A year on from another massacre, hope springs anew
A metal heart, shiny red and new stands erect in the garden at Oslo Cathedral in the city centre.
Black letters spell out the words og storst av alt er kjaerligheten and the English translation: “Greatest of all is love”.
Unlike many parts of Norway, this is one occasion where English is necessary, for there is not one country in the world that would not remember the sheer horror that occurred last year when 33-year-old Anders Behring Breivik, single-handedly bombed government buildings in the city centre, killing eight, before proceeding to the island of Utøya and taking the lives of 69 people – mostly teenagers – in a campaign he had masterminded for years that would, he believed, restore Norway from the Labor Party policies and Muslim population he so strongly loathed.
Norway, and indeed Scandinavia, is not a part of the world that is synonymous with such violence. I can still recall the news of America’s Columbine Massacre in 1999, when I was a teenager myself, and my almost-acceptance of such an atrocity.
How typical, was the first thought from both me, and many people I knew. What would you expect from the United States, the gun-happy country with potential presidents like Sarah Palin who express their love for shooting. Viking history is far from gentle, but Norway a terrorist target? It didn’t make sense.
During my stay in Oslo, I soon learned from locals that the heart was placed at the cathedral after weeks of mourners piling overflowing bouquets of flowers at the church. Flowers are still abundant today, along with the names and photos of those whose faces are too young to look at for longer than a few seconds at the most.
“It was just such a shock, because this is not that kind of country,” said my friend, Vensti, who moved to Norway four years ago from Bulgaria in search of change.
Though he has no family in the city, and knew no one who was killed, 22 July was a day that will forever be clear in Ventsi’s mind, for that day he was spared his usual early-morning start at work in an act of fate that steered him away from the site of the bombings – streets that he walks past each working day.
That week, staying with locals, I watched part of Breivik’s ongoing trial on television. With no subtitles, the dialogue was lost on me, but the cloud of solemnity hung heavy as a rug over everyone in the court room who seemed pained when forced to make the most basic of movements.
The voyeuristic part of me, however, could not resist watching Breivik, who for much of what I saw, sat poised and well-groomed – almost elegant – and certainly far from sorry.
This is no surprise. After all, like a true martyr, Breivik admitted neither remorse nor regret at what he had done, and – according to reports – held back a smile when presented with video evidence at the beginning of his trial.
“Why are they doing this?!” my host, Anton, asked in a rage that only television seems capable of invoking.
“Why not just send him to prison and talk about it later instead of having him in the room and causing all this suffering to the relatives and family of those who died?”
Having spent a week as part of a jury duty the month before, I replied: “Because it is the law’s job to drag everything out as long as possible.”
Such cynicism seems somewhat crass given the circumstances, but I was merely trying to lighten the mood in what is still a painful topic even for those who were not directly affected.
Still disturbed at how something so terrifying could have happened, I explored as much of Oslo as I could. Many European cities, like Prague and Stockholm, pride themselves on their past, but Oslo is a city consumed by transformation, its eye firmly fixated on the future.
It is difficult to take a photo without the sight of cranes and bulldozers in the background; but it was not the future that I was interested in.
On my sole wet day in Norway, I took myself off to the one and only museum that I would visit during my time there: the Munch Museum.
Edvard Munch, the tortured artist whose famous scream has reverberated off the canvas and into so much of pop-culture created pained works that were both universal and prophetic and it’s no coincidence that one of the first paintings I saw was entitled, The Murderer, an eerie vision of a green-faced man whose hands are flesh-pink walking almost hunched down an empty road. Only he, it seems, knows exactly what he has done.
Seeing “The Scream” in real life, I was struck by how small the canvass was. I had expected something large and imposing but, confronted by the pained epicene creature – also green-faced – walking on a bridge under what must surely be the midnight sun, all I could think of was the words of a Dutch man I met in Trondheim in Norway’s south who lamented that: “No one talks about anything here.”
Afterwards, at the famous Our Saviours cemetery, a modest lush-green garden where the likes of writer Camilla Collett and playwright, Henrik Ibsen are laid to rest, I searched for Munch’s grave and found only blood-filled syringes thrown carelessly on the ground.
One week later and due to fly out, the only conclusion that I was able to draw was that Oslo is a city steeped in suffering – a suffering that dates back far longer than the horrendous killings that shook the entire world last year. But there are also glimmers of hope, and, if the message at the cathedral is anything to go by, enough love to reshape the city and its people too.
Mitchell Jordan is a Sydney writer.
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