Back to Utøya


They said it was an impossible task to reclaim an island where 69 people were murdered.

  • Helle Aarnes
    Helle Aarnes

“We will return to Utøya”.

Eskil Pedersen, AUF-leader, July 23rd, 2011.

There is no recipe for how to deal with grief. For 77 families from the whole of Norway those July days of 2011 may be filled with nothing but a black hopelessness.

The rest of us find our way to the streets, instinctively fumbling for common ground and comfort.

Immediately after July 22nd, they emerge, at Oslo's cathedral, the Government buildings, on the mainland near the island of Utøya: small, spontaneous places of remembrance.

Everything takes on a symbolic meaning in these days. Within the first 24 hours the heartshaped island and the houses on it are known throughout Norway. The white Main building with big, red letters saying “Utøya”.

These images fly around the globe. Every Norwegian has an opinion about the future of the small island in the lake Tyrifjorden. Should AUF, the Labour party’s youth league, return, and if so when? And how? Which buildings should be demolished? Which should remain?

The first year.Nobody has the answer. Nobody has the blueprint for how to move forward after the massacre of 69 innocents on a summer island. A small nation must gather itself. But we are struggling.

Some things help: The court case, the sentence, the report from the commission of inquiry. The days pass slowly.

On the morning of the first anniversary, July 22nd, 2012, the island has been opened for relatives and the bereaved. Parents, brothers and sisters, grandparents and sweethearts release into the skies a large, red heartshaped balloon with written greetings to the 69. They have Utøya to themselves now. The island is nothing other than the place where their loved ones were snatched from them. They have learned to navigate the atrocities by way of the island´s buildings and landmarks.

For some people the Kafébygget had become an altar. For others, it was the house of death. In June 2015 the building still stands untouched, with dried roses, greetings – and bullet holes. Parts of the building will be preserved as the core of a new centre of learning which will probably open in 2016.

He killed the two first near the white building Hovedhuset. On the path at Bakken: another murder.

Outside the cafeteria, Kafébygget: three.

At the cafeteria´s south wall: two.

Two young people died from the shots that hit them as they flee over the camping area, Teltplassen.

Inside the cafeteria he killed thirteen.

On the Path of Love, Kjærlighetsstien,: ten.

On the lower side of the path: five.

On the Southern tip he shot at youngsters swimming away. One drowned.

Near the school house, Skolestua: two more dead.

Another three on the peninsula Stoltenberget, below the soccer field.

On the small beach Bolsjevika: five.

Around the pumphouse, Pumpehuset: fourteen.

At the Western tip near Kjærlighetsstien one person dies after a fall.

Back at the Southern tip: five young people dead.

One hour and 13 minutes. This is how long it takes to steal the lives of 69 people.

The Plans

Already the next morning, the AUF had the course marked out. A shaken Eskil Pedersen, the leader of the Labour party´s youth league, sat in front of the international journalists gathered at Sundvolden hotel, reading loudly and clearly from a manuscript. The message: ”We will return to Utøya”.

But sorrow moves at its own pace.How does one actually go about reclaiming an island where 69 were murdered? On the first anniversary, after releasing the balloon, all the relatives and bereaved are asked to leave the island before the AUF open their scheduled event at three pm. Some of the relatives tell the press they are “deeply disappointed”.

— We wish to reach a balance between observance of the past and the need to look ahead and move forward, the AUF leader explains.

The world must move on. AUF´s opinion is clear: No act of terror will be allowed to gag or dictate neither them nor the rest of Norway.

September 7th, 2012, the same day the announcement is made that the terrorist will not appeal the sentence, the AUF present their plans for what they call “Nye Utøya”, the new Utøya. Most buildings, including the Pumpehuset and the cafeteria, Kafébygget, where so many were murdered, will be demolished, this very autumn. After that, Utøya will be rebuilt.

The AUF and the architects of Fantastic Norway want to state that they are back on the island, and want to change its physical profile.

