Unable to forget: Local survivors of Utøya moving to new places, but old scars remain on fourth anniversary of tragedy


Viljar Hanssen just moved into his own “man cave.” His brother, Torje, celebrated his 18th birthday last week. But as they enter new landmark stages of their lives, they’re being forced to admit to themselves they’ll never be able to leave behind the physical and mental scars inflicted on them four years ago today.

The first three and a half years I was certain that my goal was to get on after July 22, 2011,” wrote Viljar in a post on his Facebook page on the fourth anniversary of the lone wolf terrorist attacks that killed 77 people. “To be able to go several days in a row without thinking of the day, to not let it influence me days after day, not having to deal with myself about that day – that was the goal.”

Now, four years later I realize that it will never, ever be like as I had intended. That initial goal is packed away.”

Viljar and Torje Hanssen, survivors of the mass shooting at Utøya that killed 69 people, are once again finding themselves in the spotlight this week as they're sharing their struggles and experiences since that date with numerous media organizations. Photo by Christan Kristoffersen.

Viljar and Torje Hanssen, survivors of the mass shooting at Utøya that killed 69 people, are once again finding themselves in the spotlight this week as they’re sharing their struggles and experiences since that date with numerous media organizations. Photo by Christin Kristoffersen.

Viljar, now 21 and attending college in Tromsø, suffered nearly fatal injuries when he was shot five times at the Utøya youth camp. He lost his right eye and three fingers, and spent several months in the hospital before he was able to return to his family’s home in Longyearbyen.

“That everyday should still be so challenging, that the psychological scars are just as active and visible as the physical, is something I’m learning to live with every day,” he wrote in his anniversary post. “And one thing I’ve realized is I will never be fully trained. It will be with me every day. Not just today, but also tomorrow. And next week.”

“That said, this day is a good day. A day where all of Norway remembers. A day where all of Norway recalls. A day we must never allow to be forgotten.”


A ring-shaped memorial inscribed with the names of the 69 people killed during the mass shooting on Utøya is unveiled this week on the island.

A memorial for the victims of Utøya – including former Longyearbyen resident Johannes Buø, then 14, who was killed during the attack – was inaugurated Tuesday on the island about 30 kilometers northwest of Oslo. Also debuting this week is an exhibit in Oslo commemorating the mass shooting on the island that killed 69 people and bombings in Oslo that killed eight more. The latter is provoking considerable anger among many who consider it a “hall of fame” for Anders Behring Breivik, a right-wing extremist who said he committed the killings to fight against against multiculturalism and a “Muslim invasion.”

“A July 22 museum should be just that, not a gathering place for ABB tributes/fascination,” Viljar wrote in a Twitter message last week.

Both Viljar and Terje have openly and frequently discussed their experiences since that fateful day, appearing in documentaries, books and other widely seen media. Terje, 14 at the time, was trying to escape by swimming out to a boat when Breivik appeared and began firing at the youth and the boat. Terje was able to avoid physical injury by hiding under a rock wall with several others youths, but his brother wasn’t as fortunate.

“We talk together about what happened all the time,” Terje told NRK in an article published on the tragedy’s fourth anniversary.

Torje said he’s briefly returned to the island with his brother twice, but will never again return to the youth camp and he questions if it’s perhaps too early to resume them every summer.

“It’s not that if I’m not ready for it, then no one else should be allowed to be there to enjoy themselves,” he told NRK. “But I think it is too early, considering us who were physically there and the survivors who do not find it right yet.”

I’m fine, but living with Utøya every day. The buzzing is constantly in the back of my head and it will always be.”


Einar and Laila Buø, who’s 14-year-old son Johannes was killed in the mass shooting at Utøya on July 22, 2011, sit on their snowmobiles one last time in Longyearbyen in June before shipping them to their mainland hometown of Mandal. They are returning there so their other son, Elias, can attend high school there. Photo courtesy of Einar Buø.

The other local family most impacted by the attack – Buø’s – is also literally moving on while coping with the past. The family, who moved to Longyearbyen in 2008, returned to their mainland hometown of Mandal earlier this month so Buø’s younger brother, Elias, can begin his high school education there this fall. His parents, Einar and Laila, celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary at the end of June. Einar, who is Longyearbyen’s cultural programs director, is officially away on one year’s leave.

A short anniversary memorial for Johannes, attended by Svalbard Gov. Odd Olsen Ingerø and other local leaders, took place Wednesday morning outside Svalbard Church, with Longyearbyen City Manager laying flowers at the base of a sculpture placed there in remembrance of the teenager, who was one of the youngest victims of the tragedy.

A study published in Scandinavian Psychologist on the eve of the anniversary – based on surveys of 86 parents from 65 of the Utøya victims – states ” half of the parents reported that they were either partly or totally out of work at 40 months post loss and had significantly reduced social functioning.”

“The findings show an overall slight reduction in both posttraumatic stress and complicated grief from 18 to 40 months after the attack,” an abstract of the study notes. “Mothers show a slower recovery than fathers do.”