Monday, 16 April 2012

A surreal train journey

It was to become the strangest train journey of my life – well, so far, anyway.

On 22 July 2011, I was on my way from England to Arvika, my hometown in midwest Sweden. After the usual stop-over in Stockholm, at my best friend Lena's place, it was now time for the last leg of my journey. I boarded the train at Stockholm Central Station – only 3.5 hours now separated me from seeing my family and friends.

I found my seat, waved goodbye to Lena through the window, as the train started to move. Once my mobile office had been established (ie Macbook and iphone), I soon got on with some work.
And yes - Twitter on the side, as ever...
A certain tweet caught my eye. Someone (can't remember who now) had RT'ed a photo by a Norwegian man. It showed what appeared to be the aftermath of a bomb. Judging from the building on the photo, I realised that must have been some bomb...

I carried on working. But I kept getting more tweets about this bomb in my feed. More pictures, more witnesses tweeting, others RT-ing. As this train had Oslo as its final destination, the train was full of Norwegians, happily chatting away, talking about their experiences of Stockholm and comparing their shopping bargains. My thoughts: "I know something terrible has happened in your hometown. You don't know this yet. You're laughing. If you knew what I know, you wouldn't."

At first, I kept it to myself, but as I got more and more involved and realised the seriousness of what had just happened, I felt I had to share this. So I told people who were sitting around me. They were shocked when they heard which building it was and asked me to see the photos. The previous, chatty atmosphere suddenly changed. Worried fellow passengers started to call relatives and friends back in Oslo to make sure they were ok. I was busy reporting back to journalists in the UK, helping to translate tweets from Norwegian media, as they happened. In case you didn't know, the Swedish and Norwegian languages are fairly similar. Plus, if you have been brought up close to the border, as I have, you are practically 'half Norwegian'.

After a while, I started to notice other tweets. There seemed to have been some kind of shooting, on a Norwegian island. I remember thinking "What an awful day for my neighbouring country Norway. Two terrible deeds in the same day – such a strange coincidence." As we all know now, the Utøya shooting escalated and what initially looked like a one-off shooting became one of the worst atrocities in Norway. Maybe it was 'the social media person' in me, but as with the Oslo bombing, I felt this also had to be shared. Not least because I felt numbed by shock myself as I gradually realised what actually was happening and also the possible link to the Oslo bomb. I needed to talk to someone IRL, as it were. Who was behind this? Was it a lone madman or an organised terrorist group? If the latter – why then kill young people on an island? It didn't make sense to me. Well it still doesn't of course, although I can now see the 'logic' in Breivik's disturbed, sick thinking.

After having told my fellow passengers about Utøya, we all started to talk and try to make some sense of the events as they occurred. A little group had gathered around my Mac and I became some kind of news hub, providing information to people on board the train but also to media, back in the UK.
I had been planning to get some work done on this journey but that never happened. And it wasn't important anymore. I was typing and tweeting, translating and checking facts as best as I could.
Train staff walked past and I could inform them that the train station in Oslo had just been evacuated. They had not been informed about this and from now on, they stopped to check if I had any updates, every time they passed. It was all very surreal. My brother in Arvika called to ask where I was.
I honestly didn't have a clue. I was hardly aware of the fact I was on a train... It was all just too much to take in – like there was no place for anything else.

When the train finally rolled in on the familiar tracks of Arvika railway station, the afternoon had turned into evening. I had reached my destination and I was... home. Normally, this fills me with an incredible joy and excitement as I walk the short walk from the railway station to my brother's place. But this time, my legs felt wobbly, I felt totally exhausted and drained.

I have been meaning to write this blog post since that evening in July, last year. I have started many times, but ended up deleting it all. It just hasn't felt right. But last night, I watched the documentary on BBC2 about Breivik and – as many times before – heard the young people of Utøya giving their stories. This, together with today's trial brought it all up again. So, here you have it – my story.


  1. This was a very touching story and I am glad you shared it. In a way it reminded me of where I was when the 9/11 happened. I was working for Bell Canada in the Directory Assistance Department. All of the sudden we had an influx of calls from people asking for the number for the World Trade Centre. It wasn't until someone mentioned what had happened that we clued in. Certainly one of those situations where one feels exhausted and drained as you put it. Néstor.

  2. Well done for writing it. Touching, moving, and thought provoking

  3. Thank you for gathering your strength and writing your account.