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It’s about people

What place should individuals hold in the national narrative around a terrorist attack? How should the desire for a coherent story that makes sense for the history books be balanced with the hundreds of diverse, sometimes conflicting, stories of personal trauma? The history behind the development of the July Centre can be understood in part as a story about incorporating the many different personal narratives from 22 July 2011. About how personal narratives have gained and held onto their place in our collective understanding of the terror, both because many of those there that day had the courage to tell their stories, and because numerous people have ensured that they can be listened to.

 Two young people at the front of the picture. A person dressed in a red sweater with short pink hair, and a person dressed in black, sit and look ahead. Blurred image with an unknown number of people and a bookshelf in the back of the image.
Student listens to a talk with witness on Utøya

By Maja Gudim Burheim, former Head of Documentation and Exhibitions, and Witness Coordinator for the 22 July Centre. Today she works as Remembrance- and project manager at Utøya.

This text is published as part of the 22 July Centre's first publication on the becoming and developement of the Centre from 2015 up to today. The publication can be read in full in the 22 July Centre in Teatergata 10 in Oslo.

It became most clear when the prosecution chose to play the heart-breaking phone call from one of the girls on the island (…) suddenly the focus shifted back to the pain of it all. After hours of numbers. Even though those killed were also referred to by name, age and so on, I needed something that had clear personality. The girl survived, and thus avoided becoming one of the numbers. But it hit home, with full force, that each and every one of those 77 people had their own voice, their own sound, and their own identity. That they are not numbers at all.
Kristopher Schau
Court notes

The 22 July Centre’s Witness Project

In 2015, it had only been four years since the terror attacks. For those who were not directly affected, it may have seemed like a long time had passed. This was not the case for many of the survivors and the bereaved, who were still in the midst of the worst trauma of their lives. But the attention received about the establishment of the Centre that year showed that all of us, as a society and as individuals, had really only just begun a collective processing of what had happened. The 22 July Centre’s Witness Project came about in the same context that most of the public memorial work after the attacks had, by that point, also had to struggle through: first as a result of the Gjørv commission’s report of 2012, which had painted a not particularly encouraging picture of the authorities’ ability to protect its citizens, both before and after the terror; then with the plans for the national memorial site being temporarily postponed following a conflict between the state and Utøya’s neighbours in Hole Municipality; the AUF had been through a harrowing but important road ‘back to Utøya’; and the NKVTS research was published with discouraging news about the lives of those who had been directly impacted by the terror attacks.

When the Centre did open in the Central Tower on 22 July 2015, most visitors followed the exhibition’s given dramaturgy. First, they encountered the destruction of the building itself: the mangled concrete walls and the twisted infrastructure. Moving through the exhibition, they would come face-to-face with the ‘main’ narrative of the day, and the darkness described in the official sources of the Norwegian authorities: cold facts about the terrorist’s actions included in the sentencing and the Gjørv Report. And then, finally, the photos from the rose marches and memorial ceremonies, and the verdict from the trial of 2012 – all the ways in which the public and the state ‘responded’ to the hate. The visitors were transported back into their own memories, were fixated on the times and events as they made their way round. Nods of recognition, the hushed, retrospective conversations. But one particular stop along the exhibition stood out.

In a tiled room, formerly that of the Central Tower’s canteen and slightly out of the way of the natural stream of movement through the exhibition, the visitors would find a screen showing a selection of the survivors’ stories from the Government Quarter and Utøya, playing on a loop. The exhibition group wanted the only sound in the room to come from here, the film, the voices of those directly affected by 22 July 2011.

The audience behaved differently in this space. First and foremost, it was difficult to just walk past. The powerful narratives on display in that room were like magnets, drawing in the audience’s attention, where they would then sit and stay there, watching. Secondly, the glances and conversations that took place here were not characterised by recognition and familiarity. Rather, through these stories, the audience encountered new timelines, unexpected details and brutal descriptions. But also humanity, which threw them into a new – for some, surprising – reality, that they may not have considered as part of the 22 July narrative before then. Or, as Kristoffer Schau wrote in his court notes from the Oslo District Court in 2012: ‘I can’t stop imagining it. But now I feel it too. It is more than just an awful story. This is not a story. This is something that actually happened.’

The Witness Room as it was back then thus became the first step on the path to incorporating personal stories as a keystone in the 22 July Centre’s dissemination work.

What was needed, and where to start

During the five-year anniversary of the 22 July terror attacks in 2016, the 22 July Centre held its first open event where survivors of the attack could tell their stories in front of an audience. The two speakers who took part on the day were Erik Kursetgjerde, who survived the Utøya attack, and Tor-Inge Kristoffersen, who survived the Government Quarter attack. The conversation was inspired by the idea of developing an actual witness programme as part of the educational component for school visits. That year then, the 22July Centre fought to get funding from the state budget: NOK 1.4 million was eventually set aside for the project in 2017, and in the following press release, it stated that the support was to be used, among other things, to ‘further develop the Centre’s teaching initiative and engage witnesses in the teaching’. The Minister of Local Government and Modernisation, Jan Tore Sanner, was quoted as follows:

We will soon have a generation of school pupils who have no memories of 22 July 2011. We want to bring people who experienced 22 July themselves into the educational programme, so that pupils can interact with the survivors, employees from the emergency services, volunteers and the bereaved. They will get to hear their stories and hold a dialogue with them. This will strengthen the teaching we can provide schools.
The Ministry for Local Government and Modernisation
6/10 2016

Under the leadership of service manager Anne Lene Andersen, a project outline was prepared for this very purpose, and originating from these exact experiences from the Witness Room that had once resided in the Central Tower, and especially in consideration of what we found the younger visitors’ greatest needs to be – to be able to interact with the more human side of the terror attacks. Many of those directly impacted by the attacks had shared their stories through biographies and documentaries, but the 22 July Centre offered a new arena which, as with Utøya, was a place where their personal stories could be told in a safe space. Our starting point here was again the first experiences of the visiting pupils: they were focused on the victims, on those who were affected, and filled the teaching room in the Central Tower’s Western Pavilion with many questions, of which the survivors and bereaved were the best people to answer themselves.

