April 15, 2012 / 7:30 AM / 8 years ago

Special Report: Life after Breivik

OSLO (Reuters) - Vegard Groeslie Wennesland wants to finish the master’s dissertation he intended to edit on the island of Utoeya last July, when he survived Norway’s most violent attack since World War Two.

Vegard Groeslie Wennesland, a 28-year-old survivor of the 2011 Utoeya island massacre, speaks outside the Institute for Cultural Studies and Oriental Languages at the University of Oslo March 13, 2012. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

But for several months the 28-year old student at the University of Oslo has struggled to focus on his paper, which looks at the political life of Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps.

Over coffee in the university cafeteria, he fiddles absent-mindedly with an orange-and-white cotton bracelet and recalls his last work on the dissertation. “I emailed a draft to my father so he could look at it. ‘Send me an SMS when you get it,’ I wrote... ‘My God, it’s raining here.’”

The bracelet, marked with the word UTOEYA in capital letters, was given to those attending last summer’s Labour Party youth camp on the island. Wennesland hasn’t taken his off since the day far-right militant Anders Behring Breivik shot dead 69 teenagers and adults. Hours earlier the 33-year old had planted a car bomb outside the prime minister’s office in central Oslo, killing eight.

In a nation of five million where most people either knew one of the victims or know someone who did, the attacks have cut deep. Survivors - including more than 240 wounded - still get flashbacks, panic attacks or the strange feeling they are spectators of their own lives. Young people have become more involved in politics.

But it is striking too what “July 22,” as the attacks are commonly called in Norway, has not done. It has not made Norwegians more fearful of one another, or triggered calls for tougher anti-terrorist measures. Instead, many Norwegians say it has reaffirmed their faith in a society they like to see as liberal, tolerant and egalitarian.

That may in part be because Breivik, whose trial begins on April 16, apparently acted alone. He has admitted to the attacks but refused to plead guilty because he said his actions were necessary to protect Norway from Muslim immigration and multiculturalism. The teenage activists on Utoeya, he said, were traitors to the Norwegian nation. His lawyer says his only regret is that he did not do more damage.

A first psychiatric evaluation found him to be psychotic and criminally insane; a second assessment, ordered after a public outcry over how an insane person could spend years methodically planning sophisticated attacks without being detected, concluded he was sane.

If the judges agree and deem that he was sane at the time of the attacks he could face up to 21 years in prison with the possibility for extensions to prevent him from repeating his crimes. If they find he was insane, Breivik would likely face detention in a secure psychiatric institution for as long as he is considered sick.

The judges have decided that some parts of the trial can be televised - a rarity in Norway. But Breivik’s week-long witness statement will not be shown, partly to prevent him using the trial as a political platform.

Norway’s response to the attacks also says a lot about the country. One study found Norwegians trust each other more, not less, after Breivik. The attacks have certainly fired up existing activists such as Wennesland, whose friend Haavard Vederhus, the head of the Labour Party Youth League’s Oslo branch, was shot dead on Utoeya, and was replaced by Wennesland.

“This guy wanted to kill me because I believe in democracy, openness, tolerance and dialogue,” Wennesland, dressed in a hooded top and Converse shoes, said. “Well, fuck it. If that is what he wanted to kill me for, I am going to carry on fighting for it.”


In the months after the shooting, Wennesland said, Palestinian friends called up to check on him. “They’ve been through bombings, massacres, occupation and they are telling me how they understand how I feel ... It felt absurd. They’ve been through so much.”

He survived the shootings by barricading himself in a red wooden cabin with 50 or so others, hiding under a bed and trying to stay as quiet as possible while Breivik, whom he had seen gunning people down minutes earlier, attempted to force his way in.

Breivik shot through a window and pushed against the door of the cabin without success before continuing on his killing spree. “I saw him kill five-six people,” said Wennesland. “He shot them once each. When they fell on the ground, he shot them again, one bullet each.”

Campaigning for local elections in September brought companionship and a fresh focus, said Wennesland.