The new buildings will rise above the pine trees and the ridge. The price tag reads 60 million kroner. 40 million has already been donated to the Utøya fund.

Want to move on

One sunny day in June, the ring finally arrives. It carries the names and ages of all those killed. It will be suspended from the trees in Lysningen.

The new plans highlight the growing abyss between the AUF – dynamic young people who want and need to move on – and some of the relatives who are not yet ready to move at all.Many of the bereaved have a strong personal relationship to Utøya. Some of them even requested a funeral donation to the Utøya fund instead of flowers. But many have never set foot on the island and never voted for the Labour party. They are going nowhere. They simply can´t envisage anybody arranging summer camps where their child was murdered.

In September 2012, a few weeks after the demolition plans are published, 202 of the bereaved request a formal protection of all the buildings on the island. They get a rapid refusal from the Director of Cultural Heritage. The buildings “do not have sufficient value” to be protected in accordance with the cultural heritage act, according to the directorate.

They hope, however, that a compromise will be possible at a future point.

The double history

In the summer of 1933 119 working class children from Oslo spent six weeks on Utøya. Kafébygget (in the background) would later play a terrible role in the history of the island.
Hundreds of kids left Utøya a few kilos heavier and with slightly rounder cheeks at the camps end. Here are some of them in the newly constructed dining hall in 1933.

For the AUF, reclaiming the island is of crucial importance. Utøya represents not only the horror of that one hour and 13 minutes, but generations of bright summer days filled with song and laughter.

For them, the story of Utøya starts in 1933, when the trade union federation, Samorganisasjonen, arranged the very first holiday camp for 119 working class children.

They would leave the island a few weeks later with sun-tanned cheeks and a couple of kilos extra. The house they slept in was built with collective effort. It was later named the Kafébygget, and played a key role in the island´s history.

In 1950, the AUF received Utøya as a gift from the trade union federation. A knickerbocker clad Prime Minister, Einar Gerhardsen, presented the gift. Many historic Labour party leaders have had an intense relationship to Utøya.

“Bloody hell, many an idiot came ashore at this spot”, exclaimed Haakon Lie, the Labour Party’s renowned secretary, as he visited Utøya again, after several years of conflict with the youth organization AUF.

Einar Gerhardsen on his way to the Pentecostal camp, June 1984. The former prime minister is assisted by Kari Hansen from Greåker.
Gro Harlem Brundtland is considered the first Labour party leader to use Utøya as a political rostrum. Here she is seen with AUF-leader Jens Stoltenberg (28) in 1987.

Gro Harlem Brundtland, later to be Prime Minister, was seven when she visited the island for the first time. Prominent Labour MPs Trond Giske and Martin Kolberg remember Utøya as a hotbed for the 1972 campaign against Norwegian membership in the European Common Market. But the history of the island is also full of light-hearted play and flirtation. In 1974 Reiulf Steen, Thorvald Stoltenberg and Arne Treholt (later to be convicted for Russian espionage) played on the mother party’s soccer team, which lost the match against the AUF youth. Thorbjørn Jagland, who also later became prime minster, cleaned the outdoor toilets, as traditionally expected of the leadership, but also met his wife here.

Jens Stoltenberg, now Secretary General of NATO, but then AUF leader, was once the first prize in a lottery: A walk with him along the Path of Love, Kjærlighetsstien. Rumour has it that he spent most of the walk talking about NATO.

House of Death

One year after the atrocities, the pressure on AUF is enormous. They are heavily traumatized youngsters. They feel trapped and bewildered. Media, relatives, five million Norwegians – everyone has an opinion. Whatever the suggestion, somebody will disagree.

The imbalance between the collective and the private grief is becoming more and more evident. The cafeteria building Kafébygget is the very symbol of the deadlocked process. For some of the 13 families who lost their loved ones here, the building is a holy memorial. It cannot be demolished. For others the building is a “house of death”. It has to go.

The AUF realize that they have to do something, but they don’t know what. They want to reclaim Utøya, but have no idea how to do it. The project seems impossible. So when the National Support group 22. July suggest postponing the demolition until 2014, they understand that this is the right thing to do.

July 22, 2013

How young they are. And how they laugh and hug each other. Summer girls, summer boys, on board the island´s ferry M/S “Thorbjørn” again. It’s July 22nd, 2013. Two years after the terrible Friday, there is a gathering on the island, in remembrance. The youngsters laugh.

Next to them sits a woman, maybe a mother. She sits in silence during the crossing, but when the boat docks at Utøya, she bursts. A deep sigh, almost a sob, from somewhere far inside. She turns away, tries to hide her tears. The young people don´t notice her. Not now. They´re consumed by their own thoughts.

Their first steps on the island are heavy. Some are here for the first time, others have made coming here a form of therapy.

The white main building, with “Utøya” written in large, red letters, is freshly painted.

All through the spring, men and women have been preparing the buildings and the island for this day. Summer has arrived, open windows and doors invite everyone in – welcome! But on the lawn in front of the house stands a small vase of roses. And a portrait: Monica Bøsei, “Mother Utøya”, one of the very first victims.

69 souls. They ran for their lives. And lost.

The discomfort

It is so inconceivably close, so terribly uncomfortable. The fear of offending someone, intruding on someone’s sorrow, stepping on someone’s grave. The small bouquets, everywhere on the island. Roses, wildflowers, maybe a teddy bear, placed there by family and friends. The sudden altars, amidst the idyll: “We love you and miss you”.

The sun shines on the camping area Teltplassen. A happy little boy pees in the grass. He must have been a baby that day. On the stairs in front of the cafeteria sits a woman, staring down at the ground. She has a face tattooed on her leg. She will carry it with her, always: A boy’s face with “Utøya 22. juli” written below.

This impossible mixture of crying mothers and lives that must move on; even on a day filled with wildflowers it is impossible to imagine anyone ever laughing again on this island.

The job

The July sun beats down as Jens Stoltenberg, still Prime Minister of Norway, addresses the gathering. A leaden, silent grief hangs over the assembly. It’s a closed meeting, the TV-cameras are gone. Nobody notices the butterflies in the meadow.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and Trond Blattmann lay wreaths from the government and the supporting group. July 22, 2012.

– I’m not even close to understanding the torment involved in losing a child, PM Stoltenberg says. No one carries a heavier burden than you. But you are not alone.

A little later, down by the pier, Stoltenberg lays a wreath together with Trond Blattmann, the chairman of the National Support group 22. July. He lost his son Torjus here. Long, strong hugs, manly slaps on the back. One minute of silence. Then a trumpet solo: “For the Young”, the much loved hymn used in the first, spontaneous gatherings of July 2011.

Once again roses float on the surface of Tyrifjord. A tiny heart of pebbles on the quay. Placed by someone. For somebody. Two years have passed. The buildings on Utøya will not be demolished that fall.

Voluntary work

Yet another winter passes. Wild roses and lilies of the valley are blanketed by snow. Once again, spring arrives. For the Labour youth, spring has become synonymous with communal work on the island.

Young AUF-members and Utøya veterans travel to and fro throughout the spring of 2014, aboard the M/S “Thorbjørn”. Before the work begins, the bereaved are welcomed to the island on open days. The Labour youth will paint, hammer and saw. But they will not tear down.

Tonje Brenna is painting the walls of the Skolestua. She was 24 years old and AUF General Secretary on that day. This building, too, accommodates Utøya’s double history: In 1946, seven year old Gro Harlem Brundtland, later to be Norway´s first female Prime Minister, sneaked out of one of the windows to join her daddy around the campfire.

In 2011, the terrorist shot at people from a neighbouring window. A few yards away, the last shots were fired before the arrest was made.

The bullet holes will remain, but today the rooms will be painted white. Tonje Brenna was not in Skolestua, but below the Kjærlighetsstien, where he shot at them for what seemed like an eternity.

15 youngsters lost their lives. Some of them were found lying together on the waterfront, holding hands. Ms. Brenna survived, but later said that she felt the burden of guilt, responsibility and fear. She resigned from the post of General Secretary within a year.

Throughout the spring, around 30 Utøya veterans spend hundreds of hours working voluntarily on the island. There is a comfort and a sense of meaning to be found in the process. Some of them haven´t been back here for decades, some are parents of survivors. When the job is done, a wonderful, new fence stands along the Path of Love.

Time heals

Time heals all wounds, it is said. This is not true. But time helps. The break that AUF decided to take when their demolition plans were criticized, gave them time and space to reconsider their options. Time and space which they used to painstakingly rebuild confidence.

Jørgen Watne Frydnes, head of the new Utøya project, spends 2012 and 2013 travelling the country, listening to suggestions from the families involved.

He also contacts Tor Einar Fagerland, director of the Department of History at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, NTNU. Fagerland leads a major research project concerning all memorial processes following the July 22nd incidents.

The AUF need his input, particularly on the cafeteria dilemma. The debate around the national memorial sites on the mainland has been fierce, so when the relatives want to develop plans for their own memorial, a competition is announced.

The AUF carefully consider almost 600 specific suggestions from the bereaved. Throughout the winter they discuss the four best proposals with family members and others.

He didn’t shoot us

On May 27th, 2014 a young girl bends carefully to caress a small bouquet lying on the floor next to a photograph of a teenage girl in Lillesalen, the small hall, in Kafébygget. Beside her stands a middle-aged, American man.

— She died there, explains Hilde Firman Fjellså. Then takes James Young by the hand and leads him to the five toilet cubicles, only three yards away. Young is the superstar of international memorial site research, and she is there to explain the events of that day to him.

– This is my toilet, she explains, touching the cold white porcelain sink in the narrow room. This was her hiding place, together with six younger AUF-members. Here, she comforted them and cuddled them.

– We heard his boots stepping through the room. We heard him shoot, and we heard our friends scream. Only a thin wall separated us, yet somehow it felt safe in here.

James Young has tears in his eyes as Hilde Fjellså continues:

– There were young people in all the cubicles. He did not shoot us because, I think, he wanted to see everyone he shot directly in the eyes. We stayed there for almost two hours, until the police came, she explains.

— When we came out of the cubicles I saw many dead, boys and girls, in Lillesalen and Storsalen. A police officer asked me to take care of a wounded girl lying on the floor until the doctors arrived. I helped to carry her out. Today she is alive and well.


The AUF want to stand on solid professional ground. They invited James Young to Utøya, together with Ed Linienthal, an expert on memorial processes after the bombing of Oklahoma City and Alice Greenwald, the director of The National 9/11 Memorial in New York. The three are among the world’s most prominent experts in the field of memory processes and memorials. No nation has more experience and expertise in this area than the USA.It is the second time Young visits Utøya in half a year. The enormous contrast between the youngsters’ love for the island and what they tell him about July 22nd 2011 makes such an impression on him that he cant retell it without crying.

The turning point

During the meeting with the girl in the cafeteria Kafébygget, suddenly all the pieces fall into place: 13 young people died here. For the parents who have laid down flowers, photos and teddybears, this is already a holy memorial. And for the girl and the 17 others who survived here, the building will always represent survival. There is no doubt about it, says Young; He agrees with most of the 13 families and several in the AUF: Demolishing the cafeteria is impossible.

The architect Erlend Blakstad Haffner, Utøya manager Jørgen Watne Frydnes and professor Fagerland also agree. The central areas, with the remaining traces from the 13 murders, and the toilet cubicles where 18 people survived, must be preserved. The rest may be demolished.

But the architect has a proposal: To construct a new building around the old one. Let the new surround and protect the old, and it´s story. This way, survivors might bear to return, and the building is given an extra layer of meaning. The idea is immediately accepted.

The morning after, as if in a fever, they sketch the plan on butcher´s paper. For the AUF the new idea is a breakthrough . They have long wanted to integrate a new centre of learning on Utøya.

Now they have found the right place. The preserved areas will be a memorial site and in the basement young people, whichever political party they represent, will have the chance to learn about democracy, about July 22nd, about the 69 who were murdered and those who survived. Last but not least, they will be able to learn about the importance of fighting political extremism.

Once again Jørgen Frydnes is on the road, this time to meet the 13 families who lost their loved ones in the cafeteria building.

After intense discussions they all embrace the new idea. And in June, a few weeks before the third anniversary, the AUF central board adopt the plan unanimously.

July 22, 2014

Prime Minister Erna Solberg and her husband Sindre Finnes visit Utøya for the first time on July 22, 2014. Mrs. Solberg wipes away a tear as relatives and AUF-members sing Barn av Regnbuen. Jens Stoltenberg and Raymond Johansen are seen in the background.

On the third anniversary Erna Solberg, the Conservative party Prime Minister, represents the official Norway on the Labour Youth´s island. Solberg has never been to the island before.Like most, she is deeply affected as she goes ashore. These first, heavy steps. In front of the AUF’s legendary stage and rostrum the conservative prime minister sings the traditional Labour Youth songs, wiping away a tear. Afterwards she says that everybody now has to give a little and take a little, and in the end a decision must be made.

There will be some discussion, she says, but after a while it will all calm down. Her colleague, the Labour party´s ex-prime minister Jens Stoltenberg, is aware of the new plans for the island. He, too, thinks it is possible to find a way to return to Utøya. Stoltenberg refers to the combination of memorial site and new buildings on the 9/11 site in New York.

Keep parts. Tear down parts. Build something new. The island is being reclaimed, step by step. Some still disagree. Some still feel terrible pain. But the vast majority of survivors and bereaved now approve of the plans.

The New Utøya

The generations of youngsters coming to the Utøya summer camps tend to last for only a few years, maybe three or four, before school, sweethearts, sports and other interests attract their attention. For some of the bereaved, it is essential that new AUF members, who come to Utøya for the first time, will also have the opportunity to look forward. They are the future, and they should not be stopped.

In October Eskil Pedersen resigns after eight years in the AUF leadership, longer than most previous leaders. After Utøya, Pedersen has received threats and has carried a police alarm for several years.

— It was not given that everything would turn out so well. But we managed to get back on our feet. We took care of each other Pedersen says, in his emotional resignation speech. The new AUF-leader is Mani Hussaini, a 26 year old with a background as a Syrian refugee.

Jørgen Watne Frydnes had no AUF experience when he was recruited as manager of Utøya. Today he is considered a key figure in the process of returning considerately to the island. Here he is last June, with his daughter Aurora and AUF-leader Mani Hussaini.
During the winter of 2014 and spring of 2015, the new buildings, called Torget, finally rise. Cool, Nordic wooden structures, but they have open and safe rooms where daylight is let in.
Churchlike high ceilings in one of the new houses in Torget.

That same fall, after more than three years of quarrel and pause, the architect Erland Blakstad Haffner can finally see the new buildings rise. Plain, nordic wooden buildings, lofty roofs, almost sacred, churchlike.Concrete floors and huge windows allowing light into large, open halls. In contrast to the original plans, these houses can barely be seen from the road.

The central parts of the cafeteria Kafébygningen will be left untouched for another year, but by 2016 the AUF hope that the Hegnhuset, the new centre for memorial and learning, will be ready, built on the grounds of the old cafeteria.

More than 500 pillars on the outside of the building will protect 69 supporting columns on the inside. The 69 will bear the roof.

The clearing

Lilies of the Valley grow on Utøya’s forest floor. Lilies of the Valley and wild roses. Butterflies fly over the meadows of wildflowers. They always have. They always will.

More than 8000 hours of voluntary work. On June 6 this year relatives, AUF-members and veterans from Utøya gather to lay down shale and prepare the path to the memorial site Lysningen, The Clearing. In July the 800 kilo ring of names is suspended from the pinetrees.

On a sunny spring day in 2015 a group of AUF youngsters are busy clearing away thicket and forest floor. Some trees have been cut down to make space for the remaining pine trees and a circular foundation for Lysningen, The Clearing. The islands own memorial site. The Clearing simply introduced itself. Kolbein Fridtun noticed it, walking around the island one day. Fridtun lost his daughter, Hanne Kristine Fridtun, on Utøya, and he wanted to participate in the process of constructing a memorial there. It was decided that the site must meet two requirements: No atrocity should have taken place there, and visitors should be able to withdraw and have a moment of privacy there.

At the Clearing the sun will enter. Light will prevail.

In the first week of July, well in advance of the July 22nd anniversary and the first camp at Utøya after 2011, a large, beautiful metal ring is placed among the pines. It hangs heavy, but stable, among the pine trees, about a yard above the ground. The victims’ names and ages have been engraved into the metal. No name is first, no name is last. The ring is infinite.

The A-magasinet has been following AUF’s process of reclaiming Utøya for several years. The work has involved a huge communal effort, with a price tag of 60 million kroner. In the spring of 2015 thicket and leaves are being removed from the clearing in the woods.

The Mourning Cloak

There is a butterfly on Utøya called the Mourning Cloak. It is plain, but beautiful, with deep red wings, light blue spots and a narrow, yellow edging. The Mourning Cloak often hatches in birch and aspen, which grow in abundance on Utøya. The butterfly swarms from April to October, spending winter under the snow. It may be observed in early spring, fluttering across the island. Like most butterflies it needs light. It roams the landscape, but settles on sunny spots with daisies, poppies, lilacs, sunhat — and so called butterfly bushes, Buddleja. It loves their nectar.

The unique flora of Utøya is said to originate from the middle ages, when monks from a neighbouring island used Utøya as a herb garden. This spring, the thicket was about to displace the old vegetation of Lilies of the Valley and wild roses. But then the thicket was cleared, and butterfly bushes and other flowers planted by mourning parents and AUF members together. They all want to give something back to the island.

Reclaiming Utøya was seen as an impossible task. But August 7th – 9th there will once again be a summercamp on Utøya, probably with more than a thousand youngsters – almost twice the number of the 2011 camp. Many of the survivors of 2011 will not participate. Some of them will never want to return. But for those who do, the Mourning Cloak will be waiting in the clearing Lysningen.

The promise

Dennis Lund Schjetne was nine when his elder brother Fredrik Lund Schjetne was killed. At the funeral, Mani Hussaini promised to recruit Dennis as soon as he turned 13. Four years later, during voluntary work on the memorial site, they shake hands. They have a deal.

— Do you remember, Mani? We´re in 2015!

13 year old Dennis Lund Schjetne, timidly greets AUF-leader Mani Hussaini. Last time they met was in the funeral of Dennis’ elder brother, Fredrik Lund Schjetne. Frederik was killed on the island. He was a member of the AUF from Akershus county, where Mani was the leader at the time. The two of them were good friends. During the funeral ceremony Mani promised Dennis to recruit him as a member once he turned 13. For four years, Dennis has been waiting for this day to come. He is 13 now, old enough, and back on the island doing voluntary work with his mum and dad. They position tiling on the memorial site, and sit down for a moment in the circle.

Dennis and Mani shake hands. They have a deal.

— Well, do you play soccer? Mani asks.

– You can join our team.

Les også