Future unclear for massacre site

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One year after a lone gunman unleashed a massacre at a Labour Party youth camp on the island of Utøya, survivors and other Labour politicians can’t agree on whether they should ever hold another camp there again. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said Tuesday that he’s staying out of the debate.

As a man gazes over to the island of Utøya near a makeshift memorial to the victims of last summer's massacre, debate continues over the island's future. PHOTO: Views and News

“As prime minister, I’m careful to not have any firm opinions on how Utøya should be used in the future,” Stoltenberg told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on his first day back after a short summer holiday. “I can understand those who think Utøya should be a place where youth can still engage themselves politically and develop our democracy, at the same time I can understand those who want Utøya to be a place that’s respected and a memorial to those who lost their lives.”

Debate over the future of the island continues, also as many stream back to the island for special memorial events on Sunday to mark the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks. Eskil Pedersen, head of youth organization AUF, initially claimed the group would “take back” Utøya and not allow the gunman to destroy a cherished summer retreat that Stoltenberg himself has referred to as his “summer paradise” since his own first visit in 1974. Funds started being raised immediately after the massacre on July 22, 2011 to rebuild and refurbish the camp’s facilities where so many died.

Pedersen’s claims rang hollow with many AUF members, though, and plans for a new camp already this year were quickly dropped. It was too soon after the massacre, Pedersen himself conceded, and a long list of renovations remain necessary before campers could even consider returning to the island.

Fresh flowers, new flags and mementos are still being left at this site across from Utøya, where 69 persons were killed and hundreds more injured and traumatized last summer. PHOTO: Views and News

Bjørn Ihler, an active member of AUF who survived the massacre, thinks it would be disrespectful to the dead and their families to arrange new summer camps, parties and fun on Utøya, suggesting it would be like “dancing on the graves” of the victims. Ihler doesn’t think it will be possible to ever “take Utøya back” and he wants to drop renovation plans for the island.

“AUF should continue to have summer camps, and create summer’s most beautiful adventures for thousands of youth in the years to come,” Ihler wrote in newspaper Aftenposten last month. “But they shouldn’t be held (on Utøya), not on an island that now stands for so much else.” He wants Utøya to be preserved as is, bullet holes and all, as a “symbol” to allow the dead to rest in peace.

A few AUF chapters are holding local summer camps this year, among them one on another island, Bjørkøya, off Porsgrunn. Pedersen took part but campers said they knew in advance there would be “a different mood” than at previous camps, given the memories of last summer’s tragedy and new demands for strict security measures. Campers ended up being shaken when some other nearby vacationers set off fireworks that startled the AUF members because it sounded like shots being fired.

Reiulf Steen, a Labour Party veteran, thinks that giving up Utøya as the party’s youth summer camp would be a mistake. He told news bureau NTB recently that the best way to honour the dead is to continue to use the island and let Utøya be at the heart of political activity. Others agree, including former Labour foreign minister and defense minister Bjørn Tore Godal.

“I think it would be natural to still use the island,” Godal told newspaper Dagsavisen. Rune Gerhardsen also thinks it would be wrong to abandon the island, preferring it to remain “a place for lively youth who want to be youth and discuss the future.” The head of a survivors’ support group in Nordland, however, disagrees: “We can’t pretend the murders didn’t occur,” said Per Sture Helland Pedersen, supporting Ihler’s call for the entire island to be preserved as a memorial and left alone.

AUF leader Pedersen says it’s “difficult” to get across how important it is for AUF to use Utøya again. He claims there’s “an overwhelming majority” in favor of renovating and using the island, despite Ihler’s reservations and those of victims’ families. “When all is said and done, I think AUF should be allowed to decide this issue,” Pedersen told NTB.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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