He’s not the only one to find that. Since the attacks, membership of the youth wings of Norway’s major political parties has jumped: by 46 percent between 2010 and 2011 in the case of Labour, to 13,900, and by 59 percent for the Young Conservatives, to 4,422. Membership of the populist anti-immigration Progress Party rose 11 percent between July 21 and the end of 2011, to 4,761 members.

The prime minister said right after Breivik’s attacks that they should lead to “more democracy, more openness and more humanity.” They were hardly mentioned in local election campaigning. No parties called for tougher laws or focused on national security, concentrating on practical issues such as the state of elderly care and schools.

Turnout, at just over two-thirds of voters, was the highest in two decades. Labour won 32 percent of the vote, its best result in 24 years. The Progress Party - to which Breivik briefly belonged - had its worst return in 16 years.

After the election, said Wennesland, he felt empty. He drifted apart from his girlfriend.

Around him in the cafeteria, students type on their laptops or chat. He takes a sip from his coffee and brushes the bracelet on his wrist. “I can’t take it off. It still is very present. It is a reminder that I should be grateful for ... all the things I can enjoy, like this really bad cup of coffee.”

He chuckles and pauses.

“And of course, I wear it for the people we lost.”


In a cozy one-bedroom flat in western Oslo, psychologist Gry Staalsett, who has more than 20 years experience in counseling people, is talking about the coming trial. She has been helping survivors and relatives of the victims cope with everyday life.

Smiley and bespectacled, the daughter of a former bishop was at home when the attacks happened, preparing a class she was going to teach in Denmark a few days later and consulting volumes such as “Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty.” She was also preparing a big party for her 50th birthday. The news ended those plans.

Initially the aim was to give “emotional first aid,” she said, to help survivors get an outline of what happened, fill in the missing parts of one another’s stories. At the point of crisis, she said, people’s senses and perception are overruled by the body’s urge to either freeze, fight or flee.

“You do not have a full picture of what really happened, so you can have gaps in your memory. You try to fill in and create a story to make sense of it.”

Now she’s focused on preparing survivors and the families of victims for the 10-week trial. For the first week or so, Breivik will be called on to describe what he did, how he prepared it and why he did it.

“The trial ... will describe in unemotional, legal language very cruel acts that have been committed.” Each killing is likely to be dealt with very briefly - each was described in about five lines in the indictment. The court expects more than 800 journalists, who may get in the way. Painful details may be presented, but the focus will stay on Breivik, not on the victims, which may feel unfair.

Ten weeks is a very long time, she adds. “We have suggested they (the families of victims) make plans to see friends, go to the cinema, have breaks ... Otherwise, it will be too hard.”

Some relatives and survivors have said they want to follow the whole procedure, others only part. Some plan to leave the country.


One person who is feeling the strain is Labour politician Laila Gustavsen, a 38-year-old member of parliament. Gustavsen’s 18-year old daughter Marte Oedegaarden was shot twice in the back and spent months in the hospital recovering.

Mother and daughter attended Breivik’s public remand hearings in February. Breivik made what his lawyer said was a far-right salute, and said he had acted to preserve Norway’s cultural identity.

“What he said was shocking, completely ridiculous,” Gustavsen said the following day.

Frank and direct, the daughter of paper mill workers tries not to think of Breivik. She went back to work a few days after the attacks.

But she sometimes finds herself crying spontaneously in front of strangers, and in March her doctor advised her to go on sick leave for a few weeks.

“Did it really happen? I still ask myself that sometimes,” said Gustavsen. “Then you remember the reality of it: we live through it every day.”

Oedegaarden, a fan of English football club Manchester United, was in hospital until Christmas. When she was discharged and slept in her own bed for the first time in months, she said, she got the sense that part of her was still living her old life.

“It feels like it is July 25 and I have just come home,” she wrote on her blog. “A lot of sleep, because you don’t sleep a lot at the summer camp. Christmas in the living room. ‘What? Christmas? But I just came back from summer camp?’”

She finds it hard being with others. “I have to practise to be around other people in society and take one step at the time,” she wrote. “To walk in your own footsteps in a completely different situation is very difficult. I got an intense feeling of wanting to become invisible.”

