I Played Dead at Utøya Island
by Jasti Victor
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“After the shooting, their was silence around,” whispered my grandfather, when I was ten years old and listened spellbound as he recounted his World war II stories, “Except for the sucking sound, as the enemy soldier’s shoes made as they gingerly stepped over the swamp, there was complete silence around. Boy, I lay still on my stomach, ‘Playing Dead,’ as it is called. So still was I that even when an insect crawled on my nose, I never even twitched. Scared stiff, I laid still, even though I knew that the soldiers have long back gone.”
I liked war stories; particularly the sound of the battle tanks, the sudden whoosh of the planes swooping down, the blast of the bombs on the plains, and all the sounds one associated with war. Having grown up with stories of war told and retold, by my grandfather, I was fascinated by that even though they are of vintage World War II.
“You laid still?”
“But gran’pa,” I pestered him, “how did you know when to get up?”
My grandfather laughed. “If you are roughly handled, your enemies are still around.”
Seeing my awestruck look, he continued, “The enemy makes sure you are dead. So what they do? They poke with their bayonets or kick with their boots. They have to make sure that you are dead, otherwise you will shoot them as soon as you see their back, don’t you?”
Seeing me nod, he said, “When help comes, it will be gentle. Gentle hands, soft words, feeling your pulse to see whether you are still alive or not? No poking around with bayonets or sticks, or kicking with boots or shouting loudly.”
July 23, 2011 dawned as I accompanied my friends to the tiny forested holiday island of Utøya that was hosting the camp for the youth wing of Norway's ruling Labour party. Lanky, tall for my age, I walked along with my friends, exchanging jokes, unaware that in a few hours, I may not see most of them alive.
The attack, which I came to know afterwards killed over ninety two, was so sudden that we were all taken by shock and surprise. First I thought the sudden burst of gun shots was a part of the camp agenda, but realized to my shock that they were real when people around me were falling.
I ran and as I ran I began to cry. I didn’t know for what? The tears began flooding my eyes and I couldn’t see where I was running and to my shock, I stumbled and fell headlong, with my head bent down over a small ditch. I tried getting up, then I realized that I was shot in the shoulder. Grimacing with pain, I was about to get up, when my grandfather’s “Play Dead” came to the fore
Looking around, I saw some abandoned clothes and tried pulling it towards me, when to my utter shock; one was a dead body. I lay on my stomach, with my face down, starring at a small ditch. I didn’t move, so still I lay; that I was afraid the killers (Only later I came to know that there was only one killer) would shoot at me on my back. Then it struck me that I should have asked what my grandfather did, when he lay still. Did he just closed his eyes tightly and acted “dead”? Or he prayed. Then it struck me that he prayed. Yes, he must have prayed. Grandfather’s prayers were pretty long. I remembered that I used to open my eyes and tug at my grandmother’s skirt, and make faces to show my annoyance, at his long winded prayers.
And I prayed. I prayed without making any movement, and without breathing hard. I was also scared of the still silence, because it was followed with a sudden burst of gun fire, and it sounded so very close.
I prayed. Prayed hard, thanking God for what all he did, right from my childhood days. I thanked the Good Lord for all His blessings. I prayed for my father and mother; my grandfather and grand mother; for my younger sister. I prayed for my uncles, aunts, cousins and other relatives, naming them one by one. After I completed my near and dear ones, I started praying for my friends, colleagues, naming some, whom I knew by name, otherwise describing some by their features.
I didn’t know for how long I stayed “dead” but when I heard footsteps coming towards me, I tensed and expected to hear a loud burst of gun shots. But the hand which turned me over was a gentle one. As I opened my eyes, I saw that I was surrounded by policemen.
I was given first aid and taken immediately to a hospital. Within a week I was at my grandfather’s farm. He listened quietly as I told him how I lay still, “Playing dead”. And when I came to the part where I told him that I spent the entire time praying, he asked me “What did you pray for?”
I answered, “I thanked Him for what all he did.”
“I did the same thing, when I “played dead.””
“But you never told me that you prayed?”
He smiled, “You were brought up in a family where prayer is practiced, and where prayer is on everyone’s lips. So no one had to tell you when to pray, because you will immediately know when to.”
Seeing me stare at the sky, he said, “Do you know that you prayed for over ninety minutes?”
I turned slowly and asked him, “But gran’pa, how did you know?”
“That’s the time it took the police to come to the island, after the killer started shooting.”
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