'Norwegian response gives me hope that this will make us stronger'

Thu, Jul 28, 2011, 01:00

INTERVIEW:A SURVIVOR of the rampage at a youth camp on Utoeya island in Norway last Friday has recounted in dramatic detail how he “swam for his life” in a desperate bid to escape as gunfire rang around him.

Erik L’Estrange (20), whose father Ivan moved to Norway from Sutton, Dublin, almost three decades ago, lost several friends after Anders Behring Breivik went on a shooting spree on the tiny island where the country’s Labour Youth Movement (AUF) was holding its annual summer camp.

Erik was sitting with his sister, Elin, the board leader of AUF in the municipality of Akershus, and a friend in an office on the island when they first heard shots. “At first we thought it was someone using firecrackers or hammering, we thought it was someone playing a bad joke,” he said by phone yesterday. “It was too unreal.”

When they realised that it was gunfire, they locked the doors of the office and crouched so they could not be seen from the windows. “We realised then that he was actually coming into the building and we knew if we stayed there, he would get us eventually, so we decided to make a run for it.”

The trio ran through an open area used for gatherings. “We saw there were bodies on the ground but we were so focused on escaping, we kept running.” They ran down a hill and hid in some bushes, where Elin called the police. “It was starting to sink in that this was not a bad joke. There was really someone on the island shooting people. We could hear screaming. People were running in all directions.”

By now, Erik and his sister had joined others who were fleeing the scene. They ran to a sheltered area of the waterfront. “We first thought we would swim to get help but after swimming for 100m, we figured the water was too cold and we might pass out so we swam back to the island.” More people had gathered at the waterfront at that stage.

“We were looking out for him, to see where he might be coming from . . . We figured he was moving back in our direction because we could see people waving frantically at us from the hills warning us he was coming our way.”

Elin decided to swim to the mainland. “I wanted to yell at her but couldn’t because I didn’t want to draw attention to where we were.” Soon after, Erik and some others decided they had no other choice but to brave the cold waters. “After swimming less than 100m, I looked around and I could see him standing there facing towards the sea. He was shooting out at us, at the people in the water. “Nearby, I saw the people I had just been with on the shore, the people who didn’t leave. They were lying on the rocks and there was blood on the rocks. I had managed to remain calm up to then but at that point I lost my cool, it was too much. I knew then I was swimming for my life.

“I just swam and swam without looking around me. When I was close to the other side, I could still hear him shooting.”

A young woman swimming ahead of Erik was struggling in the water as her baggy clothes began to weigh her down. “She was panicking and beginning to sink. As I was helping her, we heard boat engines approach. The people on the boat gave us life vests so we were able to stay afloat until we were rescued.”

Erik says his most vivid memory is seeing Breivik going around examining the people lying on the ground. “He was looking closely at them, as if he was checking to see if they were still alive . . . I couldn’t see his face from the water because where he was standing, he appeared in silhouette. For that I am glad.” He was reunited with his sister on the mainland. “It was so good to see her and know that she was alive. I felt calm again.” He estimates only 45 minutes elapsed between when they first heard the shooting and their escape to the other side.

Erik says he feels little towards Breivik. “What he has done, who he was, what he looks like, doesn’t matter to me. I don’t want to spend my time hating someone who will be brought to justice anyway.” Erik explains that he and his family have drawn solace from the way Norwegians have responded to the tragedy.

“The way Norwegian society has come together, the way everyone has offered support, gives me hope that this is something that will make us stronger. Things are starting to look a little brighter.

“I believe my friends died doing what they believed in, and I think in the long term this can change Norway in a very good way.”