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Utoya: Surviving mass murder

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Utoya: Surviving mass murder

The 2011 terror attack in Norway shook the country to the core, and caught in the middle of it was 19-year-old Mari Nymoen Eikre, one of the few who escaped the Utoya massacre by hiding under a cliff. 

How do you continue life after surviving mass murder?
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'Daddy someone is shooting'

The morning of the 22 July 2011 the people of Norway awake expecting another warm summer day unaware that this is going to be the day that will change the country forever.

At 3.25pm, a bomb explodes in the Government Centre in Oslo. Eight people die and nine are seriously injured. Nearly 500 people are nearby when the bomb explodes, and there is extensive damage to the office of the Prime Minister and several other Ministries. The attack leaves the country in shock. In the chaos, a man in a police uniform leaves the city unnoticed to continue what will be remembered as the deadliest terror attack in Scandinavian history.
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It is 5.07pm when a man with a police ID arrives by boat at the Norwegian Labour Youth (AUF) summer camp at Utoya, which is being attended by 564 people, most of them teenagers and young adults. The man is carrying a semi-automatic rifle, and starts systematically murdering people. A total of 69 people lose their life, with teens seeing their friends, boyfriends and girlfriends slaughtered in front of their eyes while praying to survive themselves. 50 of the victims are 18 or younger.

In the midst of the terror 19-year-old Mari Nymoen Eikre is running for her life, praying this summer will not be her last.

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Mari Nymoen Eikre was born in 1992 in the tiny Norwegian mountain village of Hemsedal. Here she grew up with her little brother Sander as a lively and engaged child.

She was quite a bossy young lady, with a passion for acting, dancing and singing. She was a child who always had an opinion.

At a school debate in 2009 this became evident. At the debate, 17-year-old Mari, had an eye-opening experience when speaking to representatives of the Norwegian Labour Party's youth organisation, AUF. Where she discovered her own passions for equality and change matched theirs.

In the early days as an AUF member Mari spent her time learning and listening. While her friends were out drinking and partying, young Mari would spend hours on trains and busses to attend AUF gatherings around Norway. She had discovered a world of her own.

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In her new world Mari realised the power of her voice. For the first time she was given a platform to speak about the issues that she cared about.

Within the AUF community she met some of her closest friends, who shared her passion.

In July 2010 Mari went to Utoya for the first time. She fell in love with the idyllic island and the people at the camp.

To Mari the island reflected pure joy. Sunny summer days, concerts, passionate debates, inspiring workshops, late-night card games with friends and midnight swims in the lake.

By 2011 Mari had taken on the role as leader for the party's local branch in Hallingdal, and was as well a member of AUF's county board. One of her tasks was to encourage more teenagers to come to the camp at Utoya with her.

No one anticipated the devastation that would hit the idyllic island only a few months later.

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"Is the disco still on tonight?" a girl asks from the back of the hall as Eskil Pedersen, the leader of AUF, informs the participants of the 2011 Utoya camp about the bomb in the city centre of Oslo.

No one knows what is happening and confusion breaks out. Is this war? Has Norway been attacked?

At the back Mari messages her flatmates back in Oslo to ask if they are okay since their apartment is very close to where the bomb went off. Her workshop with the Swedish guest politician just got cancelled. Around her a couple of people are crying, other than that, nothing. People seem confused, but the more occupying thought is the plans for the night.

Suddenly the group of teens hear something that sounds like fireworks. Before anyone realise what is going on, shots are being fired through the door, and panic breaks lose. Utoya is under attack. 

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"You push everyone. You want to save yourself."
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The escape

Tears are close as Mari is running through the forest towards the "path of love" as the teenagers have named it. 

As Mari reaches the water, her dad calls her. "What is this shooting?" he says in a worried tone, and as Mari quickly explains the family realise the seriousness of the situation.

"Stay low and stay hidden Mari," her dad says, before hanging up.

Mari escapes down to the water, following other teenagers escaping, and finally pushes herself under a cliff. Everyone she knows have vanished.
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This day is different from all the other summer camp days at Utoya. You can no longer hear the sound of laughter and splashing water and the sun has disappeared behind heavy clouds.

As the rain gets heavier Mari´s wellies fill up  with water.
It is almost like the sky is crying.

Next to her is a girl Mari has never met. They take each other's hands and sit in silence. Two strangers comforting each other in what will unfold to be their worst nightmare.

Apart from the raindrops hitting the water, there is only the sound of gunshots in the distance.

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"We hear ten or twenty or thirty shots, and then it's all quiet again for another couple of minutes."
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Together with two boys and two other girls, Mari hides under a rock. The space is not big enough for her to hide her whole body. Instead she pushes her head and upper body under the rock. Her feet and wellies are still sticking out, and she knows that if the shooter appears again, he will be able to see her. However, if he shoots her in the leg, she might still survive. Her first priority is hiding her head and white shirt, which she is scared will make her extra visible in the gloomy weather.


