‘A Far-Right Terrorist Shot Me Four Times, But I Felt No Hate When I Testified Against Him’

Ylva Schwenke was 14 when she survived the deadliest attack in Norway since WWII.
October 15, 2021, 11:14am
‘I Survived Europe’s Deadliest Far-Right Terror Attack’
Ylva Schwenke pictured last year and recovering from her wounds in hospital. Photo: Henriette Frøysland Thorkildsen 

It’s been ten years since Ylva Schwenke was shot four times by a far-right terrorist. Aged 14, she was one of hundreds of young people attending a summer camp organised by the Labour Party-affiliated Workers’ Youth League (AUF) when it was attacked by Anders Behring Breivik.

Breivik murdered 69 people, mostly teenagers, on the small island of Utøya where the summer camp was based, having already killed eight people in a bomb attack outside the Prime Minister’s office in Oslo.

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Two days after the attack, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg quoted a member of the AUF who was at Utøya in a televised speech, saying: “If one man can create that much hate, you can only imagine how much love we as a togetherness can create.”

As Norway mourns the five victims of a mass killing attack in the south of the country, VICE World News spoke to Schwenke in her first major English language interview about what happened that day, what it meant to survive Utøya, and how Norway responded in the decade since.

VICE World News: Can you take me back to the morning of the 22nd of July, 2011?

Ylva Schwenke: It was a rainy Friday and the second day of the camp. We had a big football tournament that morning, and everyone was super happy because Gro Harlem Brundtland, Norway's first female prime minister, came to visit that day. We all looked up to her, she was a strong female leader. Everyone was also excited about the upcoming disco that evening.

I remember eating a meal when we were told to gather inside the main building because something important had happened.  

What was the important announcement? 

As 500 of us gathered inside the main hall, I remember being crammed against a wall in a big crowd when the camp leaders told us that there had been an explosion in Oslo. We didn't have any closer information at that time, but everyone had to call home to tell our parents that we were safe. I thought this was silly because, obviously, we were safe. We were on an island.

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So, I called my mum to tell her I was safe. She said, "Of course you are safe. You are in the safest place in the world.’

Were you concerned about the explosion at all?

After the announcement, a bunch of us stood outside the main building, and someone suggested it could have been a bomb, but no one really believed it. After all, we were in Norway, where nothing scary had ever happened. But then, we heard a sudden bang from the docks. We couldn't see anything, but the sound was so loud we could hear it travel all across the island. Then it happened again, and again. I never heard anything like it. Fireworks are the closest comparison, but it was much more intense than that. 

Did you start running?

We all just stood there. I was super confused; it hadn't crossed my mind that someone could be shooting at us. Then, I saw some kids running towards us screaming that someone is shooting at them. They were shouting at us, "run, run". 

We just stood there, thinking it was a prank. But then, one of the kids in our group saw someone get shot. When the first person started running, the rest of us did too. It was incredibly muddy, and I had welly boots up to my knees so I couldn't run much but my legs kept moving somehow. I remember thinking, "this only happens in movies.”

Then I slipped, and as I was lying on the ground, a bullet flew right past my head and landed about 2m ahead of me. That is when I realised that someone was trying to kill us.

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We all ran towards a path, "the love path" that circled the island. There were rocks connecting the path and the sea. About 30 of us tried cramming under one of the rocks to hide, but there was only space for about five. 

I remember lying on some boy's body. I asked him what was happening, and he said he didn't know, but everything was going to be fine. When I spoke to him later, he told me he had no memory of having that conversation. 

People march in Oslo in solidarity with the victims in the days after the attacks. Photo: JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images

People march in Oslo in solidarity with the victims in the days after the attacks. Photo: JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images

Did you believe him that things were going to be OK? 

Absolutely not. 

What happened then?

There was no space for all of us, so some of us, including me, had to climb down to the water. It could have been a 10m descent. It was incredibly slippery; we were holding on to rocks and bushes, getting scratched all over our bodies.

