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Faced with inhumanity, we must be more human

norway-attacksby Erik Abild

Oslo, my home, was bombed on Friday. July 22, 2011, at 15:26 in the afternoon. A powerful explosion in the middle of our capital, at the heart of Norway. Several people were killed, many more injured, the whole city wounded and marked for ever.

An hour later, more than 80 people were brutally killed. They were gathered at a political youth camp on an island. There was nowhere to run, nothing to protect themselves with. They were young and had their lives in front of them. They were among the best of us, among those who wanted to make a difference, to work for what they believed in. Now they are gone and we are left with empty feelings, filled with grief.

From Gaza to Oslo

For the past two years I have lived in Gaza, working for a Norwegian humanitarian organisation. I've experienced many bombings and lived close to people who have lost more than one can imagine, and lived through terrifying experiences. Recently I moved home to Oslo after four years abroad. I started to use a bicycle helmet to be safe. I thought Oslo was the calmest place on earth.

Then the bomb rocked the building I was in. I ran out. There was dusty smoke in the air and store alarms going off. But there were no sirens, no screams; people were not panicking. Many were taking pictures and talking on phones. I ran towards the blast site. There were no police or ambulances there yet. I remember thinking that there were few people around - the injured who could walk had probably left, and some were being carried out as I came. I saw two people lying on the ground, being cared for by passers-by. The open square surrounding the main governmental building was filled with broken glass and mangled debris, but it felt quiet, empty, bombed. 

I continued until I was standing at the entrance of the main building. There I saw a severely injured person whom, together with another person, I helped. When the ambulances came, we managed to get all the injured people I could see out. Then the police closed off the area in fear of more bombs. I thought of those who must be bleeding inside the bombed buildings. Within an hour there were enough ambulances and no need for civilian assistance.

The unimaginable

I left and started calling people on the phone. It was then I heard about the second attack, the one on the island. I could not believe it and did not understand it. I thought it was a shoot-out with the police. When I realised that young people were caught on an island with a man shooting at them, I became cold, filled with disbelief.

In some ways, a bomb attack in a capital, even in Norway, is something most people can imagine and relate to. But I don't think anyone could imagine a man systematically killing young people at a summer camp outside Oslo.

The morning after, when I heard the number of people killed, I was numbed. The enormity of the tragedy. All the families across Norway where the youth camp participants came from. The grief. The loss.

An attack on what Norway is

The attacker, the terrorist - the person wanting to spread fear by violence - was a Norwegian. He apparently defined himself as a nationalist, and as being against internationalism. I've read he was deeply opposed to multiculturalism and that he was furiously anti-Islamic. He had written a manuscript about how Marxism and Islam would ruin Europe. And much more. For me he represents violence, sickness and hate.

However, one thing is sure: he wanted to attack Norwegian society, Norwegian politics, and what it is that is Norway.

This brings up the question of what is Norwegian, what is Norway today? The prime minister, the king and many others have mentioned concepts such as democracy, openness, equality, community and freedom. These are loaded concepts, shared by many nations, but which are also viewed differently by many. The sum of how we, as Norwegians, fill these concepts with meaning - by our actions as individuals and a society - perhaps best defines what Norway is.

Today, two days after the attack, there is an opportunity for us to fill those concepts with meaning. An attack completely without meaning, but which we have to turn into meaning. The youths gathered at the island were discussing the way forward for our country and the world. To take up that discussion, and fill their meaningless, tragic deaths with an attempt to make a better tomorrow, is something I think we should do in their spirit.

The importance of internationalism

It is also clear that the attack was in opposition to Norway's internationalism. Criticised and admired over time as either naive or brave, hypocritical or groundbreaking; I still believe that it is an important pillar of Norway's essence. And I believe that now, this internationalism is more important than ever for Norway. In an attack on our outwardness, we have to stand up for our belief in an interconnected world with shared destinies. We have to continue to care about what is outside our home, and to not let geographical boundaries or the social constructs of ethnicity and religion define our morals.

Today, here in Norway, many politicians and people state that "today we are all AUF" (the name of the youth party). And we are. Just as we all were Japanese when the earthquake struck, or as we all are Somalis when we read about famine. This feeling of community is a part of being human. And this communality, the shared experience of humanity, is essential to hold onto. In the face of inhumanity, we have to be more human. Because there is only this one world, brutal and beautiful, and we only have one fragile life to make our difference in the world we all share as home.

The space to be filled

All those who died on Friday leave behind an empty space. The potential space of what they would have done with their lives. When we lose someone, the world becomes less. It is up to us to fill those voids. To be more, because of them.

The Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss once said: "Your humanity is dependent on your ability to act." When my grandfather was dying, his last words were both very simple, yet very complex: "The meaning of life is to do good." Today is the day to start being more human, to try to do good. Today is the day to start making the world we call home a better place.

Erik Abild works for the Norwegian Refugee Council at their head office in central Oslo. He is the Programme Coordinator for Myanmar and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

A  version of this article was published by Al-Jazeera

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