an island of beauty and sorrow, or, long study tour part #1: oslo & utøya


After a week traveling with my core course around Europe, I have returned to Copenhagen and have spent the rest of the weekend unpacking, doing laundry, and restocking my fridge and pantry.  My apartment is slowly filling with joy and laughter as my apartment-mates return from their past week of travels.  My Danish homework due tomorrow is looming, but for now I’m content to snuggle up on the couch with lots of blankets, some good music, and the realization that at least for this week, there’s no place I need to be other than right here (and, like, my classes, but that’s a post for another day).

For my core course’s Long Study Tour, we traveled to Oslo and London to study recent terrorist attacks in both cities.  Our focus in Oslo was the July 22nd, 2011 (22 juli) attacks in Oslo and on Utøya Island; in London, we paid special attention to religious extremism and the July 7, 2005 (7/7) metro and bus bombings.

Note: I discuss the 2011 Norwegian terrorist attack, where people as young as 15 were shot and killed, in depth in this post. 

We did and saw SO! MANY! THINGS! over the course (unintended pun) of the week, so I decided to split it between two (still very long) posts: one for Oslo & Utøya, and a second one for London.  Watch for the post about London to go up later this week!  I’m trying to get back into a more regular blogging rhythm after the craziness of, well, the last two months (because it officially, as of tomorrow, has been two months, ?!??!!!???!) because regular blogging gives me a sense of routine and structure in this crazy wild ride that study abroad has been.

I think the reason I keep pushing this blog post back is that I’m still struggling to wrap my mind around everything we did and saw and experienced.  Like Core Course Week, the past seven days were emotionally draining.  Studying terrorism in a classroom is one thing, going to an island where nearly 70 kids were shot and killed because of what they believed in is very, very different.  The travel we’ve done for our class—first to Germany, now in Norway and England—has served as a very tangible reminder of the human costs of terrorism.  There’s simply no way I can properly articulate and do justice to what it felt like to stand in a room where fourteen children were mercilessly shot, in a room where the bullet holes still exist as an ever-present reminder of evil.  I can only try.

Monday | Our study tour began bright and early on Monday morning at the Copenhagen airport as we boarded our plane for Oslo (For photographic proof, check out this week’s Friday Five post).  Immediately after we left the Oslo airport—which, by the way, is one of the nicest airports I’ve ever seen!!!—we headed to a pizza buffet for a much-needed lunch.  I tried to tell myself that this entire post wouldn’t revolve around the food we ate every day but since my life pretty much revolves around food, I can’t promise much.

After lunch, we made our way to 22. juli-senteret, an exhibition in the Oslo government building that was the target of the first attack on July 22nd, 2011.  That morning, a right-wing extremist (Andres Behring Breivik) parked a delivery truck next to the government building in downtown Oslo.  As he made his way to a previously-parked escape vehicle, the bomb exploded.  8 were killed, hundreds injured, and the government building severely damaged.  The exhibition now stands in the bottom floor of the government building, where damage from the blast is still visible.

As you walk through the exhibition, you start in the remembrance room, where photos of all 77 victims line the walls.  It’s here—seeing their pictures—that you get a sense of the magnitude of the devastation.  Multiple people told us before we left that because Norway has such a comparatively small population, nearly everyone knew someone, or knew someone who knew someone, who was in some way affected by this attack.  It’s also in this room that it really hits home how young some of the victims were—these were kids, teenagers, most younger than me.  They were kids who were active in politics because they believed they could, in some way, change the world for the better.  And they were killed because of it.

The exhibition then continues into a room lined with a timeline of the day’s attacks, starting from his placement of the vehicle in Oslo to his apprehension and arrest on Utøya Island many hours later.  The timeline uses text from the ensuing court case along with tweets from bystanders  and news organizations.  They also include excerpts from official speeches in order to paint a picture of the day’s events as they unfolded.  In the center of the room sits the twisted metal remains of the truck used for the bomb.

I was particularly struck by then-Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s press conference that night, which was displayed as part of the exhibition.  I’ve included the last section below:

We must never give up our values.
We must show that our open society can pass this test too.
That the answer to violence is even more democracy.
Even more humanity.
But never naivety.
We owe this to the victims and their families.

