Heart Against Stone: the story of a survivor from Utøya

This excerpt is the first English translation of a remarkable account of the experience of one of the young survivors on Utøya. The 21yr-old was shot and wounded after the events related here. He wants to tell his story to honour the dead and show that terror cannot defeat political engagement.  

On Friday I woke as I came into contact with the ground. Over the night, the air had been slowly leaking out of my inflatable mat until eventually it was possible to feel every single bump on the grass below. The rain was falling on the canvas with a fresh pattering sound. I sat up and felt my way through my things. Dry. At least the tent was waterproof. At the foot of my air mattress lay the food from the previous evening's dinner: a half-eaten plate of salad with a couple of cigarette ends in it. That was as far as I got before the exhaustion of a whole day continuously at work became too much. When the Datarock concert on the outdoor stage was over, most people withdrew to the Café Building. Karaoke had been organised in the Main Hall. Due to the sultry air that often forms the night before a rainy day, somebody had opened the windows, and slightly rough but whole-hearted versions of old classics streamed out into the twilight. One boy sang 'Idyll' by the Norwegian band Postgirobygget. A trio of girls sang 'Levva livet' by the rock singer Åge Aleksandersen. They were a small but persistent group, and for a while they were the only thing standing between me and a good night's sleep. It must have been about twelve by the time I finally got to sleep.

My mobile phone beeped next to me on the mattress. It was Svein Gustaf's shift on the other side of the water that morning, and he was wondering what was going on. 'Where are you? How was Gro?' He asked.

'No, no, no,' I mumbled.

It was past one o' clock.

Adrian Pracon and Erik Møller Solheim Adrian Pracon in the foreground, co-author. Erik Møller
Solheim behind him. Photo by Fredrik Arff. All rights reserved.

Gro Harlem Brundtland's speech was one of the main highlights of the camp, not only for the girls but for all of us. Now it had finished. I unzipped the tent door that opened out onto the track road and stuck out my head. It was as if I had woken up on a different island at a different latitude. Everything felt a little heavier than the day before, as if the layer of rain and mist were lying like a lid right across Tyrifjorden. Leaving the cosy and dry tent did not feel especially enticing. Camp members who had been to see Gro's speech passed along the path outside. One of them, a girl rushing down the slope from the kiosk, was wearing just a T-shirt, shorts and big rubber boots with the Labour Party logo on them. She was beaming so much, with such energy in every step. If she were in charge, the whole campsite would see that we didn't mind a bit of bad weather here on Utøya.

 

On the way back from the showers, I almost walked straight into a small retinue of reporters. Striding briskly in the middle of the procession was a figure wearing a scarlet red raincoat and green rubber wellies. Eskil followed alongside with a black umbrella. It was strange to see him, the clear and strong leader of the Workers' Youth League (AUF), treading along behind somebody else. But it was not just anybody he was holding the umbrella for. It was the mother of the nation herself, Gro, Norway's first and so far only female prime minister, and she was on her way to visit the Oslo and Akershus branches' camp. Photographers circled around, taking pictures. Journalists scribbled on their small notepads as they walked. So she was still here after all. And she still had to check out in the Information Office before she left.

 

It was complete commotion there. The queue to the desk stretched back to the entrance door. Binders, papers, leftovers of food and paper cups lay on tables and chairs. In the back room, the walkie-talkies beeped in their chargers, and phones rang continuously. Gro was going to eat lunch on the first floor, and it was the Information Group who had to prepare everything. I barely had time to ask if there was something I could do before the former prime minister came bursting through the door, exchanged a few words and disappeared upstairs together with the rest of her entourage.

We always had two walkie-talkies in the Information Office, in addition to the ones on land. I took one of them in case anything popped up. After a short while, we received a message from the other shore about a badly parked car. You normally had to hand in your car keys before you got on the MS Thorbjørn, so that the ones working on land could move it if it became necessary. But this person hadn't done that. We had to try and find out who it was. I went into the back room and called for the owner over the public address system. When I came back out, Mari had come. In the commotion around Gro, she had somehow managed to sprain her ankle, and now it had become twice the size of the other one. Even so, she couldn't sit still. After a little persuasion, she agreed to sit for a little until the swelling had gone down, while the rest of us filled the time with things we hadn't managed to do before Gro came. Now it was raining so, among other things, we had to postpone all the football and volleyball matches that were to be played that day.

