Life after Utøya Massacre Survivors Struggle to Overcome Trauma and Guilt

As the trial of Anders Breivik gets underway in Oslo, survivors of the massacre he perpetrated are using a range of sometimes unique therapy methods to overcome their trauma. But, for many of them, the hardest question remains: Why did I survive?

By and


Adrian Pracon, 22, is about to face his own shooting for the third time. This time, he wants to show his 28-year-old sister, Katharina, the place where he should have died.

Adrian only saw the killer's black boots in the moments before the shot came, but he knew the man wanted to murder him, too. "It's so strange how I remember the situation," Adrian tells his sister, sitting beside him in his silver Alfa Romeo. "It all happens as if it were in slow motion."

On this spring morning, the nearby mountain peaks still have snow, and the surrounding meadows are still brown. The siblings are running late, and the boat that will take them to the site of Adrian's failed execution is about to leave. He steps on the gas and the car races ahead, as if speeding to a point in time nine months past.

With his head half-hidden under his rain jacket, Adrian watched on as others were shot and killed on July 22, 2011. It all seemed to happen very slowly. Then he saw Anders Behring Breivik's boots approaching. "I could feel the heat radiating off the barrel of the gun," Adrian recalls.

From her side of the car, Katharina gazes at her brother in disbelief. She's never heard this story in all its detail. But now, on this car trip, her brother will be able to recount his story in full, and soon he'll be at the place where it occurred. He wants his sister to have a realistic image of the scenes that continue to haunt him to this day.

Setting Out for the Scene of a Massacre

Adrian is a young man with wavy brown hair, the son of Polish immigrants. He tells of the moment just before the shot -- of how his body simply quit trembling, his breathing stopped and the only thing he could feel was his heart pounding against the rock he was lying on.

The road curves, and Utøya -- the island on which it all occurred -- comes into view. The MS Thorbjørn, a small ferry with a little white captain's cabin, is waiting at the dock. On board, there are already three dozen young people in bright-red lifejackets.

Adrian pulls a lifejacket on, as well. "Lifejackets!" he says with an ironic laugh. "When it happened, I swam and nearly drowned."

The boat pulls away from the dock and sets course for Utøya. It's a Tuesday in late March and AUF, the youth organization associated with Norway's center-left Labor Party, has arranged for survivors and their family members to visit the island where Breivik, a right-wing extremist, massacred 69 people last summer.

The whole thing runs like a well-organized school trip. AUF volunteers sell tickets for the ferry ride. The young people on board run back and forth excitedly, talking at full volume and snapping pictures with their cell phones.

Many of them laugh during the trip to Utøya. But, when it comes time for the trip back, a deep silence will have fallen over the boat.

A Unique Form of Trauma Therapy

This journey back to the darkest moment in their young lives is a battle with images that won't leave their heads, a battle against a panic that still flares up inside, a battle against survivors' guilt. Why them, they ask themselves, and not me?

The trip is part of a unique form of therapy meant to help these survivors reconcile that day's events with the larger context of their own lives. Renate Grønvold Bugge, a 71-year-old psychologist with German roots, came up with the idea for these trips. The Norwegian government now funds the program, which includes regular visits for survivors and victims' family members to the site of the horror as well as national and regional gatherings aimed had helping them find shared ways of coping with their pain. When things get bad, each survivor has a contact person in his or her own community whom they can ask for help.

A research project is documenting the effectiveness of this trauma therapy and aims to provide a model for treating psychological wounds in future situations. "From the scientific perspective," Bugge says in a gentle voice, "the tragedy offers a unique opportunity."

Among those needing help with their grief are 700 family members of victims, 650 survivors -- of whom 66 were injured -- and their 4,500 family members. Then there are the doctors, medics, police officers and countless volunteers who participated in the rescue effort. These people live all over the country, and 165 communities have been tasked with looking after Breivik's victims.

Aside from the sheer scale, the particular challenge to treatment in this situation is the fact that the tragedy primarily affected teenagers. "That's probably the most precarious age in which to experience such a trauma," Bugge says. "The psyche is still seeking (and is) hardly settled."

Individual Coping Strategies

The survivors have all developed their own strategies for coping with the terror they experienced. For example, 23-year-old Simen Brænden Mortensen is on the next boat after Adrian. Mortensen was the guard who allowed the Breivik, disguised as a policeman, onto the ferry to Utøya.

"Logically, I know anyone would have let him through because, damn it, he really did look like a policeman," the young social worker says. "But I still spent weeks feeling guilty." He sees a psychologist every Friday and, until three weeks ago, he only worked half-time.

Then there's Caroline Winge, a 19-year-old from Trondheim, who asked to visit a police shooting range so she could get used to the sound of gunfire and being around police officers.

Or there's 32-year-old Khalid Taleb Ahmed, who takes pills to banish the image of his dead brother, Ismail, lying at the foot of a cliff with his dyed blonde hair red with blood. His psychologist has taught Khalid to view the trauma as a gate that he can walk through. She has taught him that there's a film running in his head, and that he holds the remote control he can turn it off with.

Trapped in Time

Some are doing better, but many continue to struggle. Marte Fevang Smith, an 18-year-old from Tønsberg, sits across from her mother Monica on the midday ferry. She's a radiant young woman, with thick blonde hair and bright blue eyes. Her mother says her daughter was just starting to really "blossom" last summer -- until a bullet struck her head on Utøya. She survived only because it missed her brain by two millimeters (0.08 inches).

This trip to Utøya with the other survivors is hard on Marte. On the ferry ride back, she spends a long time sitting in silence. Home is the only place she feels safe now, and her bedroom is strewn with clothes, DVDs and makeup.

Whenever she finds herself in unfamiliar rooms, Marte says she's always looking for an escape route. She can't imagine getting on a crowded bus because it's "a situation I absolutely can't control." Since Utøya, she hasn't gone out dancing because it would remind her of Maria. The evening before the massacre, the two of them danced in front of the stage on the island. "Datarock was playing," Marte says, referring to a Norwegian band. "When I hear them on the radio now, I immediately switch it off." Breivik also shot Maria, but she didn't survive.

Marte hasn't been able to go back to school yet. "Unfortunately, it's just not possible," she says. In August, she tried to start the new school year as usual. That was a milestone that Renate Bugge, the psychologist, looked forward to with hope and trepidation. "School offers a daily routine, a structure that provides something to hold onto," Bugge says, adding that all the current research points to this -- and that it's more important than any session with a therapist.

Too Traumatized for School

But just days after Marte's school year started, a balloon burst on a birthday cake some students had baked. "I ran out of the room," Marte says. As she fled, she made out the teacher saying, "It's a good thing we don't have any students who were on Utøya here."

No one had told the teacher that Marte had been at the island, on the "Love Rocks," a hill on the south of the island, where she was forced to watch Breivik shoot and kill 10 people.

A few days later, Marte was in psychology class when she started imagining that blood was streaming down the teacher's face. Fellow students found Marte in the bathroom and held her in their arms in an effort to stop her shaking. "Luckily," Marte says, "my friends always have extra makeup-remover with them, and they were able to wipe away my runny eyeshadow."

Marte could no longer concentrate in class, and letters simply swam around in her head whenever she tried to read. She eventually gave up and now works two days a week at a preschool near her apartment.

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