Monday, July 25, 2011

Picking up the pieces

Whether I wanted to or not, I had to move on with my life over the weekend. I had a scheduled excursion to Hallingdal, a town situated in valley at 1,000 meters above sea level. I was still quite shaken up about the experience on Friday, and I really didn't feel like traveling and having fun. Nevertheless, I showed up to the bus on Saturday morning with my broken heart in check.

Our trip took us to a wildlife park, which the owners call a sanctuary for both animals and people. Maybe they were right. There were hundreds of families with small children at this park. I expected that everyone would stay cooped up in their homes after such a tragedy, but I was wrong. As I watched small children interact with goats, elk, and reindeer, I marveled at how little tragedy affects them. Both animals and children are oblivious to the pain that the rest of the world feels. I was comforted to realize that this is not a burden that the innocent of society has to bear.

We stayed at a mountain lodge on Saturday night. On Sunday morning, we were supposed to go out for a hike, but I decided to stay at the lodge to avoid the rain. I spent some time in meditation and reflection in my free time. Between the time I spent alone and healing capabilities of the Norwegian wilderness, I got myself through the weekend without breaking down. The moment I returned to Oslo, however, all of the sadness and solemnity returned.

Friday, July 22, 2011

What happened in Oslo

As many of you already know, there has been a bombing in downtown Oslo. I happened to be near the incident, so I'll share what I experienced. I am still processing what happened.

A friend and I went downtown for a cup of coffee with the communications adviser for the Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights. He spent 10 years in the media in Oslo before he switched to a public relations role. I asked him many questions about the media here and what his role is like at the center.

In the midst of our conversation, we heard a loud bang. The windows next to our table shook as though they were about to shatter. My left ear, which was right next to the window, started to ring. We were uncertain about what caused the sound. At first we thought it might have been a demolition with explosives. People in the coffee shop stepped out into the street to see what was happening. They were speaking in hurried Norwegian, but I couldn't understand what they were saying.

Haavard, our host, checked his smartphone for more information. No one had posted anything, so we carried on with our conversation. Then I looked out the window and saw hundreds of people running. Many of them were on their cell phones. Others looked like they couldn't possibly run far enough away. One woman covered her face as though she was in shock. This was the point that we knew something bad had just happened.

We decided to end the formal discussion then and there. Curious media people as we were, we walked the 2 blocks to the site of the incident. There was shattered glass all over the sidewalks. Many of the stores were damaged.

We walked up to the police line. A haze of smoke filled the air. I can't imagine what kind of carcinogens I breathed in. Just as we were taking in all the wreckage left over from the explosions, a police officer moved the police line another 50 meters away from the scene. He seemed to be in quite a hurry.

Thato and I bid farewell to Haavard and made our way back to the subway station. Along the way, we started to unravel what just happened. If we had been at a cafe just down the street, we could have had glass shards in our skin. I am so glad we tried to stay relatively close to the national theater station.

A Norwegian man stopped us on our way back. He asked if we were tourists, and I told him we were. He was concerned that we hadn't heard about what happened, so he told us that there was an explosion and that they didn't know what caused it. Even though we already knew what happened, I felt a little bit of comfort through his concern.

When I got back to campus, most people had heard what happened. To many of the students here, bombings are a normal occurrence. They were not that concerned about it because the didn't know anyone who was hurt or killed, and they personally felt safe. Others were glued to their computers.

My Balkans friends tried to tell me to calm down and relax since I am safe now, but it has not been so easy to just let it go. This is the first bombing I've ever experienced. I've been to places where one could expect a bombing. Kosovo is still considered a conflict zone, and South Africa has had some riots and and crime in the last few years. Here, in the "peace nation," I let my guard down. Things are going to change for Norway. We can be certain about that.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Project Update

The clock is ticking until the deadline for my presentation in our peace seminar. I have just a week and a half left. The research process is slow going. Apparently peace journalism is a pretty narrow field for research. There are many papers written by European institutions about peace journalism and its benefits, but it is difficult to find research that has investigated its impact on news audiences and conflict at large. I am finding that I may have to do some empirical research over the course of the next year if I plan to use this topic at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum. Plus, my personal curiosity demands that I look further into this.

