Together we are strong
11 years ago today, on a quiet Friday afternoon, a right-wing terrorist dressed in police uniform, set off a 950-kg car bomb in Oslo’s government quarter, murdering 8 people. His next target was Utøya Island, where the Labour Party’s youth organisation held their annual summer camp, as they have done for more than 50 years. He drove to Utvika ferry landing, and stepped onboard MS Thorbjørn, the little ferry that shuttles happy campers between the mainland and Utøya. There, he murdered 69 more. Most were teenagers. (More in this post from 2011.)
Earlier this summer, I visited Utøya, and shared my first impressions via Insta stories.
Along with a few other passengers on board that fatal afternoon, the terrorist steps off the ferry here, right in front of Hovedhuset (the main building).
Kjærlighetsstien (the lovers’ path)
Utøya is 500 metres long and 300 metres wide. Walking around the island, I become acutely aware of how tiny it is. There is nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide. No safe spots. You can throw yourself into the fjord. And if you are lucky, you won’t hit the rocks on your way down. But once in the water, the bullets may still get you. Swim for your life.
The terrorist murdered 19 kids in the cafe building. Instead of tearing it down, another building has been built around it, known as Hegnhuset. This can be translated as ‘the safeguard house’ or ‘the protective house’; safeguarding the building, as well as the ideas – and ideals – it embodies. The cafe building is contained completely within Hegnhuset, so those who cannot bear to be reminded of it, are protected from seeing it.
The house is a glass and wood pavilion, consisting of 69 columns that holds up the roof, one for each of those who died on 22 July 2011. Outside, surrounding and safeguarding the 69, are 495 timber pillars, one for each of those who survived, who will carry the memories of that day for the rest of their lives.
Hegnhuset has won several architectural awards, and it has been named one of the world’s most important buildings.
Inside, the cafe building has been kept intact, complete with bullet holes – and with the piano that some of the kids tried to hide behind, but to no avail. All is preserved as it was. Dried flowers are left, some behind the piano. There are photos, candles, figurines, little hearts with the words miss you engraved. We are asked not to take photos of this.
The wall that rips your heart to pieces
Along a wall, we see transcripts of text messages sent between the kids and their parents. It is brutal reading.
I have translated it below:
The school house
At the school house, we get a small reprieve. If you can call it that.
Lysningen (the clearing)
North on the island is a clearing where the light comes in. Here you will find a memorial with names and ages of everyone we lost at Utøya on 22 July. It is a steel ring, suspended from the trees; a circle – where no name is first or last. Every day, during the sun’s journey across the sky, each name is uniquely lit up for a while.
These places where horrific events have taken place: does visiting them make a difference? Is it meaningful?
Democracy at its best
Visiting Utøya is upsetting. Overwhelming even. But it is also beautiful and optimistic.
The island is a place to remember those that were so cruelly murdered here 11 years ago.
The island is also where people come to learn. School classes, sports clubs, youth clubs, humanitarian organisations: they all come here to discuss. Equality, diversity, tolerance, freedom of speech. Young people from all over the world travel to Utøya to share their experiences with peace- and human rights work.
Once again, it is a place for meetings, for conversation, for workshops, for reflection, for philosophical discourse. Once again, it is a venue for debates, hot-tempered disagreements, passion, political engagement: all the things that characterise democracy. Democracy at its best.
And once again, it is a camp site, a place for fun and games and football matches and swimming, for friendship and perhaps for strolling along Kjærlighetsstien (the lovers’ path) with the special someone.
Utøya has been reclaimed.
- It’s possible to visit Utøya on open days, organised several times per year. For info on dates, contact post at utoya.no or via Facebook. (Or you can contact me here and I will find out for you.)
- Visiting the island on open days is free of charge, including the crossing on MS Thorbjørn – but you must register your visit in advance. Places are limited.
- Utøya is a 45-min drive from Oslo, or 1 hour by bus (you will need to change busses). Free parking by the ferry landing.
- The kiosk on the island sells waffles, coffee, sodas, ice cream, snacks and necessities.