Saturday, July 23, 2011

Another before. Another after.

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.


Unknown said...

Oh Mari, *hugs* I just heard about it this morning as I don't really listen to the news (it depresses me). I can't even express the right words to you. Please know that you are in my thoughts and prayers. *hugs again*

Unknown said...

Welcome home. I wish we could say we were as lucky as you, but our family is still waiting to hear news from a missing loved one. Our thoughts go out to all who have suffered a tremendous loss.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

The camp incident is a total nightmare. I am glad you let us know you are all right though - you were the first person who came to my mind when I heard about the bombing.

Jan Morrison said...

Dearheart! I've been thinking of you since I heard. Ron told me today - I've been on this news fast so had no idea. Such devastating news and all the Canadian reporters say over and over is that it is such an anomaly for Norway. I like that the response has been so measured. much love to you and your friends and neighbours.


So sorry you have been through so much this year,
My thoughts and prayers are with you.


Marjorie said...

I just learned today that a friend of mine and my Mom's was only 200 feet from the blast. He's okay but that is just horrifying. All of it is horrifying. I think you met Bjorn didn't you?

The question I keep asking is Why the kids? It hurts to think about how many kids were killed.

Hart Johnson said...

Mari, you have such a gift for getting to the heart of it. My heart goes out to you I really am horrified at, especially the camp--targeting young people is horrific. I love how Norway is handling it, though. I am proud to be Norsisima and proud of you.

LTM said...

UGH! this is what happens when you're completely cut off--major news events occur and you're clueless. (Me, I mean...)

I am stunned and horrified and just so, so sorry for you guys. Mental illness, man.

This reminds me of the Oklahoma City bombing--one guy, one bomb. Massive destruction. Prayers for you guys, ((big hugs)) to you~ <3 <3 <3

Stacy Gail said...

Mari, I'm so sorry. Your words reflect the strength and integrity your nation is showing throughout this nightmare. I wish I could make everyone read this post. *hugs*

Siv, my thoughts and prayers are with your missing loved one. I'm just so sorry this happened.

Liz P said...

I thought of you as soon as I heard the news. Glad to hear you are OK. I can't believe in less then 6 months you have experienced two major incidents...What a crazy year.

The camp incident was horrendous. You have to be really sick to target kids so blatantly. My heart goes out to all of those families.

Stay strong and be safe.

Jemi Fraser said...

You've been through such a lot! I'm so glad you're okay.

I agree - your people will continue to be strong and peaceful and wonderful. This man will not be able to take that away from your country.

My thoughts are with you and the families of all those involved. Take care. *hugs*

Kelly said...

This is all just so unbelievable! I was very glad to see you on Twitter this morning to know you were okay. You were the first person I thought of when I heard about this.

Thank you for sharing this account here.

Danette said...

I am sorry this has happened and sorry too that this is the way that Norway makes international headlines but your words are good and strong! Take care!

Deb and Barbara said...

I only just found out about this horrible act. (I was distracted by mundane activities and didn't read or watch the news yet today). I am just shocked and horrified. But also very moved by your amazing nation, how they are rallying, how they are standing tall. I send you all much love and strength as you deal with your own earthquake/tsunami. xoxo

CA Heaven said...

I'm glad that you didn't get injured. I was 500 km (300 miles) away, and never in danger.

As mentioned in a comment above, the terror is comparable to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, rather than 9/11. It was NOT Islamic terror, but the act of an individual maniac on the ultra-right wing, driven by hate.

Cold As Heaven

Jayne said...

I watched the news yesterday in tears. Those poor parents, friends and loved ones... my heart goes out to them. Norway is an inspiring nation and shall always continue to be. I'm so glad you are okay.

PS - My blog is coming up on 'Links to this post' but I have no idea why. I obviously follow you and link to your blog from my blog roll, so maybe it is from there? It seems like it is only me this is happening to though, and I'm totally confused. :S

K A B L O O E Y said...

I'm glad you are unharmed, but sorry for the chaos you've endured of late. Inexplicable madness...

Sue said...

Disbelief, shock, grief. I've tried to express my thoughts on my blog but am grappling with the magnitude of this violation. My thoughts are with you and your countrymen, I can't begin to imagine the horror you are experiencing. Sue

Mary Aalgaard said...

What a strong and touching account of what happened and the reaction. How amazing for you to be downtown at the time, and to think your simple actions saved your life. I am in awe. My eyes fill with tears for what happened, the families who are grieving, and a country that used to feel so safe. I have relatives there, too, and pray for all of you.

J.L. Campbell said...

I came over here from Hart's blog. I live in Jamaica, and heard about this on the news and saw the postings on the internet. I can't even begin to understand why anyone would do something like this, but I have learned something just by reading your post. Forgiveness and tolerance are ever present, no matter how bad the circumstances.

Kal said...

That was magnificent.

Pat Tillett said...

I'm happy to hear that you are okay. I'm so sad about what happened. Your witnessed a lot of pain lately in two different countries. Your post was brilliantly written and really has me thinking. Take care of yourself.

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