Everyone was talking on their cell phones while walking around Oslo, taking photos of the shattered glass panes outside shoe and clothing stores downtown. Though the explosion had taken place only forty minutes earlier, the only signs that something was wrong were the long lines of police tape around the parliament building and the sound of sirens and burglar alarms. Everyone was strangely calm just after the accident. No one knew enough to be worried. At four in the afternoon, news online was hard to come by. The official report was that some kind of explosion, maybe a bomb though maybe not, had gone off downtown.
By the end of the first evening, transportation to the city center had shut down. There was talk that flights and trains to and from Oslo would be suspended. The death count had reached twenty between the young men and women at Uløya and the victims of the bomb downtown. Meanwhile, at the University of Oslo campus, there was an oasis that seemed eerily removed from the events of only a few hours ago.
On July 22, I’d been in Oslo for exactly four weeks working my way through a summer program in Norwegian and Norwegian history. There were a few hundred of us in the various programs—some college and some graduate—studying everything from architecture to gender studies to Norwegian literature. Together we represented about ninety different countries. We’d come to Oslo, the city where a beer or cider cost at least ten dollars, the place where prisoners were let out on “breaks,” the place where nothing was supposed to go wrong. And it had.
Many of us spent Friday night in front of our computer screens, in the lobby or in our dorms exchanging the most recent updates with the people around us. A group of twenty to thirty people were downstairs in the main building, drinking and playing a trivia game as though this were any other weekend. A few people were curled up in their beds, having non-stop panic attacks throughout the night. No one was in tears as far as I could tell but people coming back from the city center, those who had actually witnessed the explosion, were in visible shock. It was like someone had gated the link between their expressions and thoughts.
Oslo is a small city—you can walk across the entire place in under two hours. With the fast public transportation, it seems even smaller. From the Blindern campus of the University of Oslo, we were only two and a half miles away from the explosion. It had almost sounded like thunder; the rain had been coming down all day anyway. Why would it have been anything but that in Oslo?
People in the International Summer School program came from countries like Ghana with crooked politicians and poverty. They came from Kyrgyzstan and remembered stories of the revolution that made Oslo’s drama pale in comparison. Many came from the Eastern European countries of Serbia or Croatia and had even taken part in an international peace talk earlier this summer. Some people had been close enough to New York to remember the city covered in smoke or the sound of planes and helicopters flying overhead. In some cases, it would take a lot to outdo these past memories. Yet, you walk into a battlefield prepared for the possibility of being shot; a study abroad program in a place like Norway had promised nothing more threatening than a bad hangover.
My suitemate, Shanaz had been living near enough to Quantico Marine base to remember hearing helicopters fly toward Washington D.C on September 11, 2001. “We choose Norway over a place like Pakistan or Egypt because we think it will be safe and is so far removed from having things like this happen.” Soon after the attacks, journalists had already started to speculate that a terrorist group was behind it. After seeing what had happened in the United States and the racism that’s existed since, Shanaz was hoping that it would be anything but that in Norway. “There’s already a subtle divide between the ethnic norwegians and the minorities. It’s my greatest fear that a muslim is behind this attack and that the divide will only be widened in this fairly equal country.”
When we arrived at the summer program we were reminded of the school’s slogan, “Come to Norway; meet the world.” As much as this program was here to enlighten us about Norway, putting so many people from varying cultural backgrounds was bound to either promote some type of dialogue or create rifts between us. Even the Facebook group for our year had briefly experienced an online argument starting from a post that attempted to define differences between Arabs and Iranians. Making friends from other countries seems fun—especially for travel plans along the line—but not all cultures mix together so smoothly as we’d like to believe.
Arshad, a student from Pakistan, was near the site of the blast. A man next to him at the time kept repeating, “There shouldn’t be Pakastani people behind this; there shouldn’t be Muslim people behind this.” As a foreigner he and others from his country had been afraid, thinking that Oslo would become a place where those who weren’t ethnic Norwegians—or at least didn’t look like them—might be subject to some type of hostility or prejudice. By early Friday night, reports had started coming in of a blonde-haired and blue-eyed man being behind the attack, but it was a while before speculation died down that he wasn’t somehow involved with an outside terrorist organization. Knowing what we know now, there was no reason to worry about ethnic or racial divides. But the fear was there all the same. If an immigrant country like the United States could have a post-9/11 backlash against Muslims, it’s not hard to imagine the same thing happening in a place like Norway.
Even before Friday, many students felt out of place in Oslo. We were surrounded by tall, athletic, Norwegians and the few exceptions were noticeable. Getting off the T-Bane in Grønland was like stepping into another world. From the largely caucasian Oslo, the shop owners and the people were all of a darker color. That area of town, a place filled with a large percentage of Oslo’s immigrant population, could have been another city entirely. Some new place where it was only coincidence that everyone spoke Norwegian.