The Centre’s staff recognised that there was a growing need for more individuals to speak than there was room for in the exhibition, and that among the hundreds of stories of the survivors, the bereaved and others who were affected, lay an enormous, untapped resource. Of course, the backdrop for all this was the desire for these exact stories to represent a new pathway into dialogue and reflection, especially among the school children. But was this a given?

The use of contemporary witnesses in the teaching of history is a long-standing tradition, especially when it comes to education about the Second World War. In Norway, the two companies Aktive Fredsreiser AS and Hvite busser til Auschwitz – tour operators who organise class trips to visit concentration camps – have formed the most important arena for pupils to interact with eye-witnesses in an educational context. In an international context, the work and education provided and developed by the USC Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History and Education must also be noted here. The overall research on these educational programmes recognises the value of using witnesses actively in their teaching; however, it also points out that this too has its pitfalls and challenges. Before our witness project could even be implemented, the 22 July Centre had to familiarise itself with all of this.

At the start-up meeting on 6 March 2017, the objectives for the project were determined. The Witness Project would:

  • Create a link between personal stories and the national narrative
  • Provide a safe arena for these stories to be told – for the pupils and for those telling their stories
  • Increase awareness and understanding of what happened on 22 July 2011, and its significance for individuals and for society

Also present at the start-up meeting was the author of this text – the Centre’s then-newly appointed Witness Coordinator, the role of which was set up to serve as the project manager for the initiative, and ensure contact and follow-ups were carried out for each individual contributor. These one-to-one follow-ups were deemed a criterion for success for the project, and a prerequisite that had to be in place before we could start. My own professional background was in work with traumatic history and witness accounts, including political mass violence and memory processes in Rwanda. As a journalist, I had practical experience in dealing with oral sources and the dissemination of personal stories. But here, in this context, there weren’t any experts.

While we do have a long tradition of using witnesses from the Second World War to teach our history in the Norwegian context, this project differed when it came to the proximity in time to the events, the age of those affected by the attacks, and not least the very nature of the attacks themselves. While the survivors from Utøya had already been meeting with young people and others visiting Tyrifjorden for a few years by this point, these interactions had only really taken place in the form of ad hoc meetings without a systematised framework, often with people who were still associated with the AUF and were already a part of ongoing dissemination projects out there. What we were set on initiating was ground-breaking work, and since the state was providing this opportunity, it was absolutely crucial that it was done properly. Fortunately, the Centre’s staff had worked systematically with how it went about communicating this piece of history from the start, with one main reason being because they had to convince both the bureaucracy and the public that there was even a need to develop an educational and thematic framework in the Centre in the first place. And that also happened to be the case this time. In parallel with the work to convince the decision-makers that this was in fact an important project, a reference group was set up with professionals and representatives from groups such as Utøya AS, the AUF and the National Support Group. All of whom were present on 6 March too, and all with plenty of questions to address. As per the meeting notes:

  • How do we define a witness? Who can be involved?
  • How do we ensure that everyone who wants to contribute, can contribute?
  • Who is the target audience?
  • How can we ensure learning?
  • How do we find a balance between the needs of those affected and the needs of the pupils?
  • What are the downsides?
  • What expectations are there when we take on the responsibility to communicate these stories?

So there were plenty of uncertainties, but we also had many conditions that we knew we definitely wanted to deliver on – we knew we wanted to offer variety in the form and content of the stories and the ways people could contribute. We knew we wanted to ensure geographic diversity and the inclusion of local stories, to bring in voices that we hadn’t heard much from in the past, and ensure good conditions for those who come to tell their stories, as well as for those who come to listen. From the presentation in the meeting, the following were further highlighted: ‘The importance of: security, inclusion, adaptation, and a thorough professional framework’, as well as ‘giving pupils space’.

The combined knowledge of those of us who made up the reference group, as well as the experience obtained through other dissemination institutions both at home and abroad, was a decisive factor when it came to deciding how to move forward from this point.

Academic foundations, experience and the pitfalls

In its first six months, the Witness Project went from being just an idea to being an established area of focus at the 22 July Centre, with its own allocated resources and a full-time employee responsible for its operations. In the run-up to the launch of a fully-fledged teaching programme, the main bulk of the work went into developing the content and reaching out to a wide range of different groups of potential witnesses. Both pathways that the Centre was pursuing required a strong, disciplinary basis to work off of, the inclusion of and close collaboration with the reference group, the need for a lot more experience, a few pilot projects, and solid frameworks in place in order to safeguard the witnesses and the pupils. Not to mention that we also had to work on convincing the civil service and political leadership that, in addition to disseminating stories, we needed more resources to collect, document and preserve these stories for posterity.

Although our experience from this time was that there was an awful lot of new things for us to tackle, it is far from uncommon to use personal stories for dissemination purposes. Just think of all of the ‘cases’ used in journalism. As previously mentioned, witness accounts have long had a special place in communicating history, especially when it comes to traumatic history. A lot of the knowledge we have on such events is therefore taken from the study of history and research carried out into teaching about the Holocaust. However, reflections on the use of witnesses to pass on history also strays into other disciplines, such as memory research, didactics and psychology. The knowledge we thus went away and acquired from all of these areas has helped in laying the foundations for how the 22 July Centre works with witnesses. In particular, the international research on the use of contemporary witnesses following the Second World War and the Holocaust has played a key role, and not least the studies into the long-standing tradition of Norwegian school boards in arranging history field trips to concentration camps in Germany. The Norwegian school system’s experiences in teaching about the Second World War are therefore relevant here too, as first-hand accounts have been at the core of its education on the subject, even though there are still a number of important differences between this example and our own situation in terms of 22 July. Regardless, we could not ignore the lessons learned from this, as: ‘to speak of witnessing in this day and age is inevitably to invoke the discourse of the Holocaust witness’.

