‘A BETTER, MORE INCLUSIVE AND MORE TOLERANT FUTURE’: An interview with Viljar Hanssen 10 years after surviving Utøya

viljarroses

Viljar Hanssen, 27, was a high school student in Longyearbyen when he became one of the most recognizable survivors of the July 22, 2011, massacre at Utøya. He suffered near-fatal injuries after being shot five times, ultimately losing an eye and suffering severe impairment of his motor functions.

He spent three months in the hospital before returning to Longyearbyen, where almost immediately he became the youngest person ever elected to the community council at the age of 17. Since then he has moved to the Tromsø area with his familiy, including his brother Torje who was also at the island youth camp on that fateful day, and is now a member of that municipal council. The brothers were also the focus of the major motion picture “22 July” and have been active in issues related to the massacre such as political radicalization.

This is an online interview conducted with Viljar a few days before the 10-year anniversary of that fateful day.

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Q: Where are you right now as you write this and what are your plans for the day ahead, if it’s basically going to be whatever passes for a normal day for you?

A: Right now I’m at my local cafe in Tromsø, it’s not quite “Fruene,” but still nice. I try to live as normal as possible in the days leading up to 22/07. You know, for me its the same everyday. It’s just that once a year everybody else as well is talking and writing about the massacre.

On that day I’ll travel to Bardu and Salangen in my home county with my brother, Torje. Its a yearly tradition where we spend time with others survivors, remembering those we lost and comforting each other. It’s a really nice thing, really. Being able to spend time with the others and sharing. This year I’ve been asked to say some words and doing the “rosekransnedleggelse,” so I’ll be working on my speech today.

Q: When I was reading through your Facebook page I was a bit surprised how often Utøya is mentioned or in some way relevant in posts by you and others, since over the years you and others have talked about wanting to focus on the future and not that day. How often is it a factor in your day-to-day life, activities you pursue and a topic others bring up with you? How much is a part of the lives of your family?

Heh, yeah first of all most of my generation has left Facebook behind, so I share my personal life on my private Instagram page.

About Utøya, it’s a good question. I mean, it’s a part of my life and will always be, physically and emotionally. Personally I’ve been focusing on the future since the day I woke up from my coma and I’ll be doing a lot of living afterwords. In my personal and professional life trying to understand and learn from what happened will always be important, and I don’t think is a contradiction, focusing on the future and trying to learn from what happened. Today the Benjamin Hermansen monument was tagged down with Breivik-love. This shows me that standing up against racism, promoting solidarity and never forgetting those that lost their lives is still very important. This is an important part of my life and it will stay that way.

About my family I can’t answer for them.

Q: In a recent Nordly’s interview and other coverage you talk about some similar themes as you’ve shared with me from past years, in terms of addressing what causes people to become radicalized, hateful attitudes and such. How do you feel attitudes and efforts to combat such things – by officials and “common people” alike – have changed in Norway – and elsewhere – during the past 10 years?

A: I honestly don’t think it has changed much, but the real debates and public conversations surrounding this years “markering” is very promising. I think many survivors, “etterlatte,” and also journalists and politicians are showing bravery when they are trying to start real introspection and discussions. I think we have much to learn, and starting by really listening and talking to each other is the way to go, I think. But with right-wing views on the rise we still have a long way to go.

Q: The phrase “Utøya-kortet,” which some are reacting harshly to, is new to me – what’s your reaction when it’s used?

A: Enormous pain and anger. It should not exist, and it being used by journalists and Stortingspolitikere is a disgrace, really.

Q: I was in a way amused reading your post about the difficulties of getting a municipal budget approved since it’s usually a long and dreary process for those involved. Why have you chosen to pursue the path you have as a municipal politician – and what do you see as your career and other others looking ahead to the future?

A: Hehe, yeah, it’s a big budget and lots of work getting it over the line. Trying to prioritize right in a tight budget, when you want to give everybody everything is tough. About the path, I spent a lot of time out of politics the last years doing lots of other stuff and really living a “normal” life. But as time went, I just came to realize that I missed being involved. My goals has always been trying to make my local community better and helping out those in need. Equal rights and opportunities is what drives me. That was the reason I was politically active as a youth and the reason I’m back involved now. I’m truly thankful that I was voted in by the people in Tromsø, my hometown.

I’m finishing my masters degree in law school the next year as well.

About the future I’ll just see how it goes. The most important thing for me is spending time with my loved ones and being happy.

Q:  Aside from work, what are some of your future plans and hopes?

A: A better, more inclusive and more tolerant future.