It’s tough to see your child in need of care, said Gustavsen. “It makes me angry. She should be able to go on as before,” she wrote in her own blog in September. “But nothing is as before. It’s strange how quickly the abnormal becomes normal.”

At the same time Gustavsen, who is a member of Norway’s foreign affairs and defense parliamentary committee, sees no reason for Norway to toughen its anti-terrorism laws and believes it is crucial for its society to stay open. Most political parties agree. Only the Progress Party urges tougher security.

“As a country, you have to prioritize how you use your resources. And the focus on security and safety distracts your focus from working on prevention,” said Gustavsen.

A survey by the UNI Rokkan Center in Bergen and the Oslo-based Institute for Social Research in August found 52 percent of 2,252 respondents expressed greater, not less, trust in other people after the attacks, although one-third of 18-24-year olds said they were more skeptical of other people.

The study, published in January in the journal Political Science and Politics, pointed to a marked difference between attitudes in Norway after Breivik, and in America after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, in which 168 people were killed.

Some 62 percent of the people surveyed in Norway said they were “not very concerned” when asked about the possibility of more terror attacks in Norway in the near future - only 3 percent were “very concerned”. A U.S. survey of opinion polls conducted by broadcasters after the Oklahoma City bombing found around 58 percent of Americans surveyed in an NBC poll were “very” or a “great deal” concerned that terrorists would commit acts of violence in the United States. An ABC poll also conducted right after the bombing found 38 percent of Americans were “very” or a “great deal” worried.

Lead researcher Dag Wollebaek said the absence of widespread fear is connected to a deep-rooted culture of trust in Scandinavia, even to the point where the region is seen by some as a “museum of gullibility”.

Norway, a wealthy, socially equal and ethnically homogenous country, has a strong culture of trust between people and towards its institutions. “People tend to expect the best from other people and from their government,” he said.


That doesn’t mean life is perfect. In a cafe in a shopping centre in Skien in southern Norway, 22-year old Adrian Pracon concedes he has problems. A part-time barman, he has struggled with depression since the attacks and is on long-term sick leave.

As he talks, the brown-haired son of Polish immigrants clutches his coffee cup and scans every person who passes the table. Checking for exits has become second nature. “I couldn’t find one when I was on Utoeya.”

He explains how he would escape if something were to happen. He points to three holes in the ceiling right above him. “If there was a fire, this would be a safe place to be because these would extract the smoke.”

He laughed. “I’m not afraid of someone doing something. I am more afraid of what a crowd would do if something were to happen,” he said. “Girls in particular are really scary because they scream for whatever reason,” he added with another laugh. “They scream when they are happy or when they see their friend looks good in a new top.”

Pracon came face to face with Breivik several times on July 22. During one encounter, he saw him coming out of the woods shooting at people. “He was shouting that he was going to kill us all,” said Pracon.

“He turned towards me. You feel trapped, like you have no place to go or that there is nothing you can do. You just hope that he is going to shoot in the head, in the heart to make it go fast. All I could say was: ‘Don’t shoot.’

“I remember him pointing the gun at me for quite a long time before he took it down, turned and walked away.”

Later, he lay on the ground, pretending to be dead. “I was shaking terribly, I was also breathing very fast but it all stopped at that moment because the body understands that it must be still,” he said. “Suddenly I could hear him place his boots right in front of my face. I could feel the warmth of the gun barrel he was pointing at me. I thought: ‘Now it is over. Now he’s got me.’”

Slideshow (11 Images)

The killer aimed at Pracon’s head and fired a shot. He missed and the bullet entered the left shoulder.

Pracon has since struggled to talk about his experiences to his family. It’s easier for him to talk to friends and strangers - even journalists - rather than his parents. “If I could, I would take that day back from them,” he said. “I am sorry for the pain I have caused them.”

Others, like Oedegaarden, are slowly coming to terms with that day. “Most of it is stuff I have to expose myself to, so the brain understands that it is not dangerous,” she wrote in January. “It is good to know that I will take my life back step by step.”

Edited by Sara Ledwith and Simon Robinson

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