When it came to Norwegian contributions to this field of research, Kyrre Kverndokk’s studies into the Aktive Fredsreiser and Hvite busser programmes and Anette H. Storeide’s work with witnesses as disseminators of history were both crucial. This also applies to Claudia Lenz and Trond Risto Nilssen’s work in relation to the development of and controversy around how the history of the Second World War was disseminated in Norway. Inter-disciplinary perspectives on the function of first-hand accounts – presented by, among others, Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub in their 1992 book Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History – was also an important source of inspiration in laying the foundation of the initiative. Of more recent international studies, Sarah Jones’ work on the role of first-hand accounts in the collective memory of the GDR and medialisation of personal narratives has been of great help. We also gained particularly insightful lessons and inspiration from museums and educational programmes of which witnesses took part in the teaching, such as New York’s 9/11 Memorial Museum, and Memorial and Museum Sachsenhausen in Berlin. The continuous professional exchange of experiences with colleagues nationally – through our collaboration with Utøya AS and the European Wergeland Center for the ‘Learning Democracy at Utøya’ project, as well as other peace and human rights centres – has contributed enormously in regard to the important professional deliberation required along the way.

The initiative was launched in February 2018, with registration open for school classes from January. In June of that same year, the Witness Project was fully underway, operating under the title ‘My Story – Personal stories from and about 22 July’, being run as a permanent teaching and documentation project at the 22 July Centre.

So – what had we learned in the meantime? Firstly, we had familiarised ourselves with the professional landscape we were entering into, had identified the pitfalls, and looked for ways in which we could avoid them. Our work essentially focused on doing all we could to develop a pedagogically sound scheme, taking into account both the educational needs of the audience, as well as the needs of those willing to tell their stories.

What is a witness?

One of the most important issues we had to figure out was how we defined a witness. This definition would set the guidelines on what the initiative would offer, what we could expect of the content, and not least who would feel that they could be a relevant contributor. It quickly become clear to us that witness and witness narratives, were not neutral terms, but rather, words that for most of us, carry strong connotations.

Traditionally, the term witness has had legal, religious and historical meanings in our culture. In law, witnesses are those who are called on to shed light on and provide evidence in a certain case, so they can be expert witnesses, or otherwise referred to in everyday speech in Norwegian as sannhetsvitner – witnesses of the truth. In terms of the religious meaning, a witness is usually linked to the martyr and apostles in Christianity, who were meant to operate as the ‘witnesses of witnesses’ and in the name of the mission, were duty-bound to carry forward his story, who had sacrificed himself for humanity. When it comes to the study of history, the concept of a witness is closely connected to oral history, meaning the genre of biographies and memoirs. This is especially the case where human trauma has been at the core of a historical event, and where the scope of this is difficult to understand when just looking at the more authoritative, written sources – these narratives become the central building blocks of our understanding of a certain period or part of our past. For example, think of the significance of Anne Frank, Primo Levi or Ruth Maier in our understanding of the Holocaust.

In research, witnesses have generally been referred to in rather broad terms. Tidsvitner, –witnesses of the time – are literal witnesses of and from a bygone era, those who experienced a certain period first-hand. According to Storeide, the term is ‘an established term in the Norwegian language and is used first and foremost in reference to survivors of the Nazi concentration camps’. However, she also writes: ‘As a broader definition, the term should cover everyone who experienced a certain period of time (…) regardless of what they experienced and which side they were on’. Yet, the strong associations we have with the Second World War and the Holocaust make terms in Norwegian such as sannhetsvitner [witnesses of the truth] and tidsvitner [witnesses of the time] difficult to reuse in new contexts, such as ours.

The first issue in this respect being that there are immense differences between the Holocaust and a single terrorist attack. The second being that those who survived the concentration camps were tidsvitner, in the sense that they were witnesses of a certain period of time, but were only listened to many decades after the Holocaust actually took place. Our project revolves around dealing with an event that was far more recent, in fact, it would probably be more natural to talk about there being a shared time between those who would tell their stories here, and those who would be listening. The Holocaust survivors also spoke about their experiences in a climate characterised by the fact that many did not want to know about or even understand what had happened, and in light of this, would eventually go on to be referred to as sannhetsvitner – witnesses of the truth. The same degree of indifference and revisionism is not (yet, thankfully) the case when it comes to the 22 July. Additionally, memory and trauma research is full of examples of witnesses not necessarily always telling the truth – memory is simply too unpredictable, something our participants have often mentioned themselves. Memories are changeable, impressionable and devious – they are subjective, and completely dependent on the person who lived them, meaning that same experience, the exact same visuals, can be experienced and retold differently from person to person.

So even though several of our participants do refer to themselves as witnesses of the time, for the reasons outlined above, it is important for us to simply stick to the word witness, and use it in its broadest sense – that being, someone with a ‘first-hand account of a personally-experienced event’. This way, it can encompass the stories of a diverse group of people who, for various reasons, ended up in the midst of a major historical event on 22 July 2011. Nevertheless, in our use of the word ‘witness’, we do still emphasise that those affected, in contrast to other Norwegians, have a special connection to the events, and in this case, are the most important voices to listen to.

