Before Anders Behring Breivik came after her with a gun and a mission to wipe out the next generation of the Norwegian Labour Party, Stine Renate Håheim’s goal in politics was to save the world: it had never occurred to her that democracy in her own country could come under attack.
But in the dark hours that followed the massacre of 69 of her friends and colleagues on 22 July 2011, Ms Håheim found herself alone in hospital, waiting for treatment for wounds she sustained as she scrambled over the rocks on Utoya Island and plunged into the cold fjord to escape Breivik’s bullets.
Details about the identity of the shooter remained hazy and she heard rumours of calls for revenge.
“You see other countries which experience a terror attack and it changes the society. I was really afraid and that was my first thought: this is going to change Norway – I just hope it’s not in a bad way, with more hate,” says 29-year-old Ms Håheim.
The trainee teacher is now fighting for a mandate to help shape her country’s future. She is one of 33 members of the Labour Party youth wing, the AUF, who survived Norway’s worst peacetime atrocity and are standing for parliament in elections next month. It is not clear yet if they will be able to help Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg secure a third term: he is currently trailing the Conservative Party by a few percentage points.
But the refusal of Ms Håheim and her colleagues to stay silent sends a powerful message: Breivik’s intended legacy of extinguishing the party he blamed for the “Islamisation” of Norway will not become a reality.
“His goal was to crush the Labour Party,” says Ms Håheim, sitting in the shadow of the party headquarters near where Breivik’s first attack – a car bomb aimed at government buildings – killed eight people. “He didn’t succeed. The AUF is stronger than ever. To the young people in AUF, politics is even more important than when I was 15 and joined to save the world.”
Across town, at a mall on the outskirts of Oslo, another young woman who shares Ms Håheim’s idealism is pursuing shoppers with red roses and campaign leaflets. An older woman rushes over and warmly grasps her hand. “It’s good to see you in person,” she says, before taking a rose – the symbol of the Labour Party – and bidding the younger woman good luck. Prableen Kaur is one of the most recognisable faces of the 2011 attacks. Hours after escaping the bloodshed on Utoya, she wrote a moving account of hiding under the bodies of dead friends as Breivik opened fire around her. Ms Kaur survived that rainy day two years ago by pretending to be dead, but the failed attempt on her life has only strengthened her resolve.
“Somebody tried to kill me because I speak up in the society – I use my voice, my freedom of speech, to take a part in this society,” the 20-year-old says. “This inspired me to keep going because if someone is trying to take that away from you, you should not let them win.”
The focus of Breivik’s rage was people like Ms Kaur’s parents: Indian migrants who came to booming Norway decades ago for work. At his trial last year, the white supremacist claimed he was trying to defend the Nordic nation from multiculturalism. He was sentenced to 21 years in jail – the maximum under Norwegian law.
Although parties from across the political spectrum condemned his actions, the perception that traditional Scandinavian values of liberalism and Christianity were under threat by immigration had been creeping into the political mainstream.
The anti-immigration Progress Party – which once counted Breivik as a member, before he left because he found it too liberal – took a record 22 per cent of the vote at the last general election in 2009. Its support plummeted at local elections two months after the attacks, but it is expected to regain strength next month. Kristian Norheim, the Progress Party’s international secretary, argues its rebound is testament to the strength of democracy. “A terrorist should not be able to be involved in the debate or change the direction of a debate,” he says.
But anti-racism campaigners are disappointed that the political discourse has remained hostile towards some ethnic minorities. Last year, the Progress Party leader, Siv Jensen, said the government should “arrange a bus” and deport people from the Roma minority.
Of greater concern to Shoaib Mohammad Sultan, an advisor to the Norwegian Centre Against Racism, is the re-emergence outside the political arena of hate speech directed at migrants and Muslims. Racist views unacceptable to air in the months following the attacks are creeping back on blogs, social media and comment sections of news websites. “In many ways the debate is back to where it was on the 21 July 2011,” he says. This is not the debate that many Utoya survivors wanted to see so soon after their experiences shone a light on the darker corners of Norwegian society.
“In the first few weeks after the attacks, many people thought that it would change Norwegian politics completely and we would have a very different debate on the issues of immigration,” says Asmund Aukrust, 28-year-old vice president of the AUF. But he believes the surge in young people joining political parties means lasting change will come. AUF membership leapt 40 per cent in the year after the attacks. Other parties and youth organisations also saw people flock to their ranks, as a generation reacted with disgust to one man’s attempt to silence their voice.
Their policies and dealings with the world will also be shaped by their experiences, says Mr Aukrust, who spent hours alone in a tent on Utoya waiting for the shooting to stop after being separated from his friends. “People are killed all over the world because of what they stand for – now we actually know how it feels,” he says.
Of the 33 young Utoya survivors running for office, only Ms Håheim (who is running for a second term), Mr Aukrust and one other candidate are in safe Labour seats. Ms Kaur is eighth on the party list in Oslo, so is banking on a convincing Labour win to make her the youngest MP in parliament.
Opinion polls a month before the vote suggested that people were looking for change. With a narrow lead, the Conservative Party were tipped to win, leading to a possible coalition government with the Progress Party.
Ms Kaur hopes that some undecided voters will be swayed to vote Labour to avoid an outcome which includes the Progress Party in government. But if it does end up with ministerial posts, she is sticking to her principles. “If the voters want that, I will have to respect that, because it’s their democratic right,” she says, before marching off, roses in hand, to try to make sure it doesn’t happen.Reuse content