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The reminiscence of an Osloite


By Lise K. Haugen


The Montréal Review, September 2011




Mid-July in Oslo is generally a very quiet time, as much of the city's population leaves in order to embark on the summer holiday season. On the 22nd of July 2011, this peaceful atmosphere in our capital city, and our country, was broken by two sequential terror attacks which together claimed the lives of 77 innocent people and the injuring of more than 100.  The silence was ruptured by the work of a single individual: one in the center of Oslo and one in Utøya, a small island 38 kilometers north-west of our Capital.

The attacks were as much a shock on peaceful Norway, as they were to the free world.

It began when a car bomb was detonated at about 15.25 in front of the building where Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and the Ministry of Justice normally hold office. I was at work in Oslo when it happened, but I did not hear the bangs. Few minutes later on my way to the metro, I knew something had happened. An intense sound of sirens emerged, and I saw a convoy of emergency cars passing by on the high way.

My first thought, before I read the media headlines, was a huge chain collision. I spoke to the passengers next to me on the metro in order to figure out what was going on, but none of them knew, and most passengers seemed unaware of the circumstances. Though one of them described a loud crash which sounded like thunder and lightning. We soon realized that an explosion had happened in the city center, somewhere close to the main political centre. Windows were blown out that fell within a range of more than a hundred meters from the blast, smoke came up from the political headquarters, and the building hosting Norway's largest newspaper, VG, was affected. But we did not know if it was an accident or not.

What is this? Was the first question that arose on everyone's lips. A feeling of total chaos and uncertainty ruled for minutes and hours after the explosion, and many issues were un-clarified. To begin with, the police could not confirm if it was a bomb or not, and if so, were there several bombs, several suspects, and who were the masterminds behind it? Video shots from the scene showed a burnt-out car, and speculations flourished.

Before the police confirmed that it was a bomb and who the main suspect was, the media speculated heavily, and the Norwegian terror expertises were invited to dredge upon the important questions: What caused this? Was it a bomb? Who did it? Can we expect to see several more?

The fact that the heart of the political centre in Oslo was affected by a blow-out could not be a coincidence. Islamic extremism and Al Qaeda linked groups were mentioned more than once as the possible perpetrators by the domestic and international media. In the early aftermath of the events, most Norwegians, including Norwegian Muslims, thought in the same direction. While the heated debate went on, reports notified us about shootings on Utøya less than two hours after the first incident in Oslo.

At first, the shooting was not seen as connected. When it was revealed that the ruling Labor Party held a summer youth camp on the island, and the number of those wounded and shot began to increase, the fear of a major attack happening on Norwegian soil began to sink in. The police warned people to not move around in the city center, and the situation could only be characterized as very tense.

What is next? New information kept ticking in, and at times, it was difficult to separate facts from rumors. How many shooters there were was impossible to answer. Some said one, others said two or three. Several witnesses on Utøya reported the description of a tall and blond gunman, dressed up as a police officer basically hunting down the victims. As the atrocities were carried out on an island, the victims had nowhere to escape. Many jumped into the water and started to swim, others were hiding in caves, and some played dead lying next to dead bodies. The paradise island turned into hell, Jens Stoltenberg commented.

In the early hours of the terror in Oslo, several people with Middle Eastern and Muslim backgrounds were physically attacked in the city. Some were thrown off public transport, beaten, or harassed. Some stayed inside in fear of getting attacked on the streets, and took taxis rather than public transport to get from A to B.

After the breaking news that an ethnic blond Norwegian with a Christian background planned and carried out the terror, and not a person or a group with an Islamic background, many Norwegian people, both Muslim, and non-Muslim, expressed great relief.

I do not dare to think about what the consequences would have been if a person with a Muslim background, grown up in Norway had carried out the attacks. Norway would have been broken, a Norwegian lady of Muslim heritage said to me after the events.

Even though all questions are not yet answered, we now know that it was the 32 year old Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik that carried out both of the attacks. As far as it is known, he was all alone in executing it. He has admitted to carrying out all the attacks, and claimed that it was a cruel but necessary deed in order save Europe from a Muslim 'takeover'.

The terror attacks were Breivik's plan B. His number one plan was to collect enough money to spread his beliefs to as many people as possible. Realizing that he would not reach this desired goal, he instead went for the plan that caused the devastating result.

The Norwegian emergency preparedness was tested all the way down to the very bottom on the fatal day in July. Emergency personnel and volunteers have gained deserved praise for their heroic effort to save lives and help the wounded. However, the police's actions, especially their response to solve the Utøya crisis, have been questioned in the aftermath. Some of the critique is noteworthy, though the level of information the police possessed at that time should be taken into consideration when making a judgment. The situation was over-complex, and even though the police are trained to face such a catastrophe, uncertainty and chaos made their work hard to accomplish.

Anders Behring Breivik also tried to fool the police after he was arrested, claiming that he was not responsible for the attack in Oslo's city center, that there were three operating cells and three attacks, and the last attack was still to come. The Norwegian Labor Party was his main target, as they were 'Islamizing' Norway.

The car with the bomb was parked in front of the governmental building for 7-8 minutes before the bomb detonated. CCTV images have captured Breivik as he was walking away from the car wearing a fake police uniform and helmet with a gun in his hand. A random passer-by caught suspicion, and alarmed the police as Breivik was leaving the scene in his uniform driving in the opposite traffic lane.

Anders Behring Breivik is currently in total isolation, and his lawyer, Geir Lippestad, says that he does not show any remorse. Lippestad says Breivik is quite contained, and doubts that he will show any sign of regret in the upcoming trial. Meanwhile, the survivors and the rest of the Norwegian community try to carry on with their lives.

Much indicates that the Norwegian police will be furnished with increased resources in the near future. The Norwegian government has already granted huge amounts of funding. The police have already carried out several armed operations after false bomb alerts, and at least two young men has been arrested and caught in possession of explosives since the end of July. A former Nazi was arrested in Oslo after in possession of explosives, weapons and a police uniform in late August, and in mid-September a 17 year old was arrested for possessing explosives.

The sound of helicopters hovering in the air over Oslo has become more frequent, the police are more visible, and people are more aware of sirens.

While the world changed after 9/11, Norway changed after 22/7 2011.  But the Norwegian people have shown surprisingly little fear since the attacks. Only a few days after the atrocities, several hundred thousand people gathered in Oslo city center in honor of a peaceful tribute to the fallen and wounded, as well as to honor the bravery of the emergency personnel and volunteers.

Political organizations from left to right have increased their list of members, and the Norwegian Red Cross has also gained increased support. Immigrants have stated that they have never felt more included in mainstream society than now, and even one the most immigrant hostile parties in Norway, the Progress Party (FRP), suffered on a national scale in the latest local elections a few days ago.

So far, Anders Behring Breivik's fear of multiculturalism and an Islamic takeover, has not taken root into the Norwegian mind. This could not have been manifested more clearly than by a recent concert held in Oslo's main Cathedral, where non-religious people had gathered arm-in-arm together with Christians to find comfort in the aftermath of the tragedy.

We love that this is normal. We have never loved our country so much as we have in the past.


Lise K. Haugen is a Higher Executive Officer at the Norwegian Labor and Welfare administration and a Graduate Student in International Political Economy.


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