Every evening, long after he had been killed, Anders Kristiansen’s parents would go up to his room to light his bedside lamp, and then turn it off when it was time to sleep. They would lower the curtains when the midnight sun shone in summer and again when the northern lights flamed across the sky in the darker months. They would sit on his bed, letting their fingers slide over his clothes in the nearby closet, while the seasons changed outside his window.
On his desk they had found three badges. One declared: “Red and Proud”. Another: “No to all racism”. The third was the emblem of the Labour Party Youth, with white letters on red: “AUF”.
When Kristiansen’s body returned from the island Utøya, his parents dressed the 18-year-old in his first real suit, one they had bought together that very summer, pinning the badges through the fabric. Around him they wrapped the blue bedlinen she had weaved just before he left for the summer camp on Utøya. “Blue, blue like the sky,” he had answered when she asked what colour he wanted it to be. He had planned to move out to finish his last year of high school in Tromsø, the capital of Northern Norway, and hoped to take it with him.
And then, exactly a decade ago, on July 22, 2011, his life ended.
“Something is not right,” Kristiansen said when he heard through the walkie-talkie that a policeman had arrived on the island. He went to investigate. The last words he was heard screaming were: “Just run! Don’t look back!”
Kristiansen was one of ten teenagers found on the “Lovers’ Path” that loops around the island, his arm around a girl with long, curly hair. The eleventh on the path, the only survivor, later explained that when the shots came closer they had decided to lay down, pretending to be dead.
In the years after the terror attack, I followed the Kristiansen family for my book One Of Us, a study of both the neo-Nazi terrorist Anders Behring Breivik and his victims. I was able to glimpse into the abyss that the bereaved were forced to endure for the rest of their lives. In Bardu, far above the Polar Circle, Anders’s mother, Gerd, showed me how dark it was down there, how cold, how lonely.
Death, in a way, fades into oblivion for those of us who aren’t close to it. We sweep away the abyss, brush it off and look away. Time creates an enormous distance between those who still grieve, and the rest of us. In the years after Breivik’s attack, I learned from the victims’ families that grief wants to be seen, to be remarked upon, to be recognised.
Still, I dreaded calling Gerd last week, after so many years since we last spoke. She taught me that the cardinal sin against a parent in mourning is not to mention the one who is no longer there, as if they had never existed. We avoid the subject because we are afraid to hurt, not knowing that the loss is so enormous that it needs to be shared.
Gerd was in a workshop when I called. She was ordering a bronze heart to put on Kristiansen’s grave for today’s anniversary. For years her pain has been mixed with anger. She was mad at the police, at the Government, at the Labour Party. It felt as if no one took responsibility for the children killed. Where were the secret services, the special forces, the police, the guards? Then she was frustrated with the marches, the outpourings on Facebook and the fact that she couldn’t scream out her pain in a society where you were supposed to show what they called dignity.
“This is a coup d’état”, Breivik told the policeman sitting on top of him when he was finally apprehended on the island. His killing spree had then lasted for more than an hour. Around him lay 69 of his victims. Marxist hunter, read a badge on his chest. Still on the island, he told the police that the children around him were far from innocent. “They are extreme Marxists. Marxist spawn. It’s the Labour Party, the youth wing. They’re the ones with power in Norway. They’re the ones who have presided over the islamisation of Norway.”
Meanwhile, other officers were looking for survivors. Kristiansen’s comrade Viljar Hanssen was found nearby, assumed to be dead. Parts of his brain lay bare, some of it outside his cranium. His eyes were a bloody mess. Somehow, a policeman found a pulse; he put the boy’s brain back into his broken skull and wrapped a cloth around it. The 17-year-old woke from a coma ten days later, missing an eye, the fingers that had tried to shield his face from the bullets, parts of his shoulder and many friends. Fragments of the bullets were so ingrained in his brain that they couldn’t be removed.
Ten years on, Viljar studies law in Tromsø. In his mind, he still discusses politics with his best friend Kristiansen. “Whenever I take important decisions, he’s with me, sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree,” he tells me from his parents’ hut in the mountains of Valdres.
It has been a dark decade for Viljar. First, he had to recover from his injuries, his angst and adapt to his glass eye and hand prosthesis. Then, he says, he was supposed to be grateful to be alive, without showing anger or remorse. But the heaviest burden throughout the years has been the ongoing harassment. Especially online, particularly from middle-aged men. “Breivik should have finished his job”, one wrote. Another wished for Viljar to be forever and continuously sodomised by Breivik. They criticised his liberal immigrant policies, however mainstream they were.
As the tone of the public debate hardened, Viljar broke down and stepped away from politics. Ten years after Utøya, a generation of politicians are gone. “Few survivors are politically active now,” Viljar says. “That is no coincidence.”