As much as the shooting and explosion changed the tone of this particular July weekend, students who had actually witnessed true acts of terrorism, rioting, or genocide were shocked but not afraid. Renata was in Kyrgyzstan two years ago during the second revolution. She described seeing a large wave of people attacking the president’s house. “Police couldn’t cope with the crowd of drunk and wild men with sticks. They all just disappeared.” She and her family were one of the ethnic minorities in the country and waited home in their house, worried that there might be an attack with no police force to stop the crowd. “Here I was not really scared,” she said. The police and ambulances quickly arrived to help and contain those downtown. “It’s much more scary when there is no government, no police on the streets, just a crazy crowd.”
Volha, a lawyer from Belarus, had also experienced acts of terrorism before this one. On Friday, she’d been coming from a meeting at the Parliament building in Oslo when she heard a loud noise that she initially took to be a battle salute. “I saw huge gray cloud of smoke and I felt as the earth under my feet was quaking.” In the last two years, she’d near the site of two other terrorist attacks. In Moscow, she was on the subway when terrorists attacked it in 2010, killing 38 people in total. Only a few months ago, she’d been about to enter the Minsk subway in Belarus when she received a phone call, telling her to get out of the station and go home. “Sometimes I think that I have something like immunity to explosions,” she said, “but it impossible.”
Volha felt safe in Oslo before the explosion, “But now I understand that there is no any place in the world where I can feel myself in safety. It’s so terrible when people start to fear other people because of such accidents. I don’t want to live in a society of total fear where everyone is suspicious, nervous and afraid. It’s not a life; it’s existence.”
At nine o’clock on Saturday morning, the death count was at 80, then 90, increasing steadily through the day as more of the dead and wounded were found. Though the number of men and women and teenagers killed on Friday eventually chanted to 76 due to some type of miscount, it didn’t change our initial feelings that weekend. In the reception area of the dorm, members of the staff were listening to the news over the radio. Some of the people at breakfast were talking about the latest developments. Some people were simply trying to figure out what they wanted to do on their Saturday night.
By noon the next day, the sun was out though the forecast had predicted rain all weekend. Some of my friends and family in the United States had just found out about the events in Oslo; many more still hadn’t heard and probably wouldn’t say anything about it unless I brought it up. As someone who also shies from the news, I know how easy it is to give problems in another country or even another state little more than a brush through the headlines. But the residents of Oslo were less than two miles from the explosion. Though the shooting occurred on an island farther away, many residents lost friends or family. As my cousin pointed out during the memorial service the following Monday, many of Oslo’s high schools would be missing students when class started up again in the fall.
This was not some far off or anticipated happening yet on the second day, people were already on their way to grill in the park or take bike rides through town. Many carried large suitcases on the tram through Oslo, going to or from their July vacations. If it hadn’t been for the continuing (though already slowed) news coverage, it would have been easy to believe that everything were still normal.
None of us foreigners were on that island. Though some people in the summer program were nearby, no one was close enough to the car bomb downtown to sustain any injuries. Those who witnessed the explosion saw a large cloud of smoke and glass shattering all around them but this also happened to stores that were multiple blocks away from the blast itself. We were scared mostly by the realization that no place could be completely safe from terrorism—even if only at the hands of one citizen.
Many of us today equate terrorism with the Middle East but the desire to spread fear is not the sole property of one country, group, or person. Even the Vikings—the highlight of every Norwegian museum or history course—knew that terror was a good way to overwhelm their victims. They came in quickly, sending the largest and strongest off the ships first because panicking people are easier to pick off one by one.
Whether we admit it or not, terror and war has always functioned this way. Norway, though a small country, seems to understand this better than others, my own United States being very much included. The words of politicians are not always law but the Prime Minister’s words, “We meet terror and violence with more democracy,” were refreshing to hear at a time when the expected course of action had always been to hunt down the responsible party and punish or kill them for their crimes. That’s not rebuilding a life; it’s survival.
On Saturday, July 23 downtown did not look much different from usual. People were sitting outside and eating or drinking in cafes. Some were shopping. But it was hard to walk because of the many residents, journalists, and tourists stopping to take photographs of the clean-up efforts underway. Since the day before, an even larger portion of the city had been closed for entry with lines of red tape backed by armed soldiers guarding the way. Many shattered windows had already been covered with wooden boards but there was still glass on the streets. It was everywhere, on the pavement or being swept and thrown into large bins by city employees. Shards of glass were on the cement by my feet as I waited to catch the tram back home. I looked around me and couldn’t find a broken window in sight.