Once in a Lifetime

This past week my class on Terrorism and Counterterrorism from a European Perspective participated in our Study Tour. Those few days filled with travel, academic visits, spending time with my classmates, and exploring on our own were almost indescribable. We met at the airport in Copenhagen on Monday morning and flew to Oslo, Norway. Once in Oslo, we had some time to check out the Norwegian Royal Palace before meeting up for a group pizza lunch. It felt a little weird to be eating pizza of all things in Norway, but I was happy to spend the time getting to know my classmates a little better.

Checking out the Norwegian Royal Palace in Oslo

After lunch, we visited the 22. Juli Senteret (the July 22nd Center). For those who are not familiar with the events, there were two terrorist attacks in Norway on July 22nd, 2011 by a single right-wing, anti-immigrant extremist. One of these was a car bombing in the Government Quarter of Oslo, which killed eight people and injured over 200. The building in which the Center is housed was one of those struck by the bomb. One of the more striking aspects of the July 22nd Center is that they have kept the damage to the building as part of the exhibit.

In the Government Quarter of Oslo, walking up to the 22. Juli Senteret

The second attack was on the island of Utøya, which was (and still is) owned by the AUF, the youth organization of the Norwegian Labor Party. The terrorist, Anders Behring Breivik, shot and killed 69 people on the island that day – most of them young people around my own age, who were participating in an AUF summer camp. Probably the most powerful part of the visit to the July 22nd Center was watching video interviews from some of the survivors of the attack on Utøya, in which they described their experiences at the camp and detailed some of the horrific scenes from the day of the attack. Hearing these personal stories is something I don’t think I will ever forget.

Incredible natural beauty on the island of Utøya, where the second attack took place

As part of our visit to the Center, we also worked in small groups to create our own mini-poster exhibitions of the July 22nd attacks by arranging photographs on a whiteboard, titling our creations, and then presenting to our classmates.  After that, we got back on the bus and started the drive to Utøya. Getting to Utøya takes about 40 minutes driving from Oslo, plus a five-minute ferry ride. When we got to the point on the mainland where we were meeting the ferry, it was quite an experience. A Norwegian TV station was filming some kind of docuseries about the attack and the aftermath, so there were several ambulances, police cars, and boats around, as well as many actors dressed as police officers and medical personnel. There were also lots of flowers and small gifts set up near the water, as there were on the day after the attack.

Taking the bus to Utøya

After a short wait, we boarded the ferry to Utøya, where we would be staying the night. I really cannot quite put into words what it was like to stay on the island. It truly was one of the most beautiful places in the world I have ever seen; it was something almost out of a dream. At the same time, though, we were constantly aware that we were in a place where a terrible, terrible tragedy had occurred. The way it felt to be having fun playing soccer in the evening and then seeing the bullet holes in the cafeteria building and the places where people were killed the next morning is something I can’t fully describe. All I can say is that I am incredibly grateful to have had this once-in-a-lifetime experience staying on Utøya.

Me and a few classmates enjoying a refreshing (and very cold) dip in the fjord off Utøya

I was so impressed by the ways the AUF has been able to balance grief and resilience on the island. They have found ways to use this amazing place to remember those whose lives were lost, educate new generations of youth about democracy, and to “take back Utøya” by making it a place where new good memories can be created. Speaking with the current manager of the island, Jørgen Watne Frydnes, and with a survivor of the Utøya attack (who now works in the leadership of the AUF and now organizes the AUF camps on Utøya), were really important components of our trip to Norway. They gave me and my classmates a new lens through which to view both terrorism and counterterrorism. One of the things that was repeatedly mentioned was fighting terrorism with more democracy, which I think was a completely new idea for much of my class. Since most of us have spent the majority of our lives in the United States, we have grown used to the idea that terrorism can only be fought militarily and/or by giving up some freedoms in exchange for increased security.

We visited this memorial as part of our tour of Utøya with Jørgen Watne Frydnes, the current manager of the island. The work laying the stones was done by survivors and the families of the victims.

After only two days in Norway, we already had to head back to the airport to fly to London for the second leg of our Study Tour. I plan to write all about our London experiences in a later post… so stay tuned!

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