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Four years after Breivik

Valeria Criscione, Utoya/Oslo
August 7, 2015

This weekend marks the emotional return of the Norwegian Labour Party Youth to Utoya for the first summer camp since the deadly attacks four years ago. Valeria Criscione reports from Oslo and Utoya.

Utoya Sommercamp 4 Jahre nach Breivik
Image: DW/V. Criscione

On July 22, 2011, Norwegian right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik boarded a ferry to the idyllic island of Utoya, just an hour outside Oslo, and hunted down 69 people - mostly children - with a Glock pistol and Ruger rifle. Earlier that afternoon, he had detonated a car bomb at the Labour-led government headquarters in Oslo, killing eight.

Eskil Pedersen, then Labour Party Youth leader, vowed the day after the attacks that its members would return to Utoya.

Four years later, Håkon Knudsen will be one of the hundreds of Labour Party Youth members making the journey back. He was in the cafeteria building that day when he first heard shots and saw what looked like a Norwegian police officer. But it wasn't until he saw Breivik shoot a fellow camper in cold blood that he understood it was not a drill. He threw himself into the sea just as Breivik opened fire on several dozen campers trapped by the shore.

Utoya Sommercamp 5 Jahre nach Breivik
Breivik took a ferry to reach UtoyaImage: DW/V. Criscione

"For me Utoya is both happy stories and also my worst memories," Knudsen said in an interview with DW. "I am excited about being able to [go back]. It was not a certainty that we would return to Utoya in 2011. It's been a long journey."

Long road back

Some of the island's cabins have since been rebuilt, a new hall has been resurrected and a memorial steel ring bearing the victims' names has been hung high in the woods. Other buildings, such as the main cafeteria, have been purposely preserved with Breivik's bullet holes still pierced into the walls in order to teach about "racism and the need to stand up for democracy," said Jørgen Frydnes, Utoya project manager, during a press conference on the island.

But there has been initial resistance to resuming camp at Utoya in the years following the attack, both by those who were there that day and family members who lost loved ones. In the past two years, the camp has been held at Gulsrud - an onshore site across from Utoya - with police present. This year's camp will therefore mark a watershed moment for the country in healing from Norway's worst peacetime tragedy and moving forward.

building copyright: Valeria Criscione
Bullet holes in buildings still offer a stark reminderImage: DW/V. Criscione

"The general mood is quite optimistic, yet special," said Knudsen. "There are a lot of campers going back knowing how important the camp is not just for our organization, but for our country…I believe it is a big step. It's like a culmination of the last four years of how we can take our everyday life and political life back."

Norway: Youth camp after the massacre

This year's camp will also be historic for its expected record turnout. Around 1,000 Labour Party Youth are registered to attend the three-day summer camp, nearly twice the attendance of that fateful July day in 2011.

The difference this time is that most of the youth registered for this year's event were not on the island with Breivik. Pedersen said approximately 70 percent of those attending this year's camp will be new members. That is also part of the reason why there was a keen interest in getting back to the island "before they got too old" to attend.

Painful years

"It's been four hectic, painful years, but I think this shows some of the resolve in the people after July 22," said Pedersen in an interview with DW in Oslo. "That just days after, we went to the streets with flowers and said 'We don't want the gunman to define our country.' And so even though this is painful, life goes on, and it has to."

Pedersen is one of several special guests expected to visit Utoya camp this weekend, including two former Norwegian Labour prime ministers, Jens Stoltenberg, currently NATO Secretary-General, and Gro Harlem Brundtland. Both were the failed targets of Breivik's attacks that day. The self-proclaimed militant nationalist blamed the Labour Party for promoting the "Islamic colonization" of Norway through its "pro-multicultural" policies and had initially even planned to publicly behead Brundtland on the island.

Mani Hussaini, Pedersen's successor as Labor Party Youth leader, has called on this year's gathering to focus on international solidarity. In a letter to members, he stressed the importance of gathering to remember those lost, promoting the ideals that came under attack on July 22, to show the perpetrator that he did not tear down the society they had built up together.

building on harbor front copyright: Valeria Criscione
Labour Youth leader Hussaini said that it's now time for Utoya to move onImage: DW

"Utoya is the heart of the Labour Youth and the island has a long, bright history," Hussaini said at a press conference on the island on Wednesday. "Utoya is also the site of the darkest day during peacetime here in Norway. The restoration of Utoya is about not allowing a dark story overshadow the bright history.

"We have rebuilt Utoya step-by-step, piece-by-piece since the terror attack in 2011. To once again be able to use Utoya as host for a summer camp is a major and important step toward the work in rebuilding Utoya."

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