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Remembering Utoya

July 21, 2012

A year after Oslo and the Norwegian island of Utoya saw deadly attacks, many view the island as a place of deep sadness. But one survivor is striving to revive fond, pre-attack memories of Utoya.

July 2011 memorial to victims of the Norway massacres
Image: dapd

A place of joy, debate, laughter and song. That's what Utoya, a small island in Norway's Lake Tyri, was for years. The Norwegian Labor Party's youth movement began holding summer camps there in the 1950s. Many of Norway's senior politicians, including Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, spent their summers on the island when they were young.

For some, Utoya was even the place where they found the love of their lives. But Anders Behring Breivik's deadly attack a year ago Monday has made the island synonymous with violence, pain and loss.

After setting off a deadly car bomb in the Norwegian capital Oslo, Breivik went on to commit a shooting spree claiming 69 lives on Utoya. Breivik's trial ended last month, and his sentence is expected in August.

Joyous young person on Utoya before the massacre (photo: Tore Sinding Bekkedal)
This photo by Bekkedal shows a scene in Utoya before the massacreImage: Tore Sinding Bekkedal

Mixed memories

Tore Sinding Bekkedal, the unofficial photographer of the Utoya summer camps, is striving to remind the Norwegian public what the island used to be like. Last year, the fifth time he participated in the camp, he took about 5,000 photos of events before the massacre. He told DW they show the island's "happy face."

"It's a wonderful, a very special mood," Bekkedal said of the camp. "It's a bunch of people sharing the same political views. It's basically our little country for a week."

Sixty-nine of the people featured in many of Bekkedal's photographs were killed in the massacre. Bekkedal himself survived by hiding first in a toilet cubicle, and then in a storage room.

His photos have become part of history, testimony to the last days of people who could have become Norway's future political leaders.

"It's very weird," Bekkedal said. "You're thinking about what a happy situation it was, and at the same time you also find yourself thinking about how there are lots of people in the pictures who are dead."

Photo by Tore Sinding Bekkedal of a building on Utoya
Re-claiming Utoya as a place of joy stands to be difficultImage: Tore Sinding Bekkedal

Changing public perceptions

Norwegian police took Bekkedal's camera and memory cards after the massacre. When the items were returned several months ago, he decided to choose a number of pictures for publication with the help of Norway's state broadcaster, NRK.

Bekkedal said going through the pictures was a difficult process.

"It was a good way to evoke the good memories, the ones we want to have of the people we lost," he recounted. "But at the same time, there's an extraordinary bitterness about never being able to spend any more such happy moments with the same people."

Bekkedal said he hopes the pictures he took before the tragedy will remind people what Utoya was really like. But he is also nervous about how other participants at the summer camp will react to the images.

Utoya Youth Camp before the massacre (photo: Tore Sinding Bekkedal)
Bekkedal's photos bring him mixed emotionsImage: Tore Sinding Bekkedal

"What the others feel about it means the world to me, and I was worried that people would think I was going about it in the wrong way," Bekkedal said. "But it turned out [their reaction] was positive, and I was very relieved indeed."

He added that many people shared his frustrations about public perceptions of Utoya, and that fellow camp participants also want to stand up and explain what the island means to them.

Memorial debate

However, other friends and family of Breivik's victims want Utoya to be a memorial to their loved ones. They are opposed to holding summer camps there ever again.

Bekkedal, and many with him, think that would be the wrong way to go.

"Utoya was attacked because Breivik perceived it as a threat," he said. "The proper response to an attack like that is to maintain and try to increase that threat to people like him."

Bekkedal added that bringing the camp back would also be meaningful for previous participants.

"We feel it is tremendously important," he said, "because Utoya is a place we love very much."

Bekkedal pointed out that no one has proposed shutting down Norwegian government headquarters and turning it into a memorial ground.

"That's because people know Oslo," he said. "It's a place already defined in their minds and it's not defined by the bombing."

Bekkedal views it as his task to keep reminding Norwegians that like the government district, Utoya should not be seen as "that place with a massacre."

A man places a Norwegian flag between flowers in Utvika in front of Utoya island. (photo: AP)
Views differ on how Utoya should be rememberedImage: dapd

Some have argued for a slow revival of Utoya's summer camps, if that. But Bekkedal said, "I'll pitch a tent there as soon as practically possible!"

He planned to commemorate the first anniversary of the attacks on Utoya itself. No camp is taking place there this summer, but the amateur photographer hopes that day will come soon enough.

Author: Lars Bevanger / ar
Editor: Shant Shahrigian