The final room plays a video of survivors of the attack, recounting the day as they stand in the places where they and their friends were shot.  They will live with the physical and psychological effects for the rest of their lives.  Watching the video brings you to the island, to the day, to the people.  There’s no way to properly convey the emotions of that room without being there.

After the museum, we loaded back into our bus and drove to Utøya Island, the site of the second attack on July 22nd, 2011.  Utøya is the site of a summer camp for the AUF, the youth organization of Norway’s Labor Party.  Nearly 600 teens were on the island for camp on the day of the attack.  After driving out of Oslo, the terrorist took the ferry (there’s only one) from the mainland to the island.  He dressed as a police officer, he said he was there to protect the children after the Oslo attack, and then he opened fire.  Over the course of the hour before police arrived to apprehend him, he shot and killed 67 kids.  Two more died as well, one from drowning and one due to injuries from falling into the water.

There’s been a lot of talk about the place and purpose of the island in the months and years after the attack.  It was ultimately decided that shuttering the camp and the island couldn’t be the answer; that would mean that evil won.  Today, the camp is very much still alive on the island, and new buildings and memorials are being constructed.  One of the most moving parts of the island is the old café building, where the largest number were killed.  The families of the victims asked for a place of remembrance on the island—a place to mourn, a place to remember the deep loss they will always feel.  Instead of tearing down the café building—the original plan—architects instead built a structure around it, calling it a Norwegian word that loosely translates to “the protecting house.”  The exterior holds 495 outer poles to represent the 495 survivors on the island that day, while the roof is supported by 69 columns, each representing someone who lost their life. You can read more about the structure on the architect’s website here.


Inside the structure is a poem, written by a Norwegian poet in the aftermath of the attack.  It’s one of the most hauntingly beautiful poems I’ve read, and I included the English translation here:

after july 22

after we were blown to pieces
after friday fell apart in our hands
after we had to learn norwegian all over again
after the grief reached the roots of our hair
after the days began raining down over us

words survive a nine millimetre glock
love is stronger than a five hundred kilo bomb
holding hands is mightier than a loading motion
a little kiss worth so much more than fifteen hundred pages of hate
a we worth so much more than an i

there’ll be another july twenty two, there must be
a ferry to carry other beating hearts across
tents pitched on the green grass
the kiss of the morning sun to awaken the island
hey, hey, time to get up and change the world

– frode grytten, July 2011

The structure also houses another timeline, much like the one in the July 22 exhibit in Oslo.  This one also includes text messages sent and received by those on the island and their loved ones—both those who survived and those who did not.

Utøya is a strange and difficult place to be.  It is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful and idyllic places I’ve ever seen.  It’s a place that’s made for laughter, for joy, for happiness, for peace, for changing the world.  And yet it’s a place that has seen so, so much pain and heartbreak, so many lives uprooted and ended, so much sadness and sorrow and trauma and devastation.  How can you reconcile those?

Tuesday | We slept on the island Monday night, waking up for a tour of the island with one of the principal designers of the new buildings and memorials on the island, like this circular one below:

We then headed back to Oslo for a meeting with Renate Tårnæs, the secretary general of the AUF and a survivor of the attack.  I aspire to have her grace, poise, and elegance, and I truly admire her for her continued work in the AUF.  When we asked how she could carry on in the wake of the grief she continues to feel six years after the tragedy, she said this: “I was attacked because I believed in something—views that say no matter who you are or where you come from, you should have a place in society—that’s why it’s important to still work.”  At the end of the day, she was attacked for her political beliefs, attacked for her fundamental belief in a better world for everyone.  We discussed the process of recovery and how to include the attack and its deliberate political intentions in a national dialogue.

With that, we headed back to the Oslo airport and it was wheels up to London for the rest of the week!  Check back in a few days to hear all about our British (mis)adventures.

6 thoughts on “an island of beauty and sorrow, or, long study tour part #1: oslo & utøya

  1. Such a powerful reflection, Jenn. I can’t wait to read your next post. When you get back to town I welcome you to come talk with my students about this learning adventure!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Ms. Merrill! It means so much to me to know you’re reading my blog!!! I would absolutely love to come in and talk to your students whenever—as if I need another reason to come back to visit Breck 🙂 I’ll be sure to email you when it gets closer to my return and we can see if the dates work out!


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