She jolts, and pushes her body as hard as she can under the rock. She can see him again now with his fake police badge and homemade uniform. It is she same man she saw earlier.

Is this how she is going to die?
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"I could feel the shots hitting the water behind my back."
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Then they are alone again. The two girls next to Mari struggle to keep silent, and it does not get better after the shooter leaves. Everyone is thinking the same thing: "What if he comes back for us?"

Hours pass, and with the bad signal none of them know what is happening elsewhere on the island.

Suddenly Mari starts to receive messages saying the shooter has been captured. But no one knows for sure.

Some are indicating that there are more than one shooter. In her head there is only one. 

The group decide to stay hidden. No one knows what is happening, and they do not want to risk finding out. 

Today they can't trust anyone.

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It is starting to get colder. The group tries to sit close to each other, both to hide and to keep warm. Mari's feet are swimming around in her wet wellies, and she no longer has a jacket to keep warm since she gave it away. 

Boats have been circling the island for some time now, but they disappear again. It is probably not safe enough for them to come and save them.

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All of a sudden the boats seem to come closer, and Mari can see them helping people to safety.

"HELP! HELP!" she screams on the top of her lungs.

They send off the two terrified girls and the injured boy first, and Mari and the second boy are left to wait.

Then their rescuer arrives. He is a middle-aged man with a large brown beard and a green cap who has risked his own life trying to save theirs.

He saves her life. Mari never see him again.

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"There is a dead boy in the water."
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The ocean of roses

The days that follow have no concept of time. It is just a constant blur of news, worried friends, family and grief. 

Mari spends her first few days with a friend. She struggles to talk to professionals about what happened, and most comfort in talking to her friends that had been at Utoya with her.

Among each other they talk, but out in public she is silent. Humour plays a major part in their recovery. The kind of dark humour that only they as survivors understand. 

She doesn't have nightmares following the terror, and she is not scared of sleeping in tents. For Mari the struggle is the general paranoia that follows having survived such a traumatic experience. 

It is a fear of big crowds, rape, burglary and attack. Because if Utoya could happen to her, why cannot other tragedies too?

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In August 2012 Norwegian national and far-right extremist Anders Behring Breivik was sentenced  to at least 21 years in prison after admitting to killing 77 people in Oslo and on the island of Utoya on the 22 July 2011 and wounding 242.

Oslo district court declared in its verdict that the 33-year-old was not psychotic while carrying out the attacks.

The decision was reached after two months of deliberation by a five-judge panel, who considered the perpetrator of the attack the worst in Norwegian history, and mentally fit enough to be held responsible.

21 years with conditions is the longest possible sentence in Norway, and Anders Behring Breivik will never be a free man again.

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"That's when I realised I had not forgotten everything."
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In the background of Mari's story there is a people in sorrow. With only 5 million inhabitants, Norway is a small country, and everyone knows someone affected by the tragedy.

Norway's answer becomes love. The people enter the streets with roses, not guns. Media and conversation is filled with compassion and love, not hatred and anger.

The roads around the main church in Oslo are closed after an ocean of roses stops all traffic. People from all over the country mourn, walk together in solidarity and put down flowers, cards, teddybears and light candles.

As leader of AUF Eskil Pederesen said:

 "He may have taken some of our most beautiful roses...but he cannot stop the spring."

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"It stopped the cars, it stopped the tram, you could not get past it because people just kept coming with flowers."
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Six years have passed since the terror attack in 2011, and with the help and support of family and friends Mari has found a way to continue life after what she'll remember as the worst day of her life. 

Mari continued as an active member of AUF for two years following the Utoya massacre, before retiring from politics.

After finishing her education, having studied in Norway and one year in Denmark, Mari moved to the UK to work as a primary teacher in London.

In 2016 she moved back to Norway and today she works as a primary teacher at Nordpolen Skole in Oslo, living together with her step sister who survived Utoya alongside her. 

She has been back to the island since the attack.

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" I want to travel and continue to do something meaningful."
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Mari hopes to continue working as a primary teacher, inspiring children to be kind, compassionate and openminded. 

She hopes to be able to travel and see the world, and is happily in love.

All though she is no longer an active member of AUF, the friends she made continue to play an important part in her life.

Utoya reopened in 2015, and teenagers from all over Norway are back on the island enjoying summer camps like they used to be.

A memorial has been created in memory of everyone who lost their life. May they rest in peace.

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Project: Isabel Mueller Eidhamar
(video, interview, photography and text)

Interviewee: Mari Nymoen Eikre

Footage of the aftermath: NRK

Photographs: Connie M. Westergaard, Dmitry Valberg, Endre Krossbakken, Endre Schei, Henrik Lied, Jechstra, Jo Christian Oterhals, Karl T. Gundersen, Lars Bjorkevoll, Martin, Oskar Seljeskog, Roberto Maldeno and Shane T. McCoy.

Music and sound effects: EpidemicSound, Freesound.org and "Mitt Lille Land" sung by Maria Mena.

Including Mari Nymoen Eikre's personal photographs and messages.
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