-I’m so scared, there are many dead people lying around me. At least 10.
-Help is on the way. Hold out! You’re the toughest person I know!
-Mamma, I’m so afraid to die.
-Astrid – you are not going to die. You must lie completely still, where it’s safe.
So unfolds one of the many desperate text messages sent on mobile telephones by terrified youth on the Norwegian island of Utøya, and answered by equally terrified parents, as an ultra-right-wing Norwegian man roamed the island and shot nearly everyone he encountered. It’s been five years since the massacre on Utøya, and now these text messages have been compiled to be displayed at a new, relatively private exhibit back where the deadly drama played out.
It’s been called an “extremely innovative” exhibit that breaks new ground for how a national catastrophe can be remembered. In a 21-page report on the text messages, this weekend’s issue of newspaper Aftenposten’s weekly magazine A-magasinet could also tell the story of what happened on Utøya on the cold, rainy, late afternoon of July 22, 2011, in an entirely new way.
“This is the story from the inside,” Jørgen Frydnes, now in charge of re-establishing activity on Utøya, told A-Magasinet. “When we saw the messages that were sent to us, we saw that we could present a new side of the story. This is one-to-one communication from those who were here.”
Frydnes has spent the past few years traveling all over Norway, visiting survivors of the massacre, their families and the families of those who did not survive. The idea about gathering the text messages (SMS) that were exchanged on July 22 came after some earlier Twitter exchanges were included in public exhibits at the national July 22 Center in Oslo that opened last year. The exhibit mounted on Utøya will be more private in nature, since the island is generally only open to those with ties to its owner, the Labour Party’s youth organization AUF. They’ll nonetheless be seen by many for years to come, and used as a means of remembering and learning lessons from the massacre.
“These messages take you five years back in time and incredibly close to what was happening,” Frydnes said. “The SMS’ give me chills.” No one, he claimed, reacted negatively to the idea of sharing them. The messages, said one mother who lost her daughter on Utøya, “will contribute towards efforts that what happened will never be forgotten.”
Now they’re about to be part of the new exhibit set up around the preserved café building where 13 people attending the Norwegian Labour Party’s youth summer camp were shot and killed. Around it, a new structure has been symbolically built, with 69 support beams to represent each of those killed in the massacre, in turn supported by 495 thinner beams representing each of those who managed to hide, run, swim and survive the lone gunman’s rampage.
Protecting and preserving
Labour’s youth organization AUF, which was the target of the gunman who wanted to wipe out the next generation of a party he felt had allowed too many immigrants into Norway, had initially wanted to tear down the café building but relented when met by protests. When the remodeled Hegnhuset (Protective House) opens on Friday, five years after the massacre, it will mean that both the murder scenes and the survivors’ scenes will have been preserved, with bullet holes still in the walls, dried-up roses and photos of teenagers who lost their lives. And an eight-meter-long timeline of the events of the afternoon of July 22, 2011, with the text messages as the most important source of information.
Astrid Hoem, who was 16 when that aftenoon of horror unfolded, felt it was right to share the messages she exchanged with her mother, Kitty Eide:
-I’m still alive.
-I’m lying under a cliff. Uninjured.
-Good, Astrid. Just stay calm until the police say it’s okay to come out. Keep the sound on your phone turned off. This will soon be over!
Like many others who survived the massacre on Utøya, Hoem and her mother instinctively saved the messages. Astrid Hoem eventually stored them onto a hard disc, where they could be retrieved by people like Frydnes, Tor Einar Fagerland of the Institute for Historic Studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim and others working on the exhibit. James Young of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who worked on New York’s 9/11 memorial and Berlin’s holocaust memorial, called the use of the text messages “a completely new approach to documenting a terrorist attack. It gets so close into the events.” He said it is the first memorial in the world where text messages from victims and others involved have become part of historical material.
Fagerland notes how text messages have become “a sort of new language used in terrorist attacks,” calling it “a lifeline” with “pure and direct human communication.” Text messaging, he told A-magasinet, is “everyday technology that, in an extreme situation, gets across the most essential.”
The messages going on display, many of them published in A-magasinet over the weekend, are “very strong,” said AUF leader Mani Hussaini, “but it’s important and right to share them. Because they show how people experienced Utøya.” Many are also heartbreaking, when parents no longer received responses from their children.
-Mamma, this is not going well! We’re being attacked with automatic weapons!
-What kind of weapons? responded Beate Vatndal to her daughter Benedichte Vatndal Nilsen, age 15. Vatndal was cleaning the house when her daughter’s first message came in, and initially thought it was just part her teenager’s vivid imagination flaring up again.
-Call the police! Ask them to come here!
When Vatndal learned there actually was shooting on the island, she asked her daughter to call. At 6:12pm they began a 47-second conversation. Benedichte whispered. Her mother heard shots. the last words her daughter said were “whatever happens, mamma, remember that I love you.” Then the call was cut off.
-I’ve spoken with the police again, they’ll be on the island any minute now. Call me. Can I come and get you?
There was no answer. The autopsy report that Vatndal later received showed that Benedichte was shot in the stomach at 6:14pm, and bled to death along with 13 others shot while trying to hide behind the island’s pumphouse.
-Call me. Can I come and get you?
-Can I come?
-Please call me. I need to know where you are, so I can come and get you.
There was never any answer.