I was looking through photos from 6 years ago and one from made me stop to catch my breath.
It was taken 6 years ago today, on July 22 2011, on the day of the Oslo attacks. We had been living in Oslo for 3 years and that week happened to be in Dublin visiting my parents. Wherever we’ve lived I’ve still called Dublin home, but then, Oslo was the only home our two girls really knew. That afternoon we were having a rare wander around town, taking goofy photos, climbing on sculptures and at Temple Bar we stopped at a fancy sweet shop. The friendly owner was curious to hear we lived in Oslo, telling us how much he liked the Norwegian tourists, who were always so friendly. I took this photo of our younger daughter up against the silly wall chart. This particular look on her face is the look of a toddler, her look, that doesn’t really show anymore, but the seriousness in her face chills me – this blurry moment in time has become very precious when I remember what happened next.
As we stood outside eating our jelly beans, time briefly stopped when I read the first of many texts on my phone. From my mum “some kind of explosion in Oslo”, and from an Oslo friend “are you okay? we just heard about what’s going on in central Oslo”. This was our first inkling of the horrendous attacks that were just getting started, one lone man who planted a car bomb in the city centre (killing eight) in an effort to distract the security forces while he drove to the island of Utøya where he went on a shooting spree at a political party summer camp where he killed 69. Those are the facts which I’ll quickly remind you of, which still make my stomach turn. The tragedy is usually defined as the worst attack in Norway since World War II but that’s a huge understatement – to me it was one of the most horrible events I could ever have expected to live through.
But all this was still unfolding far from us while we continued our family afternoon out – I didn’t have a roaming plan so I stayed off the news sites and Twitter, and I didn’t think it sounded too serious. Maybe it was an accident or the act of some crazy angry anarchist. We quickly heard back from a neighbour that there was no damage to our street, our building, any shattered windows or general chaos. We had no idea that something much more horrible was already underway.
We had the luxury of distraction and were busy with seeing family and travelling later that weekend. That evening we didn’t want to watch much news – there were reports of the awful attacks on the island and no-one (least of all the police) had any clue as to who was responsible, or what was happening, but there was plenty of speculation online about foreign-born terrorists, about Norway’s generous social system getting its comeuppance. It all still felt at one remove, not my tragedy.
I have only experienced real shock a couple of times in my life. The kind that can take your breath away, where it’s impossible to compehend how something truly awful could happen in our lifetime, while we watch. The morning after the attacks was one of those shocks.
With my cup of tea in hand I read the BBC website and I learned how bad it was – more than 60 teenagers had been shot in cold blood during the shooting spree, probably just one man was responsible and it took almost 2 hours for him to be stopped. And he was not a stranger, he was as Norwegian as they come, from one of the nicer parts of Oslo which we knew quite well. This was in the city we called home, where our two children might grow up.
My mum and I had planned to take the kids to the park that morning. While they played I took a walk and as I sat alone on a bench watching the swans in the pond and listening to the shouts of the football dads nearby, I found myself collapsing inwards with tears, from grief for those families who were still being notified, the overwhelming awfulness of something that was already in the past, that had not been stopped. In the cafe afterwards, I tried to focus on the present. My mum said to a couple at a neighbouring table “my daughter here lives in Oslo, you know, where that terrible attack happened yesterday”. “Oh yes,” they nodded, “we heard about that. Awful wasn’t it?” Yes indeed it was, but what more could they say except that the carrot cake was quite good?
The next week kept us busy, at the beach in Youghal, visiting the giraffes on Fota island, trying to enjoy a normal holiday, but every so often I’d let myself think about Oslo and feel weighed down by it all, unable to help, feeling it was beyond anyone’s grasp. I wanted to be there, with friends, in the city we loved, but it was also good to be away from what I knew would be a difficult and very personal aftermath. Though the bomb had gone off close to our apartment we rationalised that the chances were slim of our being on that street on a Friday afternoon and we realised quickly that no-one we knew was involved. We were very lucky, but still, the place we considered our home had been attacked.