At around three o' clock, Gro came back down from her lunch. First we tried pretending not to notice and kept on working, but eventually everyone stopped and stood there around her like recruits. She threw a quick glance over the room, thanked us for a pleasant visit, as did the reporters who were with her, then they disappeared out the door and down to the waiting ferry.

 

There were still things to be done when Gro had left, but they went at another tempo. I sent a message about the postponed matches to everyone in the delegation from Telemark. Gradually we began to clear up from the meeting that had been held on the first floor. On the meeting table there was still a platter of sandwiches that we took down and shared between us.

We sat there chatting about everything from simple political interest stories to the silly-season stories that were all over the tabloids. The previous week, it had been the sex scandal around Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Thor Hushovd's achievements in the Tour de France, and cheap flights to the sun on the front pages of Norwegian newspapers.

The last few days, a young blond-haired boy had been popping in on a more or less hourly basis to ask if anyone had found his jacket. It was about half past three when he came through the door for the first time that day. At about the same time, Monica came barging into the room from the other side.

'There's been an explosion in Oslo,' she said. Everyone stopped chatting and turned towards her. She had been called by a friend who had read about it on Twitter. Normally she would have taken the co-ordinating group aside to discuss serious situations in a private room. Now she just stood there, holding the door frame. I cast a glance over at Eskil, sitting in one of the groups with his advisor. He had a despondent and perplexed expression on his face. It had to have been a gas explosion, I told myself. Nobody would think of setting off a bomb in Oslo, in little Norway; it had to be wrong. But thoughts buzzed around at the back of my head about Norway's participation in the war in Afghanistan, about all the fighter aircraft we had sent to Libya. We had taken risks.

 

After the initial shock had subsided, we made ourselves busy finding out the latest. Anyone who did not belong in the office was thrown out and all the doors were locked, then we all got to work hectically gathering information. Laptops, iPads and smartphones came up onto the desks. Monica ran up to the first floor to find a radio. When she came back down, she tried to tune in to a news channel, but all that came out of the speakers was music. It took maybe five minutes before we received the first report about an incident in Oslo. That's not a particularly long time, but right then it felt like an eternity. At the same time, the newspaper Aftenposten had reports on its website of something in Oslo that appeared like an explosion. They wrote of shattered glass in the streets, alarms blaring and smoke coming from the main government building.

'Updates to follow,' it said.

Nothing more.

There were no pictures or anything that might tell us more about what had happened. Some people began to cry. Several of those sitting in the room had friends and family who worked in the centre of Oslo. They had offices only metres away from the explosion. I didn't know anyone myself who was in the centre at that moment, but I knew about people from the work group who were on their way to Oslo to print some documents at the party office.

When the first picture came up on an online newspaper, we could see that the windows of the high-rise building housing the Prime Minister's office had been blown out.

'It's only glass. There's no damage to the buildings,' I said.

Perhaps some people thought I knew what I was talking about, but I said it mostly to help myself to stay calm.

'It's got to be a propane bottle, or a leak from some pipe that's ignited.'

At about that moment, I received a text message from Svein Gustaf on the other side of the water. 'The VG newspaper offices and the Government quarter have blown up. All windows smashed and people bleeding,' he wrote. At that point we were concerned about avoiding too much alarm among the camp members, about making sure that as many people as possible would hear about this properly through us. 'Keep quiet about it. Am in a meeting about how to deal with it now,' I wrote back. We decided to contact the team from the humanitarian and first aid organisation Norwegian People's Aid to see what they recommended we do. They were going to send somebody down. Not long after I had answered him, Svein Gustaf sent another message.

'It's all over the Internet. Got a text about it.'

It we were going to manage to control this information before fear and anxiety took over, there was no time to lose. Normally we had a rota with three shifts in our work group. Now we called in everyone to the Information Office. Every single member of every single group worked flat out to prepare a presentation. Monica, Eskil and the rest of the AUF leaders decided that we had to hold a general meeting. The team leader from Norwegian People's Aid offered to set up a crisis centre where camp members could go to make a phone call or to talk. It was announced over the public address system that everyone was to meet in the Main Hall at 4.30 p.m. At about the same time, I received a message from Svein, a friend of mine from Skien, who had been thinking about coming to see Jens Stoltenberg's speech on the Saturday. He wanted to tell me about what had happened in Oslo.

'We're dealing with this at the camp now. Jens is fine,' I wrote back.

'Don't go to the centre of Oslo. There might be more bombs,' he answered.