I have found some pretty interesting data from the Pew Research Center. I did some research on American opinions about the conflict in Israel and the occupied territories. According to a poll in May, 48 percent of Americans sympathize with the Israelis over the Palestinians. Just 11 percent support the Palestinians more, and only four percent support both equally. If you are wondering why Americans support Israel so much, here is another gem. Seventy percent of evangelical Christians support Israel over Palestine. We're not dealing with the media alone, folks.

Another question gauged Americans' interest in the conflict in Israel. Only 24 percent said they were not interested at all, while 37 percent were somewhat interested and 22 percent were very interested. This leads me to a conclusion that there is space for influencing public opinion through a different form of reporting. Hard news sells. I don't deny that the inverted pyramid is the most fundamental, successful form of print journalism, but I wonder if covering the basics of a conflict in an "objective" manner really does the conflict or the reader justice. Maybe reporters just need to accept that they play a role as gatekeeper, and the information and the angle of every story is subjective in some way.

Herein lies the paradox: News consumers claim they want to know what is happening in places such as Israel, but this is not the news they actually pay attention to. Would peace journalism fulfill their demands for more news about the conflict, or would it just slip behind the blow-by-blow reporting that already grabs their attention? As you can probably see, there are many things to work through.

Just a side note: I have only four followers on my blog, but I am sure there are other people who are reading this. I am trying to cater to my audience as well as write for myself, but it is difficult to do that without knowing who is reading. Could you please officially follow my blog or send me a message on Facebook to let me know? Thanks!

The photos above come from a piece of artwork outside of the Holocaust Center in Oslo. The artwork is meant to mimic a registration card similar to those used by regimes that discriminate against minorities, such as the Nazi regime against the Jews and Gypsies. The categories such as ethnicity, gender, and nationality change every so often. I thought the photos would be appropriate considering the number of Palestinian refugees who have been displaced as a result of this conflict.

Monday, July 18, 2011


We finally reached the midpoint of our summer school last Wednesday. In the interest of allowing students to travel and take a break from their studies, classes were not scheduled on Thursday and Friday. I had the pleasure to travel to another town in Norway with a friend from the summer school. Lauren is one of the peace scholars from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. She studied in Norway for a semester, so she knew some people who live here. One of her friends, Marianne, had invited her to stay in Røros with her family for the weekend. I didn't have any plans yet, so she invited me to tag along.

I took my first long-distance train ride on the way to the town. I wish the U.S. had a more extensive passenger railway service because it seems to work pretty well in Europe. The only complaint I have about the journey was that I made the mistake of sitting near the front of the train, and the conductor kept blowing the horn to get animals off the tracks. It wasn't exactly a quiet ride, but it was comfortable.

I was a little nervous to spend the entire weekend with a new friend, in the home of a complete stranger. I had heard that Norwegians tend to be rather private people, and it is uncommon to do this sort of thing. I also felt uncomfortable with my lack of knowledge of the Norwegian language. In large cities, it isn't difficult to find English speakers, but in a small town, you just never know. I was pleasantly surprised by how successful the trip actually became.

Røros is a former copper mining town established by the Danish government in the 17th century. To an outsider, it seems like the town is in the middle of nowhere. Its 5,000 inhabitants live a clearly isolated life, far from the crime and the hustle and bustle of Oslo. Everybody knows everybody, except for the tourists of course. Lauren and I were two of the few foreign tourists in the town. The place was packed with Norwegian and other Scandinavian tourists who were on their three-week holiday. In fact, there were only three people on our English walking tour of the town. Over a dozen went on the Norwegian tour.

As you can see from the photos, Røros still looks like it did centuries ago. The old buildings in the center of town are protected as a UNESCO world heritage site. Many of the old buildings have been turned into stores on the first floor and residences on the second. Some buildings are so small that they have been turned into museum sites. Like many small towns in North Dakota, Røros is not a place where one could get lost. There are just a couple of main streets, and it takes between five and ten minutes to walk from one side to the other. No one looks their door, and some shops don't bring their merchandise in for the night. I felt so comfortable and so distant from the stress that I left in Oslo and, more importantly, in the U.S.