Several kids stood by the water, completely frozen, hoping they wouldn't be seen. 

Seconds after I got down, I realised that Breivik was standing on top of the cliff above. He was shooting right at us. I remember feeling enormous pressure as one of the bullets hit my shoulder. I saw white and heard a ringing sound in my ears. I touched my shoulder and realised my hand was full of blood. 

I had to lie down. This is when I got shot for the second time, right in the stomach. I don't remember it. I think it must have hurt a lot. 

Then, I managed to roll over to some rocks. I was lying on my back with my legs raised while Breivik was still standing on the cliff right above me. Then I got shot in both of my thighs, which hurt like hell. 

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What was going on through your head?

Nothing ground-breaking. I was 14 at that time and a huge Harry Potter fan. I thought that if I die, I won't get to see the last movie. I also remember thinking about a guy in my class who was super annoying and that if I die, he will live his whole life not knowing how annoying he was. For a moment, I also wondered if I should pray.

Did you think you were going to die?

I thought I was going to die for a moment. I closed my eyes and waited for the darkness, but then I realised I didn't want to and that I still had energy. I tried to stop the bleeding from my shoulder because that was the only place I could reach. I remembered some breathing exercises from my theatre class to keep myself calm. 

How long were you there for before you got help?

I was shot quite early on, so maybe around 50 minutes or so. I spoke to a girl who was lying beside me, and tried to keep each other awake. Our conversation went like, "Hi, I am Ylva, I am 14 years old, and I was shot four times. What about you?"

Then we saw a boat circling the island and police officers shouting whether anyone was alive. I raised my hand, and the girl beside me told the police that they should take me first because I was badly hurt. 

Two police officers carried me onto the boat. I remember lying in some boy's lap, and he was instructed to keep track of my breathing. Every time the waves bashed into the boat, my wounds would open, and it hurt like hell. 

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I was put in an ambulance once we arrived onshore. The last thing I remember was the medics cutting up my favourite bra. After that, I blacked out. I think my body surrendered thinking it's somebody else's problem. 

Do you remember anything from the ambulance?

No, but I was told they had to stop the ambulance and airlift me to the hospital because I wouldn't have survived the trip. I found out from one of the nurses that I was awake when they brought me in. Apparently, I asked whether I would live, be able to have kids and asked about all the others. I don't remember any of it. 

Where were your parents that day?

The parents of all the children from Utøya came to Oslo from all corners of Norway that day. Most of them stayed in one hotel in Oslo. My family went through hell, as they waited 18 hours in anticipation, waiting to hear if I was alive. The police would come and read out lists of newly identified survivors. 

On Saturday, the police came to the hotel announcing they had the final list of survivors. Essentially, it was a death announcement for parents of those whose name wasn't on it. He didn't read out my name. Shortly after, another policeman came into the room with a posted note saying there is another girl in the hospital. "Blue eyes, brown hair, 168cm tall with a scar on her neck. She is between 14-20 years old." That is when my mum realised I was alive. 

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My parents came to see me that same day. 

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Ylva being treated in hospital. Photo: Supplied

How was it to see them?

I don't remember it. I was in an artificial coma for a few hours. I was also fed a lot of morphine. Everything was a blur. I was in and out of surgery a lot as my stomach had been ripped apart. I remember being incredibly thirsty when I woke up for the first time. I had tubes in my nose and mouth. 

My family would be with me every day. Everyone came to visit, my grandparents, step-siblings, friends, everyone was there. There was always a 50 percent chance that I would be high on morphine and speak complete gibberish, but that was all part of the recovery.

Gradually I got better. Apparently, 14-year-old bodies have the ability to recover from almost anything. I lost 11kg during those three weeks. It took three weeks and four days before I was allowed to fly home to Tromsø. 

How was it to go back to real life after that summer?

