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24 January 2022updated 01 Feb 2022 3:16pm

I survived Anders Breivik’s terror attack. I still think he has a right to a parole hearing

Tarjei Jensen Bech, now a Labour mayor, reflects on the far-right in Norway.

By Tarjei Jensen Bech

[Editor’s note: On 1 February 2022 a Norwegian court ruled that Anders Breivik would not be granted parole and would remain in prison. Below, one of Breivik’s victims recalls the terror attack and discusses how that event shapes politics today.]

In my heart, I would like Anders Breivik not to have had the opportunity to appeal for release this month. [Breivik has served ten years of a 21-year sentence, and can now appeal every year.] But I think it’s important that we observe the rule of law: even terrorists have basic human rights. We have a justice system, and the terrorist would want another one: he would want to abandon those rights.

Last week’s hearings, which began on 18 January, were covered internationally, and some media outlets showed far too much of them, including Breivik’s Nazi salute and white supremacist message. That scared me, because we know that extremists are inspired by other extremists. One newspaper reprinted almost all of his hour-long statement to the court.

My father was a political journalist for NRK, Norway’s equivalent of the BBC, so I grew up with politics; it was what we talked about around the dinner table. At 11, I joined the Socialist Youth Party, which is to the left of the Norwegian Labour party. At 13, I joined Labour because the party had a more moderate stance on Nato membership – I was of the left, but wanted to feel connected to Europe. I went to the Labour youth summer camps on the island of Utoya, near Oslo, every year from 2006 to 2011.

It was very rainy on 22 July 2011. There was a meeting that morning with Gro Harlem Brundtland, who was Norway’s first female prime minister. She talked about the 1930s in Europe and Hitler’s route to power: how important it was to fight right-wing extremists. After that I went to a workshop, where I saw on my phone that there had been an explosion in Oslo [when a bomb went off near the Prime Minister’s Office]. We had a meeting where we were assured that we were safe, because we were on an island.

Utoya island, where the shootings took place. Photo by Ibl/Shutterstock

I walked to the barn where I was staying to get a headset, so I could listen to the radio. On the way there, a girl stopped me to say that the police had arrived on the island – they had weapons, and they were going to do a bomb search. I thought that was very comforting. We were OK.

I went into the barn, and outside I heard rockets or fireworks; I thought it was a bad practical joke, and went out to find the people responsible. Around 25 metres away I saw a woman, the manager of the island, on the ground. I saw a man dressed in a police uniform holding a gun, and another man getting shot: it was as if electricity was running through his body as he fell.

A little kid came up to me, he must have been 11, and told me to run. When I was almost at the top of the hill, I looked back and saw the man coming slowly after me, his rifle in his hand. I started running towards the camp, and telling others to run – though when I got there my body froze. I couldn’t get a single word out. We heard gunshots coming closer, and then saw the man coming over the hill. The panic started, with everyone running everywhere. Utoya is not a big island; it takes ten to 15 minutes to walk around it.

I ran into the woods, thinking I could get some cover from the cliffs, or get down to the water, but they were too steep: ten to 15 metres high. I saw a girl [hiding] just under the cliff edge. She asked me if this was a rehearsal. I remember I had to pinch my arm, hard, to check it wasn’t a bad dream. At one point he was close enough that we could hear him breathing, and it made me think of Harry Potter and Voldemort. He was right above us, shooting people who were running into the water. Then he moved ten metres away; he was looking in the other direction. We ran. I saw the water coming closer and closer, and the last thing in my mind was, “Now I’m dying”, before everything turned black.

The terrorist had hit me in my left leg and I had fallen from the cliff into the water. I don’t know how long I was unconscious for, whether it was ten minutes or an hour, but when I woke my first thought was “I am alive”. I heard bird song, and it was a beautiful moment after everything I had seen. Some people picked me up from the water. A girl lay beside me to keep me warm, and a boy tore a piece off my shorts for a tourniquet. The wound was 14cm long. A boat took me back to the mainland. On the way, someone asked which musicians I liked. I said Queen and Michael Jackson, so we sang “Bohemian Rhapsody” until we got to the opera part – it’s too hard to sing. We sang “We Are the World”, all of it to stop me going to sleep.

I was in hospital for three months, and had more than 30 operations on my leg. I was supposed to go to university to study economics that semester, but it was a long rehabilitation. Other people my age were going to college or joining the army. It was hard to see the world move on.

Tarjei Jensen Bech, photographed in 2013 by Rino Engdal

I testified at the trial, something I dreaded. But when the day came and I stood in the witness box, it was actually a relief. I had been afraid of Breivik and had terrible nightmares. But seeing him in handcuffs, with the police standing over him, it was good to know he had no power over me any more.

I started my economics degree, but quit after one semester. It was too soon – I was still on crutches and got very tired. I moved back home to Hammerfest, in the far north of Norway, and started working, becoming deputy mayor of Troms and Finnmark county I was elected mayor in December 2021, and I’m studying law alongside my job.

Labour has been in government for only 100 days or so, and we still have to get more politics out into the world. But I see small changes already. [In October 2021 the new prime minister Jonas Gahr Store, leader of the Labour party, agreed to form a minority centre-left government with the Centre party.] We have just had eight years of conservative government and some people had a great time, especially the rich. The focus now has to be on creating a more equal society, where everyone has opportunities. That is my hope for the next four years.

Recent opinion polls have shown that Norwegians are more open to other nations and religions. But at the same time, I see far-right ideologies and attitudes becoming more normalised; there are more far-right views in the TV debates, which scares me. In March 2018 the right-wing Progress party’s justice minister posted a Facebook message saying that the Labour party “believes terrorists’ rights are more important than the nation’s security”, which escalated into a national debate. After I participated, I got an encrypted email asking me why Breivik hadn’t done better, that I should have died on Utoya. I got a text, saying: Beware, next time I’ll be around the corner with a Glock. The police couldn’t find out who was behind them.

Do I feel hopeful for the future of progressive politics in Norway? I think the way a government speaks about, for instance, Muslim people is important – and now we have a government that will speak differently about immigration, that will talk about what people from other cultures contribute. I am still in touch with many people who were on Utoya in 2011, and who remain active in politics. Two ministers in the new government were there: the ministers for education, and for trade and industry.

We should have a debate about whether it is possible to give life sentences in Norway. Probably it should be, after such a dreadful attack, but I don’t think Breivik will ever return to society. In the current system, one can still remain in prison for life. We can’t change the law just for him – that would give him an importance he doesn’t deserve.

As told to Melissa Denes

[see also: Living in the shadow of Breivik: why 22 July could be the anti-fascist movie of our times]

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