We flew back to Oslo a week after it happened. Things seemed mostly normal, but on the first evening my husband and I took it in turns to go and look at the bomb site a few blocks from our place, to check out the security situation, road blocks, see how safe we might feel. During my turn I rode my bike down to the cathedral where the news had reported that a spontaneous sea of roses had been growing over the week. I didn’t really want to go and see it as it felt too painful and private to look at other people’s pain. But what a sight it was to experience this mass of colour and light, of sympathy and love and refusal to be squashed down. This strong emotion followed into the very public marches and speeches and concerts that followed: brave and strong and normal people who stood up to declare their hope. It was the most powerful possible denial of the evil that had happened among us, especially among those of us who had grown up here and had even less understanding than I did of what caused this to happen here.
We didn’t really talk to our kids about what happened that day. Our older daughter was 5 and we had to tell her something – we told her that a bad, unhappy man had left a bomb outside one of those office buildings nearby and he killed some people, but that we was locked away in prison now, and we were not in any danger. She seemed to accept that and didn’t ask more so we didn’t tell her more.
What affected her most was the fact that the bus we took most days to kindergarten – which went through the government quarter – had to be diverted by the damage, (and it still is, as they have not yet decided how to rebuild that area). She used to get excited when the bus would announce the stop at “Apotekegate” because she would giggle and call it Potato Gate. Over the first few months she would sometimes declare on the bus, “we’re going this way, and not going to Potato gate because that man did that bad thing with the bomb. Why did he do the bad thing mummy?“ I had to tell her I didn’t know, often choking back tears. I still don’t know why, but I was never able to tell her what else that same man had done that day, how many people actually died and how horribly. She still doesn’t know the whole story – and we have never talked to our younger girl about the attacks, following general advice that you should answer childrens’ big-world worries when they raise them and not before – but they will both learn it in time, as part of history, and there are enough other stories going on in the world these days to keep us anxious.
I found that many people just couldn’t bring themselves to talk about it. I find Norwegians to be very pragmatic and even detached, and with work colleagues it felt like something you just didn’t discuss: but there was also an understanding that there was nothing to be said and after the first few months, the tabloid media came in for a lot of flak for finding any reason they could to print the attacker’s name or photo – a prison complaint, some issue with his mother. The ten-week trial was complex and heartbreaking and I often had to pass by the downtown courthouse, a beautiful modern building which was scarred by a huge black security and media tent on its front. I did my best to follow it in the papers, to watch how the rule of law was trying its damndest to deal justly with a guilty man, to find reasons for his actions and teach us what could have been done better to prevent something like it happening again, anywhere in the world.
Apparently, one in four Norwegians knew someone who was injured or killed, as the victims had come from all over the country to this summer camp. The effects lingered and will never really go away. We learned that an acquaintance was actually a dentist and had led the indentification team. A year later, while on a work project I spent an hour interviewing a Sri Lankan-born executive about why she loved her job with that company and I was speechless to learn afterwards that she had lost a daughter on the island. I wondered, how could she function, continue with her working life, not think about it all the time? I would never find that out, that was never for me to know.
Norway was scarred on that day, a sudden, deep and very personal hurt – right at its heart: its children who were meant to go on to shape its future society. Unlike other modern massacres there was no real “movement” to attach to these attacks which might give it some sense of otherness and madness. It was simply senseless, an act of self-absorption by a thoroughly-detached local boy who seems to have spent too much time playing violent video games.
In his excellent 2015 essay, Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote: “That is where we should direct our attention, to the collapse within the human being which these actions represent, and which makes them possible. Killing another person requires a tremendous amount of distance, and the space that makes such distance possible has appeared in the midst of our culture. It has appeared among us, and it exists here, now.”
We left Norway two years ago: after 7 good years it was time for us to leave. We would always be foreigners there, it was just the way it worked out. And it might seem fair to say that July 22 was not, is still not, our tragedy. But it is actually, it’s all of ours. We cannot forget to reflect on how this happened, why it happened. And to watch in amazement how the country managed to move on and absorb its grief, remembering those who are not living and those they left behind.