Emotionalisation and authority

The value of using witnesses and their testimonies is in particular tied to the fact that they represent a direct encounter with history, because these witnesses are primary sources of the past. They provide an emotional link to the events being presented, and the effect of this is described by Storeide, as follows:

Most listeners or participants in a conversation or interaction with a tidsvitne [witness of time] experience the conversation and story as an enrichment of the traditional teaching of history, becoming a ‘lifelong memory’ and without a doubt, a very special experience.
Anette Storeide

Interactions with witnesses are also often considered to have a special cognitive and moral learning potential for the pupils, with the logic behind this being that they can ‘improve their empathic abilities and heighten their awareness of the importance of democracy, human rights and intercultural tolerance’, which comes as a result of the personification of history, compared to that which the pupils achieve through traditional teaching. According to social anthropologist Jackie Feldman, interacting with witnesses can facilitate a transfer knowledge from the speaker who ‘was there’ to the pupils, who then bear witness to the witness’s story, and can therefore pass the story on. However, such an understanding is not without issue, and has certainly been met with criticism, not least after empirical studies were conducted on the use of contemporary witnesses in Norway.

Indeed, the use of witnesses as an educational tool has many sceptics. Researcher Kyrre Kverndokk, in his research on school trips to the Nazi concentration camps, has highlighted the danger of giving too much weight to the emotive aspect of personal narratives. Kverndokk argues that instead of entering into a dialogue with history, the strong expectation to have an emotional reaction can actually result in the communication ‘resulting in the closure, rather than the opening up of opportunities to have a fundamental discussion about the moral and historical dimensions of such trips’. Psychologically, this is all about dramatic overload, which can make it impossible to actually absorb cognitive knowledge. Storeide further believes that the strong identification with the experiences of such a witness can ‘hinder a conscious interaction between how remembrance and narration are created, as well as a distance from the past’.

Another challenge concerns the witnesses’ role as mediators, those given a special authority and level of authenticity, linked to the fact that they have ‘had personal and real experiences that [they] can talk about’. Or, in other terms: ‘the power of experience appears automatically to lend authenticity and credibility to the narrative’. By virtue of being a witness, one can therefore be attributed an authority not only over the narrative of the event, but also over its interpretation. But in subjective narratives, concrete experiences and impressions meld together with memories, emotions and knowledge acquired after the fact. Furthermore, the fact that a person is directly connected to the event does not mean that they are automatically telling the truth, nor that they are an expert on said historical event.

For dissemination purposes, the position of the witness, if not managed well, can also create a barrier to those who do not have the same relationship to the story, such as the pupils, specifically when it comes to participating in a conversation about it. A respect for the witness’s position as narrator can thus stand in the way of important self-reflection, making it difficult to ask questions and enter into a dialogue with the story. According to the literature, the expectations of and any hopes that the ‘power’ of such stories will have an effect can also get in the way of the learning situation in the exact same way. For an institution that wants to achieve the opposite then – to give pupils ownership and the opportunity to have a space in the conversation about 22 July – these all became challenges we had to be aware of. The basis for the project’s very existence is that of the fact that the witness accounts are absolutely central to our understanding of 22 July, but that the stories are not our most important source of knowledge. That is, those directly impacted by that day are not automatically experts on the facts, causes or consequences of 22 July – nor on terrorism, radicalisation, Breivik’s prison conditions, or Norwegian preparedness, and so on. That is not to say that those directly affected do not have important reflections and opinions on all of these topics, of which it is certainly vital that we listen to, or that they aren’t certainly experts on the human costs of terror. But for us, it has been crucial that we ensure that the witness accounts are valued and highlighted precisely for what they are: personal stories.

The value of witness narratives as personal stories

Personal stories are surrounded by an ‘aura of authenticity’ (…). In dealing with such narratives, it is nevertheless important to have a source-critical and historically-conscious perspective. This does not mean the discrediting of witness’s stories, but to specifically value them as personal stories, and to take into account that they are rooted in traumatic experiences.
Anette Storeide

The 22 July Centre’s Witness Project was therefore developed with all of these points in mind. The first-hand accounts are treated and reflected on as what they are: personal narratives, placed in a wider context where the Centre’s mediators can build on the background and real-world, historical knowledge of the terror attacks. Here, we also invite the pupils into a dialogue, and they are actively involved in the stories through their group work. Such an approach should therefore make it easier to handle and process an experience that could otherwise be quite difficult, and also open up the possibilities for reflecting on the position of witness accounts in the larger, historical picture. The stories are not presented as ‘now here’s what it was actually like’, but rather as ‘the story of someone who experienced it, or was there’. We generally always try to have two witnesses per session, each with their own story to tell. That way, the conversation itself becomes an example of how memories and experiences are personal and unique sources of one and the same historical event.

Contrary to what we may believe from some of the literature, the experiences from our participants – the speakers – is that those most closely affected by 22 July also considered their own stories as subjective stories. In fact, they are potentially to a greater extent than what has been depicted in the literature about post-war witnesses, more open than witnesses of the past for others to challenge the solidity of their memories and facts. Equally as important, they are consistently focused on giving the pupils ownership of the narrative, which works well with the Centre’s other teaching aims, grounded in being history-conscious, in memory culture and in history-didactive principles of pupil participation.

The first meeting between pupils and witnesses

Some of what we were most concerned about in the conversations shared by the reference group, was not how the initiative would impact the development of history, but rather, a fear about inviting those directly affected by 22 July participate in something that could be harmful to them: a fear of retraumatisation. What they would tell us would be painful experiences we would be invited into, brutal narratives we would be facilitating. How could we create safety for both those telling their stories, and those listening?

