Hero’s welcome for prime minister

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The applause went on for so long, both before and after Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg appeared on stage to speak at Sunday’s National Memorial Ceremony for Norway’s terror victims, that he almost seemed embarrassed. He was there to hail the victims, while the response from their loved ones and attack survivors reflected the thanks of a grateful nation.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg was rewarded with a standing ovation after he addressed the National Memorial Ceremony on Sunday, but he prefers to direct the attention on the victims of last month's attacks and their families. PHOTO: NRK/Views and News

King Harald clearly wasn’t the only one wanting to thank Stoltenberg for leading the country through its most difficult period since World War II. The Norwegian monarch had noted in his own well-received remarks made at the top of the memorial ceremony that he thought “the prime minister has, in an impressive manner, managed to be a secure national anchor in a state of emergency,” adding that Stoltenberg “and his apparatus managed to keep the wheels turning under extremely demanding conditions.”

That’s uncommon praise for a government leader, as was the tremendous welcome and standing ovation Stoltenberg received from the 6,700 survivors, bereaved family members, rescue and humanitarian workers, police, politicians and other government officials gathered for the memorial at the Oslo Spektrum arena. Instead of relishing it, though, Stoltenberg seemed far more keen to launch into the latest in a long string of speeches he’s had to make since the bombing of Norway’s government complex on July 22 and the subsequent massacre at his own Labour Party’s summer camp for youth.

Stoltenberg, not known for being very personal in his dealings with colleagues and constituents, said he has found it "very natural" and "important" to speak with mourning Norwegians about personal things. PHOTO: NRK/Views and News

“Today we’re stopping time to remember the dead,” Stoltenberg said when the applause finally died down. “We do this as one nation. Together we won over hate. Together we embraced openness, tolerance and fellowship.”

Stoltenberg has attended more than half-a-dozen funerals in recent weeks in addition to all the public memorials and special meetings that followed the terrorist attacks. By all accounts he should be utterly exhausted and emotionally drained, yet the 52-year-old prime minister keeps going, and told several local media outlets over the weekend that he has found strength in his family and in talking with those affected the most, those whom the Norwegians call pårørende (bereaved families).

“I find it very meaningful to talk with the mourners, to approach them and talk about personal things,” Stoltenberg told newspaper Aftenposten, addressing comments that he earlier wasn’t known for being particularly personal. “I won’t stop being concerned about economic politics and job creation, but during these past few weeks, showing human compassion and warmth has been the most important. It has been very natural.”

Before addressing the National Memorial Ceremony on Sunday, Stoltenberg was sitting in the audience surrounded by members of the Royal Family. At far right, Crown Prince Haakon with his daughter Princess Ingrid Alexandra in his lap, and Crown Princess Mette-Marit. Next to Stoltenberg is his wife, diplomat Ingrid Schulerud, and behind them, Princess Martha Louise, her husband Ari Behn, and Mette-Marit's son Marius Borg Høiby. PHOTO: NRK/Views and News

He also praised his staff, who has kept working almost around the clock during the past month, and his government and party colleagues who stood solidly behind him during the most difficult of days. Stoltenberg said that after the first days with almost no sleep, he’s been “quite good” at being able to sleep and also has taken time to get some fresh air and exercise. “That’s important for me, especially now,” he told Aftenposten.

On Sunday, he was his serious, sincere but slightly stiff self when addressing the memorial ceremony before the thousands inside Oslo Spektrum and millions watching on television. “We have cried with you who have been forced to say farewell in graveyards,” he said. “We feel with you who can’t get rid of the pictures, the sounds and the smells of that dark Friday. Every light has warmed, every thought has comforted, every rose has given hope.”

He acknowledged that “together we have many questions … not to give other than the attacker blame, but to know and to learn, to move forward.”

And “in respect for those killed,” Stoltenberg said Norwegians must move forward, also to start disagreeing amongst themselves again, because the country’s diverse population is based on differences and disagreement is natural. He stressed three national duties, though, in the spirit of the national solidarity that emerged so visibly after July 22:

— Recognition for those mourners who will continue to need sympathy and support. “Bake a cake, invite them for coffee, go on a walk together,” Stoltenberg urged, noting that families who lost loved ones will still have to face “the empty chair at Sunday dinner, the birthday without the birthday-boy or girl present, the first Christmas.”

— Keeping all senses alert for all signs of extremism. “We will meet hate with arguments,” he said.

— Creating security. “Good preparedness will create security, with visible police on the streets,” he said.

“Each and every one of us can take responsibility, and protect freedom” Stoltenberg said. Together, he said, Norwegians “can form unbreakable links of compassion, democracy and security. That’s our protection against violence.”

As the audience rose to its feet in a long, standing ovation, Stoltenberg stood still, and then bowed his head. He hadn’t sought all the praise that’s poured in over his leadership after the attacks, and was upset when one of Norway’s largest newspapers, VG, declared that he had become  the equivalent of Norway’s new “national patriarch.”

“I want the attention directed towards those this attack has affected,” he told Aftenposten. “We mustn’t forget for a second that this is all about people who lost their lives, who are seriously injured, who have experienced gruesome things, and all their families. That’s thousands of people.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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