Editor’s note: When the news came of a bombing in Oslo, Norway, my heart sank and I immediately called my dear friend Marte Ramborg, who lives just outside of Oslo. Marte and I met in 1990, when we were among a group of young people helping refugees in Malawi who were fleeing Mozambique. When she answered the phone, I could hear the tears in her voice as she began to give me even more information than we had on American news.
She told me about something going on on the island of Utoya, where the Labor Party ran a camp for young people. The Labor Party, the most progressive political party in Norway, brought young people from all nationalities together to this camp, a place of openness and learning.
As we spoke, she explained how this event was so un-Norwegian and I asked her to write about it. Here she is in her own words, just hours after the attack.
More than 24 hours have passed since Norway was hit by the most violent attacks since World War 2. Yesterday a bomb went off in the center of Oslo, near the government offices. 7 people are reported killed.
We didn’t believe it, and called it the end of innocence. Norway is a peaceful place on earth. But then reports came from the Labor Party Youth Summer Camp on Utoya Island in a large lake: “Somebody is shooting at the teenagers”.
The first numbers of dead were ten. We wanted to wake up from the nightmare, we couldn’t believe that one man could shoot and kill ten young people. This morning we woke up, but the nightmare turned worse. The death toll is now 85.
85 young people, gathered at summer camp to discuss politics. Young people attending a summer camp to be with friends, play soccer and talk about their ideals and how to make a better society: the symbol of democracy. It isn’t supposed to be true.
Norway is a small country. We are five million people. We have now lost almost 100. It is our 9/11, and I think the American people can remember the grief you felt. When the names of the victims are published, I am sure all of us will know some of them, or know someone who does. And we all mourn.
Very early speculations were launched. Is this al Qaida? Is it retaliation for being part of the war in Afghanistan, or in Libya? But very early also came the reminders of not letting this go to our heads, not to let racism flourish or judge all Muslims. Our Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s response was this: We will retaliate with more democracy.
The response of our politicians, the press and the entire people are overwhelmingly the same. Norway was a peaceful nation, an open society built on trust and equality. We hold those values high, and will struggle to be able to keep living by them. We will not be bombed to silence or shot into a state of constant fear.
The police have arrested a 32 year old blonde Norwegian citizen. He is a right wing extremist. So far it seems he worked alone. I am proud of our police spokespersons that constantly refused to speculate on what Muslim terrorist groups could be behind. I am proud of the prime minister and other representatives from the government who took leadership, but showed compassion, and were never tempted to .
And I am proud of the police, the health workers, the firemen and all the volunteers who saved many lives yesterday. I am also proud of my colleagues. I was at work at the headquarters of the Norwegian Air Ambulance when I heard the news. Incredulous we listened and watched, and started to realize that this would not be a normal day for our colleagues in the air. At the most, six out of our nine medical helicopters were flying wounded youths out of Utoya. I haven’t spoken to my colleagues yet. They are still on duty and are debriefing. But what they witnessed on that island I will never be able to fathom.
Today, people are gathering in homes, in churches, schools, streets to be together. The nation is in mourning. We have received messages of support and compassion from all over the world. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have both offered their condolences to the affected families and to the nation. My family has received concerned calls from the US, from Uganda and from Sri Lanka. All countries who know what terror is. We are so grateful for all the support.
I am lucky. I am not among the 170 parents who won’t get their child back home after summer camp, or the many who have their loved ones in hospital wondering if things will go well. I am safe at home, with my husband, lovely children and family intact. The closest I got was having my friend at the library with her nine year old son and two of his friends. They wanted to lend books for the vacation they were going on today. The Deichman Library is next to the Government offices. The blast from the bomb was so loud. There was glass everywhere. My friend and the kids were in different rooms, but found each other, and ran outside. They walked and ran through what was now looking like a war zone. Not physically hurt, but changed forever.
I hope that in one year, I will recognize my country. We may have bullet proof film on the windows of government buildings, and we may have changed one or two more things that would be smart to change. But today and yesterday, what I hear most is a unanimous vow that we will not let this terror attack change our values or way of life. And I quote, from memory, one of the youths who came back alive: We saw what one man’s hatred could do. Imagine what we can do with all our love