Of course, for this, the National Support Group and the AUF were pivotal discussion partners, as well as psychologist and researcher Jon-Håkon Schultz. He guided us through everything we needed to know and provide, from engaging emergency psychologists and creating trauma-sensitive spaces, to helping us with the language we used. Nille Lauvås, one of our first witnesses from the attack on the Government Quarter, had published a book for others affected by 22 July about trauma, and this, too, became a key tool for strengthening our understanding and awareness. Most of all, we learning through meetings upon meetings with more and more of those who were directly involved with the events of 22 July 2011. From discussing simple measures as to how we should set up the room, the emergency exits and sound exposure, to the perhaps more obvious but crucial value of openness, preparations for the day, and follow-ups, where we would get in touch after the event with each and every witness. The experiences gained here were that, at its core, what we were doing was all about communication and generosity toward the individual’s needs. Those who tell their stories from and about 22 July have made the decision themselves to do so, and are confident in their stories. Nevertheless, even the most seasoned participants reported back that it was demanding to recall the experiences from the attack. The format of the day itself, seeing a screenshot from the news when at the Centre, something else that comes up on the run up to the day – there are so many things that could impact the narrator. That is why sufficient information and predictability are essential here. The research on trauma is also clear on this – on the necessity of avoiding surprises, even for the pupils participating in the teaching programme. A key aspect we introduced early on then, both out of consideration for the pupils and the witnesses, was the role of a facilitator, who could lead the conversation. The facilitator would be in charge of the overall presentation, would know the witnesses’ stories and plan around them, would speak to the visiting teacher in advance and function as a ‘buffer’ between the witnesses and the pupils. This way, those who came to participate could focus on their own story, and the pupils were clear on who had overall responsibility on the day.

In terms of who would participate, we started off with a short list of names of those who had spoken to pupils visiting Utøya, and then got in touch with about a dozen people who were willing to participate. First on a pilot basis, then on a permanent basis. We quickly gained more experience of hosting the witness interviews in practice. Where some participants were able to tell their story as if on autopilot, for others, it was their first time talking about their experiences of that day. Some wanted lots of information, others needed less. A common factor for all though was an impatience about being listened to, alongside gratitude: for the pupils there to listen, as well as for the fact that they had space to talk about 22 July in such a broad sense. The first meetings ended with a recognition among the witnesses that the conversations were liberating, and often easier than they had feared on going in. The feedback after piloting the project in the spring of 2017 assured us that we were on the right track. Teacher Anette Nielsen, for example, wrote:

From my point of view, it worked optimally, both in terms of a history lesson and not least as a way of learning about democracy. I think it was valuable having witnesses who had slightly different experiences to share, and I think they went just deep enough into it. They also answered the questions very well, which was perhaps the most valuable part for the pupils. It was also so important that you had a calm, safe framework around it all, both in the way you [at the Centre] are and in the lighting of the room.
Anette Nielsen, teacher
2017, teacher's evaluation

The Witness Project today: ‘My Story’

In the years since the project was launched, we have seen little of the potential pitfalls we were forewarned of. On the other hand, what we have clearly seen is what an amazing resource the witness accounts are in our communication about 22 July. Under the right framework, and when specifically told as personal stories within a wider context, the witness accounts help to individualise the terror and aid in challenging other established narratives and notions. The personal stories further stimulate questions about the causes and consequences of 22 July and have facilitated many conversations about difficult and controversial topics – they engage.

We have established a unique teaching and documentation project, which by 2023, will include almost 100 contributors. Through this project, nearly 6,000 pupils have met the survivors, bereaved and others directly impacted by the events of 22 July 2011, and the Centre’s collection now welcomes a diversity of stories that have been preserved for posterity, in the form of everything from text, video and audio to cartoon strips and other forms of art. Close to 35 hours of video recordings of witness accounts have been published on the Centre’s website. Today, the personal stories are a valuable addition across the Centre’s communication and documentation work, as a way of bringing to life the human costs of terrorism.

As many stories as there are people

Historical awareness is about understanding how history is written, and how different narratives from the past fight for a place in the future. When we meet someone directly impacted by a historical event, and they talk about the experiences from war, a terrorist attack or natural disasters, their story plays a large role in forming how we see what happened. And that’s part of the point! But for someone who doesn’t remember, for someone who wasn’t there, this image can be one of the few references they have, and such a narrative can have great power in terms of the image that stays with them. We have therefore been keen to highlight a diversity of voices through this initiative – voices that agree and disagree, voices with different connections to 22 July, and different experiences from the time both before and after. The reason being of course that there is great variation in the experiences and opinions of those directly connected to the attacks, for example: about the perpetrator, about reclaiming Utøya, about the trial, the significance of 22 July today, the memorial sites. The list goes on. As Tonje Brenna, survivor of 22 July and former General Secretary of the AUF put it: ‘There are as many stories from 22 July as there are people who lived in Norway on that day’. Indeed, according to the National Support Group after 22 July, 1 in 4 Norwegians know someone who was directly impacted by the attacks.

The choice we made to always have two witnesses as narrators is also an attempt to display diversity in practice: Even between two people who went through the same thing, there will always be significantly different experiences, memories and opinions. But diversity will still be limited if the selection is not representative. So, how do you achieve a truly diverse selection?

The witnesses were defined as an important target audience for the project very early on, in the sense that through this initiative, we could offer them an arena to tell their stories. Many belonging to this group felt that they needed to be heard, needed their stories to have a place in the public sphere. In the early conversations we held in the reference group, we also defined a witness in rather broad terms, and opened this understanding up so that many potential participants could contribute. Meaning anyone relevant to the project who could tell their stories, so not just the survivors, the bereaved and anyone else directly impacted, but other people who experienced 22 July up close: emergency service men and women, the police, bystanders, journalists and so on.

