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The Unexpected: Life in Oslo after the Attacks July 27, 2011

Posted by Elyse Leonard in Individual Fellowship, Norway, Undergraduate.
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Elyse Leonard is pursuing her bachelor’s in political science. She received an Individual Fellowship through the International Institute to work as an intern at the Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO) in Norway. Elyse’s office is just nine blocks from the site of the bomb that was detonated near the Norwegian parliament and the offices of Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg in central Oslo. In this Q & A, she recounts the initial moments following the blast and also addresses how Norwegians are coping after these devastating attacks.

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Q: I understand that you are living and working in Oslo. Where were you at the time of the explosion? 
I was in my office, adding more details to a report on Mexico City. Suddenly a HUGE BOOM sounded and the entire building shook like there had been an earthquake.  The weather had been dreary all day, so I thought maybe an enormous lightning bolt had struck the building.

Q: Can you describe what happened in the moments following the blast? How did you and those around you respond? 
I slowly stood up and went to go see if others on my floor had felt the shaking. Everyone had, but no one had any idea what was going on. A few of us went down to the ground floor. Other colleagues had gathered there also, but still no one understood what had happened. We speculated lightning? construction site accident? tram crash? Some people went outside to look around and came back with nothing. Then people just went back to work.

Q: When did you first discover that the explosion was caused by a bomb? How did local law enforcement officials respond?
I was actually the first on my floor to know. I got a call from a Norwegian friend who asked if I felt the shaking. While we were talking, he stopped short: “It was an explosion in the financial district.” I told people on my floor, someone checked online, and then we started following what little news made its way to the Internet.

For law enforcement, I’m not so sure. Immediately after the explosion, I don’t remember any police mandates or anything. I think we were advised to stay out of city center. Later in the evening, we were asked to stay inside.
Q: What was it like walking back home through Oslo after the blast? Describe the feeling on the streets.
I didn’t go home after the blast. My work is nine blocks from the explosion site, my apartment five blocks away, and the site itself lies between the two. Instead, I went to a friend’s sister’s house because she lives further from city center. Since I didn’t know exactly where I was going, I was a bit more on edge. Plus there were so many other people fleeing the same direction. Oslo is not a busy city in the summer, so hundreds of people rushing in one direction definitely struck me as out of place. I could hear ambulance sirens. There were police at various intersections. Then gradually the atmosphere changed from this stressed, emergency mode to green parks and cafes. I’d reached an area of town where people had not yet heard of the bomb. That was bizarre, to see friends enjoying a beer and mothers walking their babies, while only a 15-20 minute walk away the icon of Norwegian democracy was up in flames.
Q: You attended a vigil for the victims who were killed in this attack. Tell us about the service. How are Norwegians coping in this time of crisis?
The vigil was beautiful. Some 150,000 to 200,000 supporters converged at Oslo’s city hall, which is right at Oslo Harbor. Each one of us carried a rose, the symbol of the Labor Party (whose prime minister was the target of the Oslo bombing and whose AUF youth camp was attacked on Utøya). The Prime Minister, the AUF leader, the crown prince, and a human rights activist spoke. Then several Norwegian musicians played, and at the end everyone joined in the singing of a moving song, “To the Youth.” Afterwards, we were asked to leave our roses all over Oslo. I think the immense turn-out at this vigil epitomizes the Norwegian response. Though all are mourning and still in shock, there is a sense that Norway needs to stay united, to stand up for its national values of democracy, liberty, and generosity.
Q: You are currently interning at the Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO), an organization housing some of the world’s foremost scholars on peace research. How has the leadership responded to this crisis?
Very thoughtfully. Our PRIO director came back early from vacation and has coordinated events for co-workers to come together. For instance, a PRIO group attended the rose vigil, and just at lunch today we had a discussion panel on “Norway after the Terror Attacks.” As researchers, many PRIOites have been contacted for their “expert opinion” on the twin attacks. I’ve heard colleagues say they feel torn. Professionally, they want to help the situation with their knowledge and skills, yet personally, they are not ready to analyze these horrific attacks so close to home.
Q: What has it been like to be an American living in another country during a time of national crisis?
As an American, I find it surreal that something like this could happen to me in Oslo, Norway. Americans are highly aware that our country could be a terrorist target. We live with a color-coded system for the current “threat level.” We fight wars to eliminate global terrorist networks, and we watch blockbuster thrillers about deciphering terror plots. As horrible as this sounds, I think I more expected something like these twin terror attacks to happen on American soil. I am also constantly comparing this event and its aftermath to 9/11.

On a brighter note, I have felt extraordinarily supported by my friends and family back home. Being an American abroad during a time of crisis means that I receive love and support not only from my new Norwegian friends, but also from those sending e-mails, calls, and virtual “hugs” and “kisses” more than an ocean away.



1. Nadine Nelson - August 1, 2011

Thank you for the detailed report. As a retired faculty member of Norwegian descent and having been to Norway multiple times plus attended the Univ. of Oslo International Summere School to learn more about socialized medicine I am very grateful for this report. I also find it surreal to believe Norway is the site of a terrorist attack.

Elyse Leonard - August 2, 2011

Hi Prof. Nelson,

Though the Norwegian community at UM seems small, I’m glad my blog-post could reach you. I had the opportunity to attend one seminar at the Oslo Summer School and really enjoyed the learning environment. Possibly somewhere I’ll return to keep up my peace studies.

Ha det bra! 🙂

2. ralpha1 - August 2, 2011

Thanks for your post, Elyse.

3. Nora - August 5, 2011

Thank you for telling your story. I live in Oslo, and was there when it happened as well. I am starting at Michigan this fall and it is nice to know that someone else know something of Norway!

Tusen takk!

4. Elyse Leonard - September 1, 2011

Hei Nora! That’s so exciting that you’re starting at Michigan this fall. If you need any Ann Arbor tips, feel free to shoot me an email. Lykke til!

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