One of the best moments I had while I was in Røros was when I got to sit down and talk to Marianne and her friends. In in the month that I've been in Norway, I had yet to truly have a conversation with a Norwegian. Sure, I've been living here, but I live on a campus with people from 94 other countries. The Norwegians live at home, and I don't talk to them in class. Many of the Marianne's friends were afraid to speak to us because they weren't confident in their ability to speak in English, but they opened up after a couple of drinks. I enjoyed hearing about their lives and their experiences in the United States and other countries. I felt like they treated me like a friend even though we had just met.

Lauren and I did typical tourist activities as well some things the locals do. We did a walking tour of the city as well as a tour of two of the copper mines. Oddly enough, we had the same tour guide for both tours. We also visited the massive sandy area that is left over from the Ice Age. Apparently it is the only "desert" in Northern Europe.

The locals have their own customs. One of them is to travel one hour into Sweden to buy groceries and other necessities (ie. alcohol) because they are much cheaper in Sweden than in Norway. Now, technically I crossed the border without the proper paperwork. I didn't bring my passport because I didn't plan on leaving the country. I fortunately did not have to show my passport on either side of the border. The border between Norway and Sweden is not controlled except for random inspections on the Norwegian side to make sure that people aren't bringing too much alcohol across. I don't know how I would have talked my way out of trouble if I had been checked. Did that make me an illegal immigrant? Oh well. I guess you have to live on the wild side every once in awhile. At the grocery store, Marianne ran into a bunch of people from her town. That store might as well have been the official store for residents of Røros because they made up a large portion of the customer base.

The journey back to Oslo was not as successful as I had hoped. We misread our train tickets and arrived at the train station just as our train took off. Our tickets were non-refundable, and there was not another train until the morning. I needed to make it to my 8 a.m. class since I missed too many days while I was sick. If we boarded the first train, I wouldn't make it to class. So, we had to buy plane tickets for the 6:40 a.m. flight to Oslo. Luckily for me, I got to the second half of class after an hour-long flight and a 40 minute bus ride into the city. My cup of coffee on the flight got me through my morning class, but I crashed afterward. There's nothing like scrambling to get back to campus by any possible method while trying to get that last bit of homework done before class. Before this transportation mishap, my little vacation within a vacation was rather cheap. Now I clearly see the disparity between the cost of the next year at Concordia and my dwindling funds in my bank account.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Doing some research while under the weather

So you might be wondering why it has been a week since my last blog post. Well, it seems Norway has some ambition to punish me. I have been ill for the last week, and there isn't quite an end in sight. I've spent the last few days isolated in my room while the rest of Norway enjoys the beautiful summer weather. I was not unproductive, however. Since I didn't make it out to sight see, I worked on my research project instead. Here's what I'm looking at.

I am looking into the concept of peace journalism, the brain child of Johan Galtung, a famous Norwegian peace researcher. In its simplest sense, peace journalism works as an ethical framework to deal with reporting in conflict zones in a way that not only presents the facts but seeks to be a positive force to end the conflict. There is obviously some criticism of this method. Opponents to peace journalism say that media organizations are stepping out of their bounds by trying to be peacebuilders. The analysis and advocacy required of peace journalists should be done by politicians and other stakeholders. Nevertheless, I am giving this method a chance.

In the interest of making this project more than a theoretical presentation, I am going to focus on a particular conflict and the major news organizations that have covered the conflict as of late. I chose the Arab-Israeli conflict because it is a well-established conflict with plenty of media attention in times of direct action. It is also a place where media has often failed to accurately depict the conflict for a global audience.