'It could be gas, but I'm not sure,' I wrote.

I was still clinging on to this. What else could it be? When Svein answered me again I had already taken the walkie-talkie with me and left the Information Office to gather up people for the meeting. At this point there was nothing to suggest that anyone other than people in the centre of Oslo had anything to watch out for. All the same he wrote:

'Be careful, Adrian.'

It was four o' clock.

 

 

We all have our own ways of reacting when we experience something traumatic. Some people become quiet and introspective. Some begin to cry. Others become giggly and have difficulty taking things seriously. Others still, and I belong to this category, become restless and energetic, bordering on hyperactivity. Instead of taking in the full extent of an incident, they find tasks and responsibilities to take on in order to keep reality at a distance.

My task up until the meeting began was to see to it that as many people as possible turned up, a task to which I devoted all my attention. It had been adequately announced over the loudspeakers, but that was no guarantee that everyone had caught it, so I walked up to the campsite to give people the message in person. Up at the Café Building, people had already begun to crowd together around the entrance to the Main Hall. If everyone went in at the same time, there would be queuing and a lot of valuable time would be wasted. I shouted that people should start to move inside.

We actually had a separate group that was responsible for collecting people for meetings, but there were still a few people in the campsite who didn't seem to have heard about the meeting, and everyone from the work group was busy doing other things, so I continued my round. A friend of mine was standing in the area with the Telemark branch tents. He was wondering what was going on. I explained to him that he would get further details at the meeting. I gave the same message to all the others I met: the workshop group seeking shelter from the rain under the roof of the outdoor stage and the boyfriend and girlfriend couple from Telemark, Miriam and Aleksander, who were in the neighbouring tent to mine.

'Do we have to?' they asked.

'Something's happened,' I said.

They went quiet.

'Are you talking about the bomb?'

The rumours about the incident had spread across the island. Many people had received messages from friends and family a while ago or had read about it online. We had been under some kind of illusion that we would be able to control the information about the incident, but that quickly turned out to be impossible. Now the main thing was to make people feel safe and to give them as much precise information as possible about what had happened and how it would affect the rest of the camp.

On my way through the Troms county delegation's tents, I met a group gathered around an iPad. One of them had found a video that Aftenposten had published from Oslo. It showed pictures of an Oslo that looked more like a warzone than anything else. Smoking wreckage and twisted metal covering the streets. Car alarms wailing ceaselessly. I asked them to go inside.

It was almost half past four.

 

The smell in the corridor outside the Main Hall was intense. This is a familiar phenomenon for anyone who has experienced coming late to a talk in the Café Building, but that day it was especially bad. The weather the past day had been damp and wet. The odour of several hundred wet boots and shoes filled the narrow passageway.

Inside the hall, the windows were misted up. The air inside was dank and muggy. Eskil had already begun his briefing.

'As you have probably heard, there has been an explosion in the Government quarter,' he said.

He was searching for words.

'We don't know that much yet, but Jens is safe. We'll come back with more information as soon as we hear it.'

It was hard to find a trace of the happy and self-confident AUF leader who had opened the camp two days before. It wasn't difficult to understand that he was taking this harder than most. The bomb had gone off right next to his office in Youngstorget. It struck at the heart of a political circle of which he was an active part. Anyway, this was no rehearsed occasion. He didn't need to use grand words, just make sure that the camp participants felt cared for.

'We're OK here,' he said.

'This it the safest place we can be right now.'

And that was the same feeling I was left with when he left the platform and Monica took the floor. Jens would probably not come on the Saturday. The disco on the same evening was put on hold. But otherwise the camp would continue as before. We were on an island far from Oslo. It felt like the most sheltered place in the country at that moment. Monica explained that MS Thorbjørn would cancel all departures, sailing instead as required so that those who wished to could leave the island at any time. Norwegian People's Aid had set up a crisis centre where we could go if we needed somebody to talk with.

When she mentioned Norwegian People's Aid, I suddenly had a feeling of panic. Two days previously, I had shown a young girl the way to their tent in the space outside the School Cabin. Her stomach hurt and she thought she might have a bug. They ended up turning the first aid tent into an isolation ward, and we were told not to gather too many people in small spaces. Now the whole island had been squeezed into the Main Hall, and it was as if you could see the infection spreading throughout the room.

It was a quarter to five.