The reference group, however, highlighted that although there are many people who want to talk about their experiences, it is not necessarily the case that everyone is comfortable taking on the role of a mediator. For some, even just getting in touch with them to see whether they wanted to contribute was enough of a burden, so it was important for us to take into account that this request would not be perceived as an obligation. The project should not in any way contribute to the feeling that the only ‘correct’ way for a survivor or the bereaved to move forward with their experiences was to tell their stories to schoolchildren.

One of the most important lessons we learned at the start was that the threshold for signing up was not necessarily about this at all. Where we wanted to make it possible for people to sign up on their own accord, many experienced – and some still report that they feel this way even now – that they thought they were not eligible to take part, because they had not been asked. The balance then between being too pushy, and not being pushy enough, has been its own persistent dilemma. Another challenge we experienced here was getting people to recognise their own narrative as important, and that this personal history is to a certain extent, cultural. Our colleagues at the 9/11 Museum and Memorial were delighted when we told them, back in 2017, that we needed quite a lot of time to gather together a sufficient number of people to take part before we could roll out the project. For them, it was unusual to hear about survivors, bereaved and others connected to the event who thought that ‘other people’s stories are more important than mine’, and thus refused to participate. In their American context, the main challenge for them in this respect was that they couldn’t possibly reach out to everyone who wanted to convey what they had experienced – there were simply too many.

Fortunately, the picture has changed somewhat in our case – not only have we become better at making direct, non-binding contact, but we have also found that over time, it has become easier for more people to take their place in the conversation around 22 July. The 10 year anniversary in particular had a positive effect – in fact, many people spoke out about their experiences for the first time. Primarily because the terror attack had a natural place in the public discourse again, but also because the AUF and a number of other strong individual voices claimed their place. We received a wave of inquiries from people who now wanted to, now felt ready, to take part as of this commemorative year.

Nevertheless, there is still a lot to be done before we reach our goal when it comes to representation. While the attack on the Government Quarter’s Central Tower alone would have been the worst in Norway’s post-war period, we are still working on engaging more people to tell their stories from central Oslo. There are many people from this first attack who have an extra high threshold when it comes to talking about what happened that day – some give the strong impression that they feel that the brutality of the attack on the AUF’s summer camp erased their right to feel that they were in fact, affected by the first attack. The experience of there being a kind of ranking of the suffering of that day can also be found in the stories from Utøya: ‘I never saw him’, ‘I didn’t get PTSD’, ‘I wasn’t shot’, ‘I only saw someone who died’, ‘I got to safety faster than the others’. For the 22 July Centre, however, it will always be a goal of ours to invite nuance into the discussion, without any kind of hierarchy or ranking. And not least for us to function as an arena which, without judging or assessing, recognises the wide range of individual stories. We do nonetheless recognise that there will always be parts of 22 July that we cannot embrace – until the stories are diverse enough, some experiences are just too difficult to share.

Those struggling the most will be less willing to tell their stories. Sitting in front of a classroom of children would be quite a feat for a lot of us, regardless of whether you’ve been through the trauma of something like 22 July. For some then, it would be more appropriate to contribute something such as a video recording or text, rather than coming in to meet with the pupils. And for others, it may be the best option to not participate at all, as per Kristoffer Schau’s reflections following the trial of 2012:

Another who just wants to get back to normal. Everyone does, of course, but for many, this means not having to think. Not be a witness. Not be in the newspaper. To just be allowed to get lost in the crowd. An impossibility on Utøya on 22/7.
Kristopher Schau
Court notes

Impossible stories?

Dere kommer aldri til å forstå – you will never understand. These are the words of the fictive protagonist, Kaia, in the opening scene of Erik Poppe’s Utøya 22. juli, spoken as she looks directly into the camera. The statement is an echo of a well-known paradox that exists in the Holocaust literature, namely that: ‘Eyewitness testimony contains an imperative you must know, must remember, must bear the marks of the past – even as it states the impossibility of ever truly grasping the violations that the witness has undergone’. Or, in other words: ‘the survivors bore witness to something it is impossible to bear witness to’.

When it comes to the work carried out here at the 22 July Centre, it has been imperative that this is recognised. To start, there is no inherent vaccine against extremism in the dissemination of history, not even when we use personal narratives as a resource. Even 40 years’ worth of Holocaust education has not constituted any sort of guarantee against political mass violence, terrorism or conspiracy theories in our time. Secondly, not being able to fully understand is an inevitable consequence of not having lived through what those who did live through such events have to carry with them every day – it is a privilege for those of us who didn’t. This recognition, however – that the witness accounts will remain narratives for those of us who were not there, mere shadows of experiences that are impossible to fully comprehend – does not mean that they don’t play an important role. Without them, we would be missing an absolutely crucial piece of the larger puzzle, namely: that it is always, fundamentally, about people.

One and one and one and one…

Testimony – considered not just as a product but also as a humanizing and transactive process, works on the past to rescue the "'individual, with his own face and proper name' from the place of terror where that face and name were taken away.
Geoffrey Hartmann

As with so many other stories, where lives and societies have been affected by terror and violence, the story of 22 July is often reduced to numbers: 22/7. 77, 8 and 69 killed. 495 survivors on Utøya.

The 1, 2, 3 … 10, 11, 12 year anniversaries.

This is not unique, and it is perhaps not so strange that this is how it generally turns out – it is easier to relate to a number, and thus reduce the extent of experiences and suffering that we, as fellow human beings, take in when we hear about such events. We count, and when the opportunity presents itself, we soon fall for the symbolism in each number. But the numbers, just like the violence and destruction, would be insignificant phenomena if it weren’t for the fact that they were not also connected to the experiences of individuals. Stories of fear, escape and survival – of loss, trauma, grief and bereavement. What our work with many hundreds of accounts from the attacks has helped to highlight is that, at the centre of all this, every single day, are these stories: About one person, and another, and another, and another.