Hopefully something good will come out of the time spent on this project. I would like to help my audience, whoever that might be, to put more faith in journalism as a legitimate means to acquire accurate information that can help them in their daily lives. Too many times, I've had to endure conversations about the ills of the media. How the media is obsessed with celebrities. That the media is all about sensationalism. They tell me the media blatantly lies, or that it has its own agenda. Maybe a quick introduction to an ethical form of journalism would change their minds. I plan to look at how organizations like Al Jazeera English have done an excellent job with conflicts in the Middle East, and how their work has actually influenced public opinion for the better. That's quite a tall order for a 10 minute presentation, but I'll give it a shot.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Celebrating the 4th of July like an ex-pat

Independence Day has a different meaning for me than most people. I have spent three out of the last four years in uniform on that particular day rather than with my family. Time spent away over a holiday forces me into a period of introspection and reflection on what the it means to me considering where I am and what I am doing. This celebration is no different in that respect, but it's the first time I've been around civilian Americans in a foreign country in this context. This group of people is particularly liberal and not very patriotic. There are some exceptions like my friend from Georgia (the state, not the country) who has a whole wardrobe dedicated to the red, white, and blue. But as a whole, peace scholars are the most critical of their government and most uncomfortable with patriotism around foreigners.

I have spent enough time away from the U.S. to appreciate our culture and traditions without feeling especially guilty about our government's actions. On the 3rd, I enjoyed just spending time among Americans and friends of Americans as we all enjoyed typical American things. I had a real cheeseburger and potato salad. I listened to a cover band that sang some of my favorite Journey songs, among others. And finally, I learned a new line dance.

At first I felt a little guilty participating in American activities in a foreign country, but then I realized that I was surrounded by thousands of other people in the park who were doing the same thing. In fact, I think it's a sign of progress as a traveler to find a way to incorporate your own traditions in a foreign context. Either extreme - abandonment of tradition or failure to try new things - seems empty to me.

On the actual 4th of July, I went to class as usual. In the evening, I joined a group of students at the gym nearby to learn Norwegian folk dances. I came back to my room, and my German roommate, Eva, gave me a beer. I sat out on the steps and enjoyed my beer in a coffee cup while chatting with friends from all over the world. It was truly a multicultural holiday, and probably the most unorthodox celebration I've ever had.

*In the photo, children up to the age of 7 were about to start a watermelon eating contest. We tried to get some for ourselves, but apparently we are too old. Fresh fruit is difficult to come across. Especially free fruit.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Gronland: Redefining what it means to Norwegian

On Thursday, we toured a neighborhood in Oslo known as Gronland. It was an exercise to help us understand the multicultural makeup of Oslo and, consequently, Norway. As you might have gathered from my previous post, nationalism has been the subject of discussion this week, both explicitly and implicitly. We are studying how nations are created and what their purpose is in the political sphere. Gronland challenges the concept that Norwegian nationality is synonymous with blond hair, blue eyes and a folk history to boot.

I expected Gronland to be more like the ethnic neighborhoods in U.S. cities. In other words, I expected something similar to Chinatown in NYC. This neighborhood is nothing like that. There were as many people who appeared to be of Western European descent as there were people who didn't fit the norm of the rest of Norway. Much of the neighborhood is predominantly residential, and there are small businesses scattered throughout. As far as I could tell, Norwegian was still the most widely used language, and Arabic came in as a close second.

It was difficult for me to compare the environment in Gronland with the other neighborhoods in Oslo because I have only been here for a week, but my general assumption about the place is that it is distinctly diverse but generally Norwegian. Like many other places in Oslo, the sidewalks and streets were used by as many people on bicycles and scooters as people in cars. The neighborhood was not as nice as central Oslo, but it also did not have many tourist attractions. This is a place where people live and work. It's not a huge shopping district, nor is it a national centerpiece. Many people in my class were distracted by the graffiti and the seemingly run-down apartment complexes. What they failed to notice was the mix of modernity and tradition within the neighborhood.

I hope you enjoy some of the photos I took while I was in Gronland. Even without a solid description of each photo, I'm sure you can get the gist of what I'm trying to convey. The man I am standing with in the first picture is a Jehovah's Witness who happened to be in the neighborhood.