One survivor’s harrowing tale
July 31, 2011
SPECIAL FEATURE: Among the hundreds of people on the island of Utøya when a killer attacked on July 22, 2011 was 23-year-old Tore Sinding Bekkedal from Oslo. He has written his version of what happened on that terrible Friday afternoon at the summer camp for the Norwegian Labour Party’s youth organization AUF (Arbeidernes Ungdomsfylking) for his own blog, reprinted here with permission.
Others have written their experiences of the events at Utøya. I wanted to write mine down as well, and “get it out there.” Partly, I want to write this down because I’m unsure if I will remember all the details at a later point in time, although I think I’d prefer it if I couldn’t.
Our former Prime Minister and current labour movement demigod Gro Harlem Brundtlan had just left the island. I had been the cameraman for a video interview of her talking about Utøya, and I was in the media group room encoding the video into a file suitable for YouTube, when someone else in the room was startled and said that Twitter was full of messages about a loud explosion in Oslo. As the (websites) brought us information about the extent of the damage, a consensus arose that an informational meeting was in order. As soon as the current round of talks finished, we gathered in the main hall.
The meeting was duly held, and after the statement was made that a TV feed would become available, I took it upon myself as the local alpha geek to make it happen. Of course, the situation caused both the wireless network and the GPRS networks to become totally unusable. As I was waiting for someone to set up a password, I took the opportunity to face the consequences of having eaten two bits of a microwavable dish called “Hold-It” – the local equivalent of a Hot Pocket – and went to the toilet.
As I was in there, I first heard agitated shouting, then screams, then gunshots coming from just outside the toilets. More than anything else, it sounded like a toy gun. I was convinced that someone was making a joke in incredibly bad taste and I stormed out of the booth with the intent of halting it. As I tore the door open, I saw two of my comrades hiding in a recessed corner. Their facial expressions left absolutely no doubt that his was no toy. They signalled for me to get back in the booth. I closed the door, did a mental double-take in utter, complete confusion, and opened it again. They were still signalling. Had they not stood there, I would have run straight into the gunman; they saved my life. I looked out into the hallway, and I made eye contact with a young boy lying in a pool of blood. He was motioning for me to help him. I heard more gunshots from inside the building and retreated back inside.
As I was trying to think through my next move, I realized that the decidedly insubstantial wood-fiber door would not resist any kind of bullets. I made my way out into the hallway, with the intent of escaping outside. At that point, I was of course not aware that there was an intention to kill as many as possible, so I thought that the open spaces outside would be a place of relative safety. Of course, this proved to be wrong – and my life was probably saved a second time by one of the café volunteers taking me into a hard-to-spot employee’s bathroom.
We sat there for ninety minutes. Always ready to make a run for it, ready for just about anything. A peculiar group dynamic arose with these two people with whom I had barely previously spoken. We came to share a strange sense of common destiny and gallows humour. One of them had seen the shooter and described the police uniform. I perceived it to be realistic that we were the only ones aware of the wounded outside the toilet. I tried to reach the emergency services, but all their lines were busy; the terror attack in Oslo had probably clogged their lines. I finally got through to the fire services, who could inform me that the police did know about the situation and were on their way. This was to take 90 minutes – and by the time we evacuated, the young boy outside my door had perished. The despair I first saw in his eyes as I passed him, fleeing from one room to the other – and the empty, blank stare as we left, are burned into me and they are images I will never in my life forget.
Finally, the real police arrived. We walked out. I chose the path through the minor conference hall – something I now regret. The sight was simply beyond my capacity to describe fully, and so terrifying that I barely remember the sight – only the terror it struck in me. There were several people bunched up in a corner, a big amorphous heap of bodies. Some were conscious and yelled at me not to do anything that could startle the police, others lay still. Their bodies were all covered in blood, and a thick pool of blood extended at least a half-metre in all directions around them. The policeman across the hall was screaming orders at me, but he was screaming so loudly that I couldn’t make out his words at first.
We were first moved into the camp newspaper’s offices. There were about eight of us there, I think, in addition to one girl who lay wounded. Towards the end she was drifting in and out of consciousness. We covered her with sweaters to keep her warm and one of us tried to at least temper her bleeding. The bullet had missed her heart, but by the entry wound it was clear that it was not by much. I do not know who this girl was or how she is now. I sat behind and never saw her face. The wounded were evacuated first. I don’t remember how long we remained; I had lost all concept of time.