About the woman who was a minute away from disappearing into the smoke on Einar Gerhardens plass, and the colleague just a minute away from death. About the man who was in the basement of the Central Tower when the explosion went off, and still works there. And the man who hid under a desk outside the Cabinet Office, and hasn’t set foot in the Government Quarter since. About a hundred different experiences of the sound from the explosion: the all-encompassing boom, like thunder, a lion’s roar, a lightning strike, a short, sharp, piercing bang. About the woman who found her husband dazed and coated in dust, but alive, on Youngstorget, and the couple whose son went to work in the Ministry of Justice that day, and they never saw again. About the man who lost his eyesight and jaw in the blast from the bomb. About the stories of all those who weren’t at work that day, who happened to be on holiday, and who lay awake that night wondering what if. About the top-level bureaucrat who, in the weeks after the attacks, renamed the Ministry of Education and Research to the ‘clamp down ministry’. About the man who accompanied the emergency police unit Delta up to the 16th floor of the Central Tower,and suddenly found himself standing there alone, when the unit turned on their heels to respond to the crackling communications about ‘…Utøya’.

About the sun and the ball games and the kumbaya interrupted by never-ending hours of bleak rain on a lake not too far outside the capital. About an island teeming with political history, youth, love, friendship and commitment. About the girl who wanted to become prime minister, the boy who could have been, and all those at the summer camp when the killing spree began. About the 14-year-old who was attending for the first time, and the 26-year-old who had been going for years. About the international guests visiting the world’s most peaceful country – guests from Georgia, Uganda, Swaziland and Western Saharah.

About the sound of gunshots. 297 of them.

About the broken feet from having jumped out of windows, about having torn off your clothes to wrap around a wound on someone you’ve only just met. About the girl who hid behind the low branches under an old spruce tree, listening to the sound of children begging for their lives. About running in circles. About the hours that felt like years. About curling up in one of the toilets. About absurd conversations about craving popcorn and Pepsi Max, and worrying about not ordering a laptop in time for when school starts again in August. About jokes and comfort and despondency.

About squeezing into hiding spots in the rock and the crevices in the cliffs. On lying inside, and lying outside. About giving your place to someone smaller. And arriving last.

About being in one of the buildings he didn’t go in. About being in one of the buildings he stayed far too long in. About swimming. About turning around. About escaping by boat. On a ferry, a rowing boat, strangers’ boats. About jumping in your own boat and going to save people from the water. About opening your cabin to complete strangers.

About waiting. Waiting for it to end. To be rescued. Waiting on the phone. Hoping. About the final message coming through that you waited in vain. About all those who wanted to change the world, but never got to leave the island alive. About the hours, days, weeks and years afterwards. Taking shape in hundreds and thousands of different ways. With just as many memories and opinions. One and one and one and one.

The diversity and amount of stories makes it even more painful, and yet more tangible for the rest of us to take in: ‘This is not a story. This is something that actually happened’. Helping to disseminate the individual stories can be a re-humanising process, an attempt to reinstate the individual in a past where someone attempted to erase the world of ‘the individual’s face and name’.

It’s about people

Today, over a decade since the attacks, the Witness Project of 2017 has become a staple in the work of the 22 July Centre. Although we were never trained for this, and it is still often difficult, we have more answers now than we had questions when we first started. We have gained unique experience in working with first-hand accounts of political mass violence in our time, and many now turn to the Centre, as they did when we first opened, to gain experience.

Of the 100 contributors who are involved in the Centre in various ways, some of them meet with the pupils on a monthly basis, while others participate once in a while. And more and more people are expressing their interest in sharing. We hold witness conversations in the Centre several times a week, and a dozen times a year on Utøya. In our work with exhibitions and learning resources, documentation and collection, witness accounts will always, in many different ways, play a significant role. It may seem obvious that this should be the case. But this aspect of the memorial work carried out after 22 July is also the result of a development – the fact that history has been allowed to unfold, and that more people have been given, and have taken, their place in this conversation. A development in learning, in gaining experience, and in crucial collaborations. In the time that passes and has passed. And at the core of this movement are all those who move forward, carrying the hundreds of individual stories from and about 22 July with them.

It is through the people and their stories, that places such as Hegnhuset on Utøya and the Central Tower’s bombed-out ground floor can gain their power. Not only when it comes to injecting life into the brutal story, but also when it comes to the difficult task of conveying hope and faith for a better world – hope lives in all those who endure, and believe it is beneficial that they tell their stories.

Our responsibilities, those of us who work as mediators and have the power to facilitate the opportunity for these stories to be told, must continue to do so. The door must stay open for anyone who decides they are ready, anyone who – regardless of the anniversaries and milestones – want to tell their story for the first time. We must ensure that the answer to the question posed in Courtroom 250 in 2012 is that yes, we will:

