Oslo has been my home for seven years. I have left it, occasionally, but always returned. Yesterday, on 22/7 as it will be known in Norway for decades to come, I was back after six stressful, traumatic, amazing, life-changing months in Japan. I don't yet have a permanent place to stay, but I was visiting friends and family, keeping a tight schedule to make sure to see as many of them as possible within a few days.
I came from lunch with a friend, and had an opening in my schedule. I figured I might as well walk to the government quarter, where I had recently been called in for an interview, scheduled for next week. As I was walking around downtown Oslo, I decided to stop by a couple of shops. This may have saved my life.
About half a kilometer away from the government buildings where I was heading, I stopped to look for a CD. Suddenly the loud music in the shop was disrupted by a bang, and a pressure wave made my ears pop. Inside the shop. People looked around, wondering what could have caused this. Some started making phone calls. I thought "construction work?", then "thunder?", then "bomb..?". But no. Not in Norway.
I made my way out on the street, where more and more people were randomly walking around like I did, looking for the source of the noise. I continued walking in the direction I had been headed, making sure that there was no smoke erupting from the Parliament or the closest subway station as I passed. People still looked distressed, but thus far nothing was very different than usual.
But then I saw the crowd. In movies you will occasionally see running crowds, usually followed by Godzilla or a UFO. In real life, it is surreal. It certainly seemed like the cue to turn the other direction.
Still I had no idea what had happened, but I realized it wasn't good. Thus I phoned a friend I was supposed to meet later on; partly to hear if she knew what was going on, partly to warn her not to come downtown. "A bomb blast near the Prime Minister's office," she informed me, incredulously, after having consulted some online newspapers. A bomb? In Oslo?
Before hanging up we decided that going to the movies as originally planned was probably not such a good idea. My instant thought was that if there had been a terrorist attack, public transportation might be affected, and chances were that downtown Oslo would be chaos. Using the metro felt like tempting fate, so I went to find a tram and then a bus instead. Leaving the city center was top priority. My mind went into survival mode, and only when I was safe aboard the tram did I notice the fear creeping up from the pit of my stomach. It felt a whole lot like the fear I felt in Japan on 3/11.
My part in the story ends here. All things considered, not so dramatic for me. I managed to get in touch with family and close friends quickly, and by intense use of Facebook the past 24 hours I've established that no one I knew well was affected. I still worry about the final death count, and the potential release of identities of victims. The bomb was scary, and it hit the political Norway incredibly hard as people working in several ministries were killed or injured, plus the infrastructural damage on site is terrible. Still, the bomb hit after office hours, and it's the middle of summer vacation. The death toll from the bomb - so far seven are confirmed - could have been far worse.
However, the horror was only starting with the bomb.
Not long after the explosion, a man wearing a police uniform arrived at a traditional, summer youth camp for Norway's main government party at the island Utøya close to Oslo. He claimed to be performing a routine check after the bombing, but in reality, this was a ploy to get inside the camp grounds. Here he started firing an automatic weapon, and allegedly continued doing so for somewhere between one and two hours. He killed at least 84 people - kids between the ages of 15 and 25 - and many more are injured. Some jumped off the island and started swimming, some didn't make it. The search for dead and survivors continues.
The horrors at that camp is unimaginable. The fact that it seems that one, single person performed both acts of violence (though this is yet unconfirmed) is unbelievable. That this could happen in Norway at all - a country that prides itself as peace-loving, safe, free - it's near impossible for us to wrap our minds around. Even the Nazi occupation during World War Two seems a failed comparison - first of all, that was more than 60 years ago. Secondly, not even then did so many people die during one day, and under such dramatic circumstances.
Norway made international media yesterday, and in a way we could have done without. But despite the tragedy, I see signs of hope. One newspaper reported "the end of innocence", hinting strongly that Norway now would have to change its ways, and face a new, international regime where terrorism is omnipresent. That we have been naive, and that our engagement in international warfare now had backfired. The implications was, clearly, as many thought yesterday: that al Qaeda was behind the attacks.
First of all, they were not. The only person so far confirmed to be behind this is Norwegian, and a right-wing extremist. It is still unclear what his motifs were, and why he chose to target young people like that. I expect we might get some answers eventually, because unlike what one might expect, he was captured, alive. He has been arrested, and charged with acts of terrorism.
Secondly, Norway shall not and will not budge for the fear this man and people like him wanted to create. I say with our Prime Minister and several central authorities - this is not the time to change our ways. We will become even more open, democratic, and free. Norway is stronger than this. In times of crisis, we stand together, we support and help each other. And that is exactly what we now intend to do.
I am eternally glad that I have yet to see messages of hate after this. Instead, my Facebook feed is overflowing with messages of support, people updating what one can do to help (if you're a registered blood donor with type O negative, please go to Ullevål University Hospital and do your duty), and general expressions of grief and sorrow. Even though we all know the name and face of the person responsible, I have not yet seen anyone talking about lynching him as one might expect. A Facebook poll asking whether Norway should change its laws to allow death penalty for this person, has so far been answered by an overwhelming NO! In this time of crisis it feels reassuring that people are retaining their common sense. I remember being incredibly impressed by the Japanese after 3/11. Right now, I am proud to say that I am also impressed by Norwegians.
It is a day of sorrow. But in the middle of the sorrow there is reason to believe that we will be okay.