In spite of protests from the group who knew him, one kid was put in handcuffs. At the time I didn’t understand why, and the policeman seemed to say something almost to the effect that there was no reason for it at all. I didn’t see when they undid his cuffs, but I remember thinking that this treatment made a terrible experience even worse for him. I tried my best to comfort him but knew it would be little help. Later, when things stabilized a little, we were told that he was handcuffed because he had come from an unsecured area. The police was extremely good at carefully explaining what was happening and why; this was a big help and I am grateful for it.
Eventually we were moved out into the main corridor of the building, where we joined up into a group of about fifty. Only when I saw the two people who saved my life did any emotion other than mild confusion arise. I broke down shivering in tears in one of their arms. After a few seconds, I came back to my senses and realized that this was not the time. I quickly gathered myself, got the shaking under control, and sat down. We were given some chocolate and soda from the kiosk. I remember making an offhand remark that an inability to find joy in free candy was a sure sign of a bad situation. We all laughed out loud. Gallows humour is a coping mechanism, but in retrospect one almost feels guilty for it.
We were shown out in a single file with hands above our heads. I remember an intense concern that someone would slip in the steep, muddy slope and create a misunderstanding. Outside, there were more bodies. Some under improvised covers – a tarpaulin from the waffle stand, the deflated bouncy castle – but some simply lay there.
Everyone I met displayed a courage, a mental discipline and unity of purpose far beyond anything one would ever wish to expect from people this young. Everyone conducted themselves with an attitude that could almost be described as “stiff upper lip.”
Safely across the fjord we were offered blankets. I was asked if I was aware of any injuries, and asked to lift my shirt and show my abdominal region. We were shown into the bus which took us to the hotel used by the survivors and their family. I simply cannot describe in any words the relief I felt when I was able to embrace my living comrades. It was completely unlike anything I had ever felt before in my life. The euphoric feeling was tempered only by the realisation that there would be many I could never see again, comrades whom I had taken great pride in calling my friends, with futures in the service of all mankind, futures I had previously found such great joy in pondering and guessing about. The feeling which continues to upset me the most, is the feeling that so many of my comrades left behind grieving families and friends. Torn away senselessly.
I do not know how much more than this relatively sober account of the events on Utøya I can muster. I would, however, like to offer some reflections.
First of all, from the bottom of my heart, I want to thank the police who saved the lives of so many still on the island, the holidaymakers who took aboard swimmers into their boats – and the rescue services staffed primarily by volunteers who have spared no effort in trying to soften the blow as much as they can. The opportunity to spend time with those comrades who underwent the same experience as myself has also been an immeasurable aid. I was also so relieved to find my very closest friend among the survivors, which has also been an indescribable help.
If I can name a single positive in this tragedy: Had he arrived with his automatic weapon fifteen or twenty minutes prior, he would have arrived during the informational meeting, at a time when the major hall was absolutely jam-packed – the death toll would be many times what it ended up being. I am agonizingly aware of the meager comfort this provides to those who have been bereft of their closest, but I do find some solace in this.
We cannot sweep under a rug that this was – without question – a political attack on the labour movement. But it is thankfully also an attack which has been perceived by everyone as an attack on Norwegian society, and on a symbol of the wide recruitment to the participatory democracy which lies at our very national soul. I cannot thank the Norwegian people, and indeed the people in other nations who have offered their condolences, enough for their shows of support and shared grief. It really has been a tremendous help to me knowing that so many people feel with us.
I also want to thank from the bottom of my heart the rock-steadiness of everyone in both the national and local wings of the Labour Party and Labour Youth in supporting us, and the political milieu in general for their resolute steadfastness saving me from losing yet more that I cherish; our freedoms in a participatory democracy.
Our party has lost many of its very brightest youngsters. Personally I feel an angry spite, a deep restless urge to get the wheels of society going again. I want to show his kind that we will not be broken. We’re stronger than that. I will not be frightened into silence and passivity. I want to remember the dead, and honor them by carrying on our common work.
I want to end this with a request to everyone who reads this, echoing a statement I read by one of my good friends and comrades: Please, don’t let me see any messages of hatred, wishes for the death penalty, anything like that. If anyone should be of the belief that anything will improve by murdering this sad little person, they would be profoundly wrong. All attention now should be plowed into caring for those victims and their relatives who did not share my luck, and not giving an audience to a perpetrator who wants one.
Tore Sinding Bekkedal