Are we going to get tired of listening to them? And even worse, are they going to notice that that’s how we feel? Are they going to notice that we’re bored? And what about all those who did not actually speak during the trial? Because they simply could not, or because they weren’t summoned? What about them? Will we be willing to listen to their stories, whenever they feel ready to tell them?
Kristopher Schau
Court notes
  • Schau, K. (2012). Rettsnotater. 22. juli-rettssaken, Oslo tinghus 2012. No Comprendo Press. Side 64.
  • Nasjonalt kunnskapssenter for vold og traumatisk stress (2023) Utøyastudien.
  • Filmloopen var en nedklippet versjon av NRK Brennpunkt-dokumentar 22.07. .
  • Kommunal- og moderniseringsdepartementet (2016, 6. oktober) Tidsvitner blir en del av undervisningsopplegget om 22.
  • Da prosjektet først ble lansert ble ordet «tidsvitne» brukt om deltakerne, og «tidsvitneprosjektet» om undervisningsopplegget.
  • USC Shoah Foundation (2023) Teaching with testimony. Se også Nägel, V. L., & Wein, D. (2015) Witnesses of the Shoah: The visual History Archive of the Shoah Foundation in School Education. I D. Knellesen & R. Possekel (Red.), Video Interviews about Nazi Crimes. Perspectives and Experiences in Four Countries: From testimony to story. Education with Testimonies vol. 2.
  • Selv om rollen lå hos undertegnede fra 2017-2023, ble noe ansvar fra og med 2020 blitt fordelt på flere ansatte. Både som en konsekvens av profesjonalisering av undervisningen (underviserne har i større grad tatt hånd om selve gjennomføringen av samtaler og derfor også kontakt med faste deltakere) og for å avlaste arbeidsmengden i takt med økning i antall bidragsytere: Fra 2017-2023 har vi gått fra 0 til om lag 100 vitner involvert i prosjektet.
  • Lars Gudmundsson (Det Europeiske Wergelandsenteret), Kyrre Kverndokk (UiB), Claudia Lenz (HL-senteret / MF vitenskapelige høgskole), Ingeborg Hjorth (Falstadsenteret / utstillingsgruppa 2015), Jørgen Frydnes (Utøya AS), Hans Peder Vibe (Bergen Katedralskole),Jon Håkon Schultz (UiT), Merete Stamneshagen og Tor-Inge Kristoffersen (Støttegruppa), og Renate Tårnes (AUF).
  • Jones, S. (2014). The Media of Testimony: Remembering the East German Stasi in the Berlin Republic. Palgrave Macmillan Memory Studies. Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Kverndokk, K. (2005) Eg veit eg burde grine, alle dei andre grin jo. På skoletur til Auschwitz; mellom forventninger og erfaringer. Tema Kultur och samhälle. Norrköping: Linköpings universitet.
  • Storeide, A. H. (2011). «Han vet at det er sant, for han har vært der – tidsvitner som historieformidlere». I C. Lenz & T.R. Nilssen (Red.), Fortiden i nåtiden: Nye veier i formidlingen av andre verdenskrigs historie. Universitetsforlaget.
  • Lenz, C. & Nilssen, T.R. (2011). Fortiden i nåtiden: Nye veier i formidlingen av andre verdenskrigs historie. Universitetsforlaget.
  • Felman S & D. Laub. (1992). Testimony: Crisis of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. Routledge.
  • Storeide, A. (2018). Vitner som historiefortellere.
  • Han vet at det er sant, for han har vært der – tidsvitner som historieformidlere. I C. Lenz & T.R. Nilssen (Red.), Fortiden i nåtiden: Nye veier i formidlingen av andre verdenskrigs historie. Universitetsforlaget
  • Feldman, J. (2001) i Kverndokk (2005).
  • Young, J. (1997) i Storeide, A. H. (2011).
  • Heuer (2010) i Jones (2014).
  • En slik ritualisering skriver også Kyrre Kverndokk om i sine studier av skolebussturer til konsentrasjonsleirene. Se Kverndokk, K. (2005).
  • Grunnlagsdokument for 22. juli-senterets formidling (2018). Formidlingsansvarlig fra 2015-2022 Anne Talsnes og fungerende formidlingsansvarlig fra 2016-17 Hannah Lunde bidro sterkt til nedtegnelsen av disse premissene de første årene.
  • Lauvås, N. & Lindgren, R.M.B. (2015). Etter sjokket. Traumatisk stress og PTSD. Aschehoug.
  • Listen over deltakere fikk vi fra daglig leder på Utøya Jørgen Frydnes. Han har vært en sentral samtalepartner om alt det kontakt med overlevende og etterlatte innebærer, og en støttespiller både i forbindelse med vitneprosjektet og i dokumentasjonsprosjektet Historier om de vi mistet, som er et samarbeid mellom senteret og Utøya AS. Se Frydnes’ unike erfaring kan utforskes nærmere i Frydnes, J. (2021). Ingen mann er en øy. Res Publica. 
  • Fra evaluering mai 2017: «Jeg opplevde dere som grundige, imøtekommende og profesjonelle – med et menneskelig ansikt.» (Overlevende fra Utøya, Ole Martin J. Slyngstadli). «Jeg synes det var en god og positiv opplevelse. Jeg setter pris på muligheten jeg fikk til å fortelle min historie, og følte meg godt ivaretatt» (overlevende fra Regjeringskvartalet, Thomas Vogt).
  • «Tonje | Vitnefortellinger» (opptak fra 2018). . Fra høsten 2021 var Tonje Brenna Kunnskapsminister for Arbeiderpartiet.
  • Agamben sitert i Miller, J.H. (2012) Imre Kertész’s Fatelessness: Fiction as Testimony.I Lothe, J., Suleiman, S. R. and Phelan, J. (Red.) The Ohio State University Press. Side37.
  • Tittelen «Det handler om mennesker», er lånt fra diplomat og tidligere forsvars- og utenriksminister Thorvald Stoltenbergs biografi med samme navn, utgitt i 2001.
  • Hartman sitert i Greve, A. (2012) Knowing little, Adding Nothing: The Ethics and Aestethetics of Remembering in Espen Søbye’s Kathe, Always Lived in Norway. I Lothe, J., Suleiman, S. R. and Phelan, J. (Red.) The Ohio State University Press. Side 170.
  • De siste årene har vi blant annet hatt opplæring for undervisere fra Wergelandsenteret og Utøya i å formidle med personlige historier. Vi har også inngått et større institusjonelt samarbeid med Raftostiftelsen om vitnesamtaler fra og om 22. juli på Vestlandet.