 

It was no long meeting, but the most important things had been said, and now the camp would continue. Before we all went our separate ways, the delegations were to gather to have their own meetings. The Telemark branch met at the outdoor stage. Our delegation seemed relatively calm about what had happened. Some were quiet and thoughtful but, as always happens when young people gather, some just wanted to defuse the situation with jokes. As the Chair of AUF Telemark, it was Tim who led the briefing, but he forgot some important details. As I had been working in the Information Office that day and knew what we had to communicate to the camp participants, I took the floor and added to what he had said.

'It might be a good idea to give your parents a call now,' I said, 'to tell them that you're alright. If you want to talk with someone, you can come down to us at the Information Office or visit the People's Aid crisis centre.'

Halfway through the meeting, a question came for the Information Group over the walkie-talkie, a question that I could answer. At that moment, the Information Group was planning to relay the police press conference on a big screen, so there was a lot of activity over the line. Among other things, they were talking about blocking the wireless network on the island so that they could use all the capacity to stream from the state broadcaster NRK's website. I walked a few metres away from the others and reported. Shortly afterwards came a message from someone in the Information Office, who pointed out that it was maybe best if the question was answered by somebody who was actually in the building. It felt like a hint that I should get back to work, that you couldn't go rushing around the island when you were on shift, so I left the meeting. As I was heading to the Information Office, I checked the online newspapers on my phone. There were reports of two deaths in Oslo.

On the walkie-talkie, they notified us from the shore that a policeman was waiting for the boat to come and fetch him.

It was five o' clock.

 

In reception, the mood had turned from shock into grief and despair. The dimensions of the explosion in the Government quarter were growing with every news update. When the report about the casualties reached the office, people began to cry. Mari was one of those who took it hardest. Cheerful and energetic Mari. It was so sad to see her like that. When she had composed herself, she came over to me and asked if I could go and buy some fizzy drinks and crisps that we could keep there in case anyone came and wanted to talk.

'Of course,' I said.

She wanted to give me her card, but couldn't find it.

'It's fine,' I said.

She stopped, looked at me and smiled.

'Thank you so much, Adrian.'

 

The first thing many people did when they heard about the explosion in Oslo was to call home. As for me, I hadn't made that call yet. Mum was in Poland, as previously mentioned, and she is usually quick to become anxious. It felt unnecessary to trouble her before we knew any more. It turned out, however, that she had been walking past a television set that was switched on and had seen the pictures from the Government quarter. At first she had thought it was an update from Afghanistan. Then she saw that it said 'Oslo' at the bottom of the screen. When she rang me, I was on my way out of the door of the Main House.

'Where are you?'

She knew that I was going to stop by the AUF office on my way to the island, so she just wanted to make sure.

'I'm on Utøya,' I answered, but she still seemed nervous.

'Are you alright?'

In the middle of the lawn outside the Main House, they had installed two big bouncy castles. The smoking area was actually further down, where the lawn ends at the steep slope leading down to the water, but such things didn't seem as important right then. I snuck in between the two inflatable structures and lit a cigarette.

'Relax,' I said. 'I'm fine.'

'What are you going to do now, Adrian?'

Hjertet mot steinen

From where I was standing, you could see much of the stretch of the fjord between Utøya and the shore. Those 550 metres of water separating the place from the rest of the world. Before the incident in Oslo, it had been part of the place's magic. Part of what made a summer camp there a special experience, as if we were a small autonomous society on the edge of everything else. Now it felt more as if we were cut off and the distance made it even more difficult, almost impossible, to understand what was happening over on the other side of the fjord.

'I'm not going home,' I said. 'I'm on an island anyway.'

'You're probably right,' said Mum.

It was a quarter past five.

Next to the storehouse, I met a boy from the Emergency Team.

'Have you heard the police are coming?' he asked.

We stopped and peered out at the water. MS Thorbjørn was about halfway across the strait on its way over. It was about to lower its speed before it docked at the ferry landing.

Translated by Guy Puzey

Thanks also go to the publisher for this excerpt from the book, originally entitled, Hjertet mot steinen - En overlevendes beretning fra Utøya (Cappelen Damm, Oslo, April 2012)

About the authors

Adrian Pracon, of Norwegian-Polish heritage, is a member of AUF (Norwegian Labour Youth) who survived the Utøya massacre.  

 

Erik Møller Solheim is a Norwegian journalist and writer. He has worked for several national newspapers, and written a book on the Obama presidential campaign, for which he volunteered.