It was the start of a school year, but I was homeschooled until Christmas because my body was still broken. I got a lot of help from the community and the state, maybe even more than I needed. I made it clear to my friends that I wanted to talk about everything that happened, I didn't want to make it taboo. It was a big part of both my life and of Norwegian society. In retrospect, talking about what happened from day one helped me deal. I never suffered any PTSD symptoms like many others. Sure, I am a bit jumpy when I hear loud noises, but it would be strange if I wasn't. 

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You were the youngest to testify against Breivik in court one year after the attack. What made you decide to testify?

I testified in the spring of 2012. They asked me because I was amongst those who were hurt the most. I thought about it for half a day before saying yes. My mum told me that I can ask for Breivik to leave the room when I testified, but I remember thinking, "what's the point if he goes out." I wanted to stare at him and tell him, "you shot me four times you mother fucker.” He was a coward who came to an island to shoot unarmed kids, I wanted to see him go to jail. 

You were in the same room as he was. How did that feel?

He just sat there, I stared him in the eye throughout my entire testimony, but he didn't look at me once. I felt no emotion from his end. 

I think it was healthy for me to see him. I didn't feel any hate or anger. I was there to tell my story and tell that he had done something horrible. 

It felt good to tell my story to the court, to him and to the whole of Norway. I think it helped me put all the puzzle pieces together. I always wanted to know as much as I could about what happened and why he did it. 

After all, he is just a little man. I don't like when people call him a monster because people aren't monsters. If we reduce him to once, we won't be able to do anything about right-wing extremism. 

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I later learned that Utøya was just one of his options for the attack. He decided to go there because the ex-PM visited that day. His plan was to cut her head off, but he got stuck in traffic because of the bomb he previously detonated in Oslo. If he had made it before, he would have found Brundtland and 500 children crammed in a room with one exit. 

He got a sentence of 21 years, the maximum you can get in Norway. Did you expect that to happen? 

Yes, fully. His case will be reviewed every five years after 21 years in prison, but I doubt he will ever get out. I don't think anyone in their right mind would allow that. He got Norway convicted in a human rights trial in 2016, claiming the food was not good enough and that he didn't get the PlayStation he wanted. He has no concept of what he did and what he deserves. In addition to that, I think his life would be in danger if he ever got out. 

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Ylva continuing her recovery after the attacks. Photo: Supplied

How do you feel about the state response? Jens Stoltenberg, Norway's Prime Minister at the time, said "Our response is more democracy, more openness, and more humanity….we will answer hatred with love." Did Norway stick to its promise?

Norwegians came together, and there was a lot of love and togetherness. However, I think it would have been an entirely different story if the attacker had been a foreigner. 

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In response to the attacks, the Norwegian state established a Centre for Research and Extremism as well as an Action Plan to Combat Radicalisation and Extremism. Do you feel as though the state had done enough to counter right-wing extremism?

No, I don't think so. I don't see lots of youth initiatives. I think there should be more money going into young people and youth radicalisation. It is also super important to teach kids how to navigate online spaces and how to recognise fake news. Both Breivik and [Philip] Manshaus [who planned a mosque massacre in 2019] got radicalised online. 

How do you feel about the popularity of the Progress Party (FRP, that Breivik was a member of) being the fourth most popular party?

There has been a lot of debate on whether Norway managed to take out the far-right, and we obviously haven't. I think it's important to have right-wing parties because they provoke us on the left to have important conversations.

Having said that, it's also scary to watch right-wing ideologies rise across Europe knowing that values like women's rights and LGBTQ rights are not progressing as fast as they could. 

Were you ever scared that something like this might happen again?

I was a bit scared this summer because it was the 10-year anniversary, and I worked in one of Oslo's main newspapers. I was worried that we may have been a target, other than that, I always felt safe. 

Flowers left in the days after the attack, with Utøya in the background. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Flowers left in the days after the attack, with Utøya in the background. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images