The Labour Party was in power when Breivik attacked, and a tearful Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg insisted that Norway would never give up its values and let the terrorist win. “We will answer hatred with love,” he said, and urged for “more democracy, more openness and more humanity, but never naïveté”. He was applauded across Norway for his leadership following the attack. But now that rosy picture has started to crack.
What seemed right at the time — to show unity — has stood in the way of important political discussions, such as the need to confront far-Right views and extremist opinions. When AUF has suggested that Breivik’s views are not only found on the internet, but resemble words that are spread even by parliamentarians on the Right, they have been ignored. When they have asked Right-wing parties to take a stand against racism, they have been accused of wanting to restrict freedom of speech. Anders Breivik has been considered an anomaly, rather than someone symptomatic of a broader far-Right movement. For that reason, he has not been mentioned in debates about immigration, integration or racism in Norway. Until now.
But something has started to change in recent months, as an avalanche of young Labour supporters have decided that enough is enough. “The attack was politically motivated,” writes former general secretary of AUF Tonje Brenna in her new book, it was “not a natural disaster!” After revealing the awful emails, letters, text messages, phone calls and social media posts she has received, she states that Breivik was not alone in hating the Labour Party, “nor in wanting us dead”.
“This is the last chance to make a stand,” Viljar echoes ahead of the anniversary. “That window will close now. The next rounds will be taken by historians.” In recent years, Viljar made a gradual return to politics and holds a Labour seat in the city parliament of Tromsø. Though he carries a burden heavier than most; if the fragments in his brain move even the slightest — from a hit, a fall or by themselves — his main artery could be ruptured. The closest fragment lies just three millimetres away.
When I spoke to Jens Stoltenberg last week, his voice cracked a little when he greeted me. I asked him immediately about this summer’s debate: “What was right then, and what is right now? What has changed?”
Stoltenberg — who left Oslo when he became the current General Secretary of Nato in 2014 — acknowledged that “until now the AUF has carried the heaviest burden”. It is a fact that clearly pains him. He was only fourteen years old when he became a member of the Labour Party Youth, and visited Utøya every year once he turned fifteen. “The debate is broader now; it has more voices. That is good,” he says.
But he was reluctant to say whether his decision to answer hatred with love — to indirectly de-politicise the attack — was wrong. “As the years have passed, I have become more conscious about how important it is to seek answers why the terror hit us,” he says. “It was indeed a targeted attack on the Labour Party and AUF. The terrorist wanted to change our country with violence. Therefore, it was also an attack on Norway.”
I tell him of Gerd’s grief. “I remember Anders,” he recalls. He met Gerd and her husband at a gathering three days after the attack, when their son was still just registered as “missing”. Stoltenberg remembers how he hugged them, and how he struggled to find the right words, afraid of saying anything wrong.
“We lost some of our finest young people and the Labour Party’s greatest talents that day,” he says. “The finest thing we can do for them is still to talk about July 22nd and stand up for the values they believed in, and fight so that it doesn’t happen again.”
For my part, whenever I’m asked about how Norway has changed since the Breivik attack, I’ve often compared it to a wound that has healed but leaves behind a scar. It still hurts, but Norway’s functions are not affected. Terror didn’t change us, unlike the attack on the US on September 11th 2001, which set off two wars within two years and leading to further radicalisation, the growth of ISIS.
But I have come to realise that it’s not as simple as that. For just like a wound that becomes re-infected if it’s not opened and cleansed, Norway is now suffering from its decision to shy away from asking uncomfortable questions; its failure to address the root causes of the Breivik attack.
“You know, I’ve had two guys by the name of Anders fighting in my head. One kind, one mean,” Gerd tells me. “The mean one was stuck in my brain so I couldn’t find my child. How he tormented me!” she exclaims. “It still bugs me that he breathes,” she says. “That he gets an hour of fresh air every day.”
“By the way, they don’t carry the same name,” she adds. “Our boy’s name is Anders.” She pronounces the name in her Northern dialect, with stress on the A, and a hard d. She then pronounces Breivik’s first name in a cosmopolitan Oslo accent, with a light A and a mute d. “And apart from the spelling, they had nothing in common,” she concludes.
Gerd still weaves, and now even she owns her own loom. “We got money for Anders,” she says, referencing the victim compensation payment she received. “It was gruesome. I had my child in my bank account.” Then she spent it on a loom and the money stopped aching.
One evening recently, she went up to his room where his clothes still filled the shelves. One by one, she gathered his pairs of jeans, a dozen in total, carried them down to the cellar and took out her scissors. Gently she cut them up, trying to make the shreds as long as possible. Some dark blue, some stonewashed and light, almost white. The shreds piled up on the floor and she spent time arranging the colours. Then she lay the warp and started weaving.
Blue, blue like the sky. The colour she had thought she could never weave with again as her child lay dead in the blue linen, wrapped around the suit and the badges. Red and Proud. No to all racism. AUF.