 Norwegian teenagers returned to Utøya for AUF’s first annual summer camp in 4 years.

Our next speaker, Cato Hemmingby, whose book on the subject drew on 220 hours of interviews with Breivik, explained why the AUF’s annual youth camp was targeted. According to Hemmingby, Breivik was influenced by four factors: ideology, strategy, internal factors (manpower, funding, skills) and external factors (gun control laws, local environment, and the timing of other events.) This helped me understand the myriad of factors that led to the targeting of children.

With other attacks against sites of leisure – such as the Manchester Arena bombing or the Boston Marathon bombing – on my mind, Hemmingby’s research led me to ponder what factors led to these targeting decisions. I wondered whether the same attention is given to understanding the choice of target in cases of violence perpetrated in the name of other ideologies, or whether the desire to understand Breivik (and other radical right extremists) is partly a result of us seeing ourselves in them. Being unable to deny their ‘in-group’ status on the basis of race or religion perhaps leads to these terrorists being seen as ‘One of Us’, as suggested in Åsne Seierstad’s authoritative account of Breivik’s attacks.

The third speaker, Dr. Grete Dyb of the Norwegian Centre for Violence and Traumatic Stress Studies, spoke of the response to the attacks by mental health practitioners. Dr. Dyb’s research highlighted what seems to me to be an important gap in existing terrorism studies literature; thus far relatively little attention and analyses have focused on the victims and survivors of terrorism. Dr. Dyb described the efforts to support survivors, many of whom she said experienced psychological ‘after-effects’ of the attack such as flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, over-sensitivity to noise, sleeping difficulties and problems with concentration. Dr. Dyb’s research, which involved a series of semi-structured interviews at different time intervals with hundreds of survivors and their families, showed that post-traumatic stress levels were more than six times higher in survivors than in the general population, and had long lasting impacts on a variety of aspects of survivors life, such as academic performance. These long lasting consequences of terrorism are not somethinng I had pondered meaningfully, so to gain this awareness of the real life consequences of the events was eye-opening.

After lunch we walked around the island, with Mr. Frydnes serving as a guide. We stopped at two important sites: Lysninga (The Clearing) and Hegnhuset (Safeguard house).

 The Lysninga is a 12 metre-wide circular clearing overlooking the water, now the site of the memorial commemorating the attack. We were told that the site of the memorial was carefully chosen to be in a place where nobody died.  Among the island’s pine trees hangs a steel ring measuring four meters in diameter, with the names and ages of the victims carved into the surface. The addition of victim’s names struck me: it made it personal – I could imagine who they might have been, their character, and their individuality. The creation of this memorial was undertaken as part of a collaborative working process known in Norwegian as Dugnad, which involved a group of volunteers including parents of victim’s and AUF members. The inclusion of the wider community of victims again made me consider the societal trauma caused by terrorist attacks and, therefore, the necessity to include the community in the healing and commemoration process.

The Hegnhuset (or Safeguard House) occupies part of the cafeteria building where Brievik killed 13 people. In the aftermath of the attack, the AUF considered removing all traces of the existing building and erecting new ones instead. However, after consultation with families of the victims, survivors, and a panel of advisers from the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York and the Pentagon Memorial in Virginia, a compromise was found in the form of the Hegnhuset.

The Hegnhuset is composed of 69 columns – symbolizing the people who died on the island – erected to support a roof which encloses the preserved portion of the old cafeteria building. A screen of 495 wooden posts surrounds the outside of the building – marking the survivors of the attacks – and forms a cloistered walkway between glass panels and the cafeteria building. The continuous glass walls allow for a constant visual connection between the interior and the exterior, and perhaps the past and the present.

Inside the building, bullet holes scar the fiberboard walls, and dried flowers and pictures of victims are strewn across the floor. The windows of the old cafeteria building remain open: several survivors escaped this way we were told. Under the old cafeteria building, there is a dug out space with information about the attack, including a eight-meter-long timeline of the events of July 22. What was difficult for me to process was the reproduction of text messages sent to and from the campers during the attack, some which were never answered. The inclusion of text messages as the primary medium of communication meant that I could not turn away from the fact that many of these victims were typical teenagers, with their whole lives ahead of them.

Following our visit of the Lysninga and the Hegnhuset, we heard from a survivor of the attack. I feel it would be inappropriate to paraphrase his experiences or try to communicate what he was able to, given his lived experiences. However, this portion of our visit was particuarly moving; few terrorism researchers have the opportunity to be confronted directly with the human costs of politically motivated violence. His determination and ongoing political activism in the face of what happened and ongoing death threats from members of the radical right was humbling.

After roughly five hours on the island, we left Utøya and returned to Oslo, where the Oslo Pride parade had just ended and Pride Week festivities were in full swing. The contrast between the somber experience in Utøya and the festive atmosphere in the street of Oslo was palpable. Later that night, when I returned to my AirBnB, I walked by a group of teenagers who must have been the same age as many of those whose names are etched on the steel ring in the Lysninga. One of the youths wore a pride-colored hijab. To me, in that moment, she seemed to symbolize the open and tolerant society that Breivik sought to destroy with a car bomb and an arsenal of firearms.

It reminded me of the poem that conveyed this hope and which I saw on the wall of the Hegnhuset:

Dr Yannick David Veilleux-Lepage is a Senior Fellow at CARR and incoming Assistant Professor at Leiden University. His profile can be found here:

© © Yannick David Veilleux-Lepage. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).