Photo by Katalin Karolyi
Bjørn Magnus Jacobsen Ihler is a survivor of the July 2011 attacks on Utøya island in Norway when right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik shot and killed 69 people and injured 110 others. Most of the dead were students attending a summer camp organised by the AUF, the youth division of the ruling Norwegian Labour Party. Breivik had earlier that day carried out a bomb attack on government buildings in Oslo killing 8 people and injuring 209. He was charged with both attacks and in 2012 received a 21-year prison sentence for homicide.
In the afternoon of the 22nd of July we were all gathered in the main meeting room where we were told there had been an explosion in Oslo. Some people looked up the news on their smartphones. The pictures of our hometown looked like downtown Baghdad so it was pretty obvious this had to be a bomb. We were advised to remain on the island as it was presumed to be much safer than returning to Oslo.
As we gathered in the campsite we heard this popping noise that sounded like firecrackers. Then I saw this man coming over the hill and a few people ran towards him. The next thing I knew he was shooting at them. I was pretty sure this had to be someone kidding with us but I couldn’t gamble on it so I ran into the woods with one of my friends. In the woods I noticed this eight-year-old boy who was the son of one of the security guards on the island. He was clearly in shock and I figured we had to help him and so we found a hiding spot. There were about 600 people on this tiny island battling for a few hiding places.
It felt like an eternity lying there trying to keep this kid calm. Then I saw a group of people running through the woods towards us. In that crowd was another child – the son of the other security guard. The boy and I joined the crowd and ran along with the second child. By now there were about 30 of us running pretty fast. It struck me then how extremely quiet such a large group can be; we were so soft on our feet.
But then, as we ran along, we came across a most terrible sight – a pile of dead bodies blocking the track. In the midst of the bodies a cell phone was ringing. I realized this must be someone worried sick trying to reach a loved one. Someone who would never get a reply.
We ran to the southern tip of the island from where we could see a helicopter in the sky and across the water the longest line of blue flashing lights I’d ever seen. We all felt relieved. I gave the kids my phone and had them call their mothers who were not on the island, telling them that to call their fathers might potentially reveal their hiding spots. Then I called my own father to tell him I was safe.
At that moment an armed policeman came out of the woods from behind us, saying the bad guy had been caught and we were all safe now. But then he raised his gun, pointed it towards us and started shooting. I jumped in the water and the kids followed me. I swam straight out, but sank due to wearing a heavy woolen jumper. As I stood up in the water to pull it off, I looked back towards the island and saw Breivik take aim at me. I was absolutely certain I would die. It was an extraordinary moment which is hard to describe. I felt this peace inside me but also this overwhelming emptiness; it was a feeling of my soul leaving my body.
Thankfully Breivik missed and I threw myself back into the water – water now red with the blood of my friends. In order to get out of Breivik’s aim I now swam for my life around the corner of the island eventually hiding in some bushes. The boys still following me.
After what felt like an eternity a man wearing a police uniform came out of the woods. We thought it was Breivik again, but this man put his gun behind his back and was able to convince us he was a real policeman and that we were finally safe.
During the next hour we managed to get on a boat back to the mainland. It was chaos there too with a massive row of ambulances and people everywhere. We stood for a while with blankets round us and then a bus picked us up and drove us to the nearest hotel where the boys were reunited with their mothers. I found out later that both their fathers had been among the first to be killed. It was chaos at the hotel too as parents started turning up. Thinking back I find that part even worse than the island, realising that a lot of parents would be returning without their children.
Around midnight my parents arrived with some dry clothes and we drove back to Oslo. The next few days were very difficult and surreal as I tried to come to terms with what had happened. My anxiety levels were high and I felt completely numb; I’d jump at every noise and every sight of the police. I saw a psychiatrist who offered me pills but the only thing that helped was talking to other survivors. Later I reached out to the Norwegian Centre for Violence and Traumatic Stress Studies where I received intensive care.
For the next week or so the Oslo Delegation of the Labour Youth Party held various meetings during which lists of the dead started coming out. Reading the lists was always extraordinarily upsetting as I recognized the names of friends while also realizing some names represented great individuals who I’d never have the honour of getting to know.
It helped that I was studying in England at the time and just two months later I returned to Liverpool. It gave me a distance from it all, a chance to get back into some sort of routine. In some ways this was the best way of dealing with the trauma.
That autumn there was a hearing about the further imprisonment of Breivik. I persuaded my lawyer to let me go to court. I wanted to see Breivik again. Meeting him in court was a very important moment for me because I realized he could no longer point a gun at me. I saw him then as just another human being with no power to hurt me anymore. This was a significant step in the process of rebuilding my life, and in realizing that the core issue when dealing with violent extremism is recognizing that we all dehumanize each other.
I believe that we have to recognize Breivik’s humanity. I find people’s efforts to dehumanize him really scary because that’s what he tried to do to us.
At times people have refused to say his name which makes him almost half godly. This reminds me of the Harry Potter novels where the name Lord Voldemort is so feared: a name should never have that kind of power. Norwegians try to dehumanize Breivik by calling him a monster or evil; and leading up to the trial there was public pressure to see him as insane. The assumption being that Utøya was caused by one single madman, almost like a natural disaster. It was as if they were trying to write it off. But there’s a great danger in that as we need to recognize that these things may happen again.
I don’t know if Breivik is capable of remorse and I don’t honestly care. People find it odd that I consider him so unimportant but I prefer to try to stop people harming others than thinking about Breivik. I was given the gift of life and if I can spend my time making sure that one single person doesn’t have to go through what my friends and I went through then this work will be worth it.
Forgiveness is perceived differently in Norway than in the rest of the world and is often misunderstood here. When Desmond Tutu suggested that Norway needs to forgive it caused massive outrage. This frustrated me because I’m sure Desmond Tutu didn’t mean forgive in the sense of excuse or giving someone a free pass to repeat the offence. I think his views are closer to mine, about accepting and being able to move on while still recognizing the pain. This type of forgiveness is about finding some wisdom that we can take out of what has happened to ensure that violence doesn’t repeat itself.
Bjørn is now working against extremism and hatred through a variety of means including writing, talks, filmmaking and theatre productions on related topics. You can visit The Khalifa Ihler Institute
and Extremely Together Foundation
to learn more about how he promotes peace and human rights across the world.