The youth wing of the Norwegian Labour Party plans to hold its summer camp in July for the first time since the attack by Anders Behring Breivik in 2011.
It’s a controversial move and not everyone believes the time is right to return, even though the gathering won’t be on the site of the shooting, but at a nearby spot. Youth-wing president Eskil Pedersen, 28, who survived the killing that day, believes the time is right to hold the camp, which the party has held annually for more than 50 years.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, he spoke of the plan he is pushing to redevelop the actual site, called Utøya island, with a new conference centre and a memorial to the victims. That too has raised concerns from some of the families of the victims who say the site should never be used again.
Why go back this summer?
It’s a large camp site really, so it’s an important step for us to again have a national summer camp.
It’s going to be, hopefully, a very positive experience, but, in the July 22nd context [the shooting was July 22, 2011]of course, it will bring back some memories for people. ... We will try to make it as ordinary as possible. And I think we will succeed with that because some time has gone by and quite frankly all our members are quite used to the comparison to the 22nd of July attacks in almost everything we do.
You won’t be there on July 22, but will you do something during the camp to remember the tragedy?
I think to be frank, I think the media will do their part of the job linking it to the 22nd of July and stating that it’s our first summer camp again. But I don’t think we will do anything special to mark it because we have in so many ways talked about it … I think it’s better to mark it on that date and then the summer camp will be quite ordinary. But it will be talked about around the camp fires and so on, I’m sure. But I think our members, those who were there, are quite used to that double side of it; that you can talk about ordinary things, move on, have a good time but also suddenly that is the topic of discussion.”
But the Party plans to go back to Utoya.
We have said early on, I think the following day after the attacks, that we would go back and that at the same time that we would not go back until the plans are realized. There was some material damage but not that severe, but the emotional damage is of course much stronger. For instance in the largest conference room several people were killed so it would be hard to have a conference meeting there again.”
But not everyone agrees the site should be used again.
There are a lot of strong feelings and it has been a huge debate in Norway the last half a year, where some of the families of people who were killed opposed these plans. They don’t want anything, they want it to just stay where it is now. But we said that we will tear down the largest conference building, that we will rebuild that, build up the infrastructure ... and we will also have a memorial site on the island. And that is of course very important so that the history doesn’t get lost and that we honour those who were killed.
When do you think the project would be completed?
We are in the process now where we are talking to all the different parties and I think it’s possible and the most realistic is to have the project done by 2015, maybe. But we are of course in a hurry in a way because we want to use the island as soon as possible but at the same time we are not in a hurry because we have to do it right and it’s going to be a project that will stand there for many decades... There are different opinions in the public, but I think in our own organization and those who were there on the 22nd of July [that] there’s a strong wish and commitment to again reclaim it and not let it be the gunman’s cathedral to what happened.
What does going back mean to you?
I’ve been there many times since the 22nd of July and I understand that for many it’s difficult to understand why we want to go back, but I think for 99 per cent or something of them the only thing they know about Utoya is the 22nd of July and for me I’ve been at summer camps at Utoya every year since 2000, so half of my life, almost and all of my youth, and the horrible memories of the 22nd of July doesn’t really take away all the positive things.”
What are you trying to say by going back?
That we will not be threatened from our viewpoints or from our property, from our island, and that it’s important for us to show that we can rise again and again have activities at Utoya.”
You were there that day and escaped. How has it affected you?
I think about it a lot, of course, but not in a way that affects my ability to work or be with friends, or have an ordinary life. But it’s, of course, always there and in my work it gets more normal and more ordinary. It’s gets more normal and takes a smaller amount of the week or the day. But I don’t think I’ve had a work day since the 22nd of July where not something has intertwined with this had been there. ... It can be journalists, it can be the process of rebuilding Utoya, it can be court case, there are so many things to attend to. So that is something we just have to deal with and [there’s no] point trying to get it to go away because it will not go away, it’s there. You have to just embrace that even though you don’t like it and do the best out of it.”
Did it shake your interest in politics?
The first night I thought, is this what I want to do? You rethink if this is your priority in life. Because when something as dramatic as that happens you really strip down to what is really important in life and it’s friends and people you care about and not ambitions or material wealth. But I thought about that the first night, is this what I want to do when friends are being killed because we believe in what we believe in? But I quite early just threw that thought away because the real answer is I think politics is more important than it has ever been and more important that I participate in it and that other young people participate in it.”
There has been criticism of your actions that day, leaving on a boat, and some nasty things have been said. How do you react to that?
It has been tough to go through some of those debates. And it has felt unfair from time to time. But at the same time the toughest thing has not been that people are criticizing me, but when people criticize me they don’t necessarily think that they are criticizing a lot of other young people as well. Guilt is a very common feeling when you are going through something like this. Everyone feels guilt at some level.
Do you feel guilty?
I think everyone did and of course I did as well. But I think it’s been important, and that has been my message, that everyone feels guilt and it’s natural but you shouldn’t feel guilt. It’s one person who has responsibility and you know you do what you can do in such a situation.