I’ve tried to write this post countless times. However much I think I can, part of me still freezes up. Part of me still tears up. In reviewing pictures to include on this post, I admit I shed a few tears again. However, as it’s the anniversary of an event that changed my perspective and has remained such a part of me, even in ways I’m not yet sure of, I grit my teeth and continue. Sometimes, that’s all we can do.
Summer of 2011 I was in Oslo, Norway for the University of Oslo International Summer School. It was an amazing experience – some 500+ students from 95 different countries. There were a number of undergraduate courses and a handful of graduate courses; I was taking one of the latter: Peace Studies. I was excited to pursue this particular course – well, the name of this blog should make that obvious! But as I’d studied Scandinavian politics some, I was particularly pleased to have the chance to pursue such a course in a country that seems to take a concerted effort to both encourage study in pursuit of peace, as well as attempt to enact it in their foreign policy. My dad’s side of the family being of Norwegian descent, and his having studied in Oslo in 1984 was an added bonus – I was excited to be in Norway!
July 22, 2011 started off like any other day. It was a Friday; I’d had my class for the morning and after lunch, met with my class to rehearse our skit we’d put together for the international cultural evening performance at the end of the summer school. There were still a couple weeks to go, so we needed to smooth things out. When we exited the practice room at the dorm, the hallway was abuzz with agitation and worry – I caught only a few confused strains of what had happened – something about a bomb? I went to my room and signed online to try and figure it out, and my sister popped up on Facebook chat to see if I was okay – there had been a bombing in downtown Oslo. I skimmed a few headlines, but grabbed my camera and headed for the train. Everyone else was coming to the dorm and I was heading away from it – hadn’t I heard what had happened? Yeah, that’s what some of us photographers do…
I quickly arrived at the station nearest to Oslo’s main pedestrian thoroughfare, which was eerily quiet, despite some people wandering around, as though dazed. I began to see windows broken, and followed the streets I could – following the path of glass shards as the damage increased the closer I got. A few blocks’ radius was blocked off at the scene – a government building in downtown Oslo. Onlookers and police alike were at the scene – a quiet sense of bewilderment and wonder – what had happened, who had done it – and why? I began to walk a path around the streets that weren’t blocked off, perhaps a good ten blocks’ radius, and by the time I reached the pedestrian street again, the entire area was blocked off. I eventually made my way back to the dorm, thinking that was it.
Dazed, confused, and with great grief I learned the news that the rest of the country and the rest of the world soon heard – perhaps an hour away from the city on the island of Utoya, a summer camp experienced a bloody day in its history – a gunman wreaked havoc for perhaps an hour or so, killing some 69 and wounding many, the majority of them younger than my own (at the time) 23 years. This was the biggest act of violence in Norway since Nazi occupation in World War II. While the immediate reaction was that perhaps it was the work of an Islamic extremist group, it turned out to be a Norwegian citizen – white male, identifying as a Christian, who felt compelled to act in defense of Norway – and Europe – which he felt to be under threat from multiculturalism and Islam specifically.
The weekend after that I was out of the city, a well-needed break – but Monday saw me back in Oslo, back in class – we spent some time talking about it, but I don’t remember any of what was said. I only feel a dull ache inside when I think about that weekend. Monday night, my friend Biljana and I had agreed to go to an event in the city center – someone had started a Facebook event for a vigil in Oslo, calling on people to bring a rose in remembrance of those who had been killed. By the time the weekend finished, it had turned into a full-fledged event, with even the prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, and crown prince Haakon slated to speak. Biljana and I headed into town a few hours early, which was good – we managed to snag a spot not too far from the stage, but by the time the event began, as far as I could see was a crowd of people and flowers.
My Norwegian language is minimal – a few months’ worth of classes before I got bored and went back to Turkish, and hearing it spoken sporadically through my childhood – my dad would once in a while read me fairy tales in Norwegian. I wouldn’t understand much of anything, but I loved hearing him speak it. The only sentence I understood from any of the speakers was from the crown prince: “I kveld er gatene fylt av kjaerlighet.” - “Tonight the streets are full of love.” Later I heard from a friend who had spoken with a Somali woman who lived in Oslo: she had immigrated to Norway some 12 years before, learned Norwegian, become a citizen, even learned to ski, she’d said laughingly – but she never felt so Norwegian as she did that night, in that crowd.
The man who committed these atrocities recently finished up his trial; in August the verdict will come out. He defended his ideologies, even had a 1,200+ page manifesto explaining his thoughts and views. What struck me is that the Norwegian media did not demonize him. His right to a fair trial was not questioned. People felt his actions were inhumane; but I didn’t see hardly anything that made him out to be beyond human himself. In the days that followed, I asked myself many questions, one of them striking a chord with me: how would my own country and society react? Quite differently, I felt. But I realized something that summer – why do I do what I do? Why do I care so passionately about peace? It’s not always hopefulness or optimism, though I feel most of my friends would probably label me as an optimist. No, there are some dark days when it’s simply this – I’ve seen the alternatives to peace, and I just can’t justify doing anything, passively or actively, to let those kinds of days happen again.
I’m not always comfortable with the idea of listening or reaching out to the other – that other person who seems so much the opposite of something I believe. I mess up more times than I like to admit. But anytime I think of that day in Oslo, the lives lost at Utoya, or the lives lost daily in Syria these days – the injustices in my own community and country; poverty, homelessness, discrimination… there are too man who have gone before us, died before us, fought before us – to not keep walking forward, one step at a time….one grieving step, one hopeful step at a time.