Luther alumnus's eyewitness account of Oslo bombing
By Olav Lione Skogaas '98
At 3:25 p.m. on July 22, 2011, a bomb ripped through the government quarter in Oslo, Norway, killing seven people and injuring many more. Later that day, more than 70 young people gathered at the Labor Youth League summer camp at Utøya were shot by an armed assailant. Luther alumnus Olav Ljone Skogaas, a journalist, photographer and translator, was on the scene of the bomb blast in Oslo. Here is his remembrance and a selection of his photos.
It was Friday afternoon and I was preparing to get out of the office. I had sent the last few e-mails to some friends, wishing them the best for the weekend. As I logged off from my computer, I heard a rumble that quickly grew in strength. My initial thought was that it was thunder. After all, the weather forecast for the weekend was heavy rain. But as the office building shook and fire alarms started to sound, I realized that this was something else.
We quickly evacuated the premises and poured out on to Karl Johansgate, Oslo’s main street. Out there, people were looking at each other in shock. The air was filled with smoke and pieces of ash. As my colleagues started to make their way home, I grabbed my camera bag and ran to see if I could find out what had happened and where.
I ran around the block, saw people staring up the street leading to the government ministries. The sidewalks and streets were covered in broken glass. I put my camera to my eye and took a few quick frames of the confusion. Then I started running up Grubbegata, the street leading to the government quarter.
I ran in to a war zone. The street was filled with broken glass and debris from the surrounding buildings. A piece of railing from the Supreme Court building lay twisted in the streets, along with documents. The smoke grew thicker. People stumbled around in confusion as the fire alarms continued to ring. There were no police, no ambulances, no fire department. Smoke was bellowing out from the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy’s fourth floor. The building opposite, a high-rise housing the Ministry of Justice and the Office of the Prime Minister, had lost almost all its windows. Its lobby was shredded. In the middle of the square I could see the blackened wreckage of an overturned car.
I hoped that this had been a gas explosion, but I feared the worst. That this was intentional. I continued to take photos to document the event. My heart was racing, my hands shaking. More people started to come out of the bombed building. A woman with cuts on her hands and face walked around in shock, looking for her purse. I put my camera aside to help her. As the police arrived at the scene, they shouted for people to pull back. They screamed there might be a second bomb. I guided the woman down the street I had run up just minutes before.
A Japanese tourist handed me some wet wipes for the woman’s hands. An ambulance arrived; suddenly there was a line of people with bloodied bandages. A paramedic helped them get in the vehicle. I grabbed the woman, pulled her into the line and the paramedic grabbed her. That was the last I saw of her.
On the bus home there was confusion. There were rumors of a second and third bomb. I told them I had only heard one. Then rumors started about who was behind it. I saw the looks of some of the passengers, those with a darker complexion than me. I saw their despair reflected mine. Some said it must have been al-Qaeda. I said I didn’t know.
At our apartment, the television was on. As I came through the door, we heard reports that the Labor Youth League’s summer camp at the island of Utøya was under attack. That the shooter allegedly was a tall, blonde, white man in a police uniform. That’s when we started to realize that this could be homegrown. A devastating thought.
As news reports came in, it became apparent that there was indeed a shooting. The bomb in Oslo had killed at least seven people. We stared at each other, in shock. Could something like that happen here? Surely not. Not Norway. Not kids.
As the evening unfolded, guests for the birthday party arrived. They reported that the shooter had surrendered to the police. He was alive. But instead of festivities, we sat and watched news, realizing that someone had attacked Norway. My heart sank. Terrorism had come to Norway. And it was a massive attack.
We finally went to bed at two in the morning. Tired and exhausted from the news, from the sadness and anger we all felt. It was a short night. I woke up at 0630 Saturday morning from the heavy rain that had started. Our friend had slept on the couch, and was awake as I came into the living room. She grabbed her cell phone and checked online as I put on some coffee. The news that had been horrible the evening before, had become truly terrifying during the night.
“Olav, there are 80 dead at Utøya,” she said.
I first thought it was rumor. Some piece of information had been blown out of proportion. Then I checked the papers on my cell phone. It was true. The police had confirmed 80 killed. As I sat down, I started shaking uncontrollably. My eyes filled with tears. No, it couldn’t be. It couldn’t be. Not a bomb. Not 80 kids gunned down in cold blood.
We hugged each other. All three of us were in shock. We began to hear stories of the terror at the island. How the ice-cold gunman had hunted down the kids, and shot them. Some had even been shot twice. And it was confirmed. He was Norwegian.
When Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg addressed the nation, he said that Norway had been attacked by a terrorist. Our democracy, our open society, a virtue held in high regard by Norwegians, both by those born here and more recent immigrants, had been attacked. “Our response is more democracy, more openness, more tolerance,” the PM said, his voice cracking with emotion and defiance. At that moment, he made me proud to be Norwegian.
At noon, we started to make our way down to the city center. The streets were virtually empty of cars and people. There was an eerie silence. As we approached the site of the bombing, there were more people. We all walked in silence. The streets littered with shattered glass. Then we saw the soldiers. Troops from the Royal Guard had been asked to assist the police in securing the city centre. Behind cordons, young conscripts stood in full combat gear. The three of us looked at each other, ill at ease at the sight. Then we saw the first police officers. They too were armed. This does not happen here. The police are not armed, as a general rule.
In front of the Oslo Cathedral, someone had laid down flowers and some candles. There was a little heap.
After a few hours we made it back home. It was just too much to handle. It was incomprehensible that someone had been able to do this.
More details of the attack emerged. As did details on the shooter. He was an extreme right-winger with strong anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-feminist views. He called himself a Christian fundamentalist, and portrayed himself as a modern Knight Templar, fighting for Christianity against Islam.
There was a national outpouring of grief on Sunday. The regular service at the Oslo Cathedral was turned into a memorial service for those killed and injured. The government was there, the political elite, the royal family and other dignitaries. On TV, the king and queen wept openly.
Going back to work on Monday was strange. Oslo was still eerily silent. Flags everywhere were at half staff. The police had taken over the cordons. The little heap of flowers in front of the cathedral had grown, and was starting to spill into the street. At noon there was a minute of silence to honor those who had been killed. Radio, TV, online papers went silent and black. On the streets, buses and trams emptied. On the freeways, cars pulled to the side. Norway stood still. As did Sweden, Denmark and Finland.
Over the weekend, someone had taken the initiative for a torch-lit procession in Oslo. The Facebook group suddenly had 75,000 members. The organizers asked people to bring roses instead.
My wife and I arrived in front of the Oslo city hall with a group of friends to take part in the procession. As we stood there waiting, the crowd grew. Then from the stage, they announced that the planned route was changed. It would be shorter due to the amount of people. Thirty minutes later, a new announcement was made. There would not be a procession. There were simply too many people. All the streets leading down to city hall were already filled with people who had turned out to show their support.
As we waited for the speakers to begin, there was a whisper in the crowd. It grew in strength. It was the national anthem, whispered by 250 000 voices. Then Crown Prince Haakon came to the stage to speak.
“Tonight, the streets are filled with love,” he said.
People lifted 250,000 roses to the sky in response.
Then Prime Minister Stoltenberg addressed not only those there in person but all of Norway and the world. It was a defiant response to the attacker. He repeated the quote of a Labor Youth League member who had been interviewed by CNN:
“If one man can hate so much, imagine how much love we can all show together.”
People wept openly. Strangers hugged. We stood there together. In grief, in defiance, to show that we would not be bombed or terrorized into giving up what makes Norway unique; openness, tolerance, kindness.
We were encouraged to leave our roses all over the city as we made our way home. Ambulances and police cars were covered in flowers as people passed by. What had been a heap of flowers in front of the cathedral was now a sea of flowers, of flags, of poems, statements of sorrow, of defiance.
It was sad. It was beautiful. It is Norway.
I have rarely been as shocked as I was following the two July 22 attacks. I have rarely been as overwhelmed by emotions as I have been in these past days. There is sadness and shock that someone, a Norwegian, could be so full of hate that he was able to coldly plan and carry out these vile attacks. To shoot innocent kids at a summer camp.
And perhaps strange to others, but not to us, there has been no hate against the attacker. No calls for his head. No calls for Norway to introduce the death penalty.
The attacks were not just attacks on the government, on the Labor Youth League. It was an attack on us all. There is now a sense of community in all of us, a determination to show the attacker and the world that no, we will not live in fear, we will not compromise on what makes Norway so special. We will not make this a society where politicians sit behind bulletproof glass and armored cars, a society where the Prime Minister no longer can stroll down the street or go cycling like a regular person.
Norway will probably change. Just what form that change will take is unclear, but we all are determined the Norway of tomorrow will still retain those virtues that we hold so dear to us, the virtues that were attacked by a terrorist.
I am proud of how we as a nation responded to the attacks with flowers and hugs, with tears and community, rather than hatred, anger and revenge. How our leaders responded. I am proud to say I am a Norwegian.