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Bjørnsonfestivalen: "Norway at war"

My home town, Molde, is currently in the middle of an annual celebration of literature (which follows a few weeks after an annual celebration of jazz -- once we get to setting up an annual celebration of chocolate all will be perfect, and the ugly post-war architecture will be forgotten). The name of the event is Bjørnsonfestivalen, and as a literary festival it includes segments on the failure of the justice system, the political situation in Burma, Turkey and Ukraine, and a panel on Norway at war in Afghanistan, alongside a discussion of literature and the environment, interviews with authors, readings of poetry and discussions of books. This festival is not one that believes in art for art's sake alone, nor the separation of art and politics. Quite naturally, I'd say, since the eponymous author, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (one of the four1 greats of Norwegian literature and a Nobel Prize winner in literature, who went to school here), was for much of his life a strong, radical political voice in both Norwegian and the wider European