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Memorial to massacre victims in Norway divides traumatized community
Utoya Island, where a right-wing extremist massacred 69 people, mostly summer campers from the youth wing of Norway's Labor Party, seen on Jan. 11, 2014. Some local residents have sued over plans for a public memorial to victims at a harbor across from Utoya, saying they would be traumatized anew if the area became a destination for 'tragedy tourism.' Kyrre Lien/The New York Times.

by Henrik Pryser Libell and Megan Specia

OSLO (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- July 22, 2011, is seared into the national consciousness of Norway.

On that day, the country experienced its deadliest attack since World War II when a right-wing extremist detonated a bomb in Oslo and then went on a shooting rampage at a political summer camp for young people on the small island of Utoya.

In the years since the massacre, Norway has struggled to reckon with the trauma of that day. That effort has been particularly acute in mainland communities around Utoya, which have been deeply conflicted about how to memorialize the 69 people killed there.

The latest disagreement dividing the community is over the construction of a permanent public memorial at a harbor across from the island. That issue is at the center of a lawsuit filed in a district court in the nearby town of Honefoss by a handful of local residents against the state and the youth wing of a political party that hosted the summer camp.

The residents say the memorial, which is under construction, risks turning the area into a destination for tragedy tourism and could traumatize locals again.

But many families of victims disagree.

“It will be a dignified, beautiful location,” said Lisbeth Kristine Royneland, whose daughter Synne Royneland was one of the young people killed on Utoya by the gunman, Anders Behring Breivik, who also killed eight other people in a bomb attack in Oslo. “It is a place where we can bring future generations, to learn, to remember.”

She hopes the trial will resolve the long-running and painful debate over the memorial for the sake of victims’ families. The host of the summer camp on Utoya, the Workers’ Youth League, a wing of the country’s Labor Party, is one of the parties being sued by the residents.

The years of legal battles over the construction of a permanent memorial near Utoya funded by the state had been difficult for the families, who were promised one by the government nearly a decade ago, many families have said.

Royneland leads a support group for the families of victims and has testified in support of the case, which has already dragged on for months. Her group, the Workers’ Youth League and the government had worked together to plan the memorial on land donated by the party’s youth wing.

“I get a feeling they want to forget what happened,” Royneland said of those opposing the construction. “I understand that they see Utoya every day, and there are many who hurt at the sight of the island.”

But, she said: “It’s important to recognize that it did happen,” and that the attacker had right-wing extremist motives.

The government had vowed to quickly establish two public memorials soon after the attack — one in Oslo and one near Utoya — a process they expected would take just a few years. With the 10-year anniversary of the massacre approaching, neither of the official national memorials have been built, although a temporary one was set up in the capital.

An initial plan for an installation called “Memory Wound,” designed by Swedish artist Jonas Dahlberg, was scrapped in 2017 after locals threatened legal action. The design, which included plans to cut a gash in the terrain of a peninsula about 1 mile from Utoya, was met by intense protests from local residents.

Plans were then shifted to the nearby harbor, from which ferries depart from the mainland to Utoya, after approval by the local municipality. But in late May, 16 local residents filed the lawsuit against the project. In September, a court temporarily halted construction, pending the lawsuit, but that was appealed and work has continued.

Ole Hauge Bendiksen, a lawyer who represents residents opposed to the project, said that his clients wanted the construction halted or moved over concerns for their mental health and emotional well-being.

He said that some people involved in the lawsuit participated in the initial emergency response in 2011 and had suffered psychologically ever since. Several have been on sick leave for years, and he said the psychological pressure of the memorial would be a danger to them and their families.

“We have to live with the reminder every day,” said Anne Gry Ruud, one of the residents involved in the lawsuit. “We all need to retain the memory of the terror act, it is the worst we’ve experienced. But we have the memory in our own neighborhood, it’s so close to us.”

That point is at the center of the court case — which seeks to decide whether a memorial at the location would lead to psychological harm to anyone. Several psychiatrists have been called as witnesses.

On the 26-acre forested island of Utoya, a memorial has already been erected. But the island is privately owned by the Workers’ Youth League, and doesn’t have a regular passenger ferry, though the party does run a private one by appointment.

The party, which has hosted political events there for nearly a century, has worked to reclaim the island in the years since the 2011 attack. Jorgen Watne Frydnes, managing director of the foundation that runs activity on Utoya, which since 2011 has been focused on revitalizing the island, said it has been reimagined as a “place with a purpose.”

“We worked hard to find a way to both preserve the memory of what happened and to also move on,” he said. “We did not want the terrorist to win, and close down Utoya. But we also do not want to forget what happened here.”

He acknowledged that agreeing on a tribute that worked for families and survivors, as well as the party, took time. A metal circle engraved with the names of victims was eventually installed, and a former cafeteria — where many of the victims were killed and where the walls are still riddled with bullet holes — was turned into a learning center.

Parts of the original building have been preserved and are surrounded by a new structure, encircled by 69 columns representing those who died on the island, and 495 outer poles, one for every person on the island who survived the massacre. In 2015, the Workers’ Youth League hosted its first summer camp on Utoya since the attack.

Most people in the surrounding area, he said, want to see Utoya revived and support the memorial on the harbor. It was inaccurate to paint an image of the legal battle as a dispute between the entire local community and the families of the victims, he said.

“I am very uncomfortable with the lawsuit, and that it takes a court case to be permitted to raise this vital memorial,” he said. “It is a lack of dignity.”

But the handful of the local residents involved in the legal case disagree. Ruud said it was not the memorial itself but its location that was problematic.

She said the residents had offered up a suggestion for an alternative location, a quiet spot with a view of the island nearer the main road, but that was rejected.

Paal Martin Sand, the lawyer for the Workers’ Youth League, said he and his clients believe the memorial is important for the families of the victims, for the wounded and the survivors and for Norway as a society. Most of the plaintiffs can’t even see the memorial from their homes, he added.

He said the recent rise of the far right in Europe and the United States makes the memorial being erected now “unfortunately more important than ever.”

“A national memorial is the strongest symbol a state can use to tell future generations that society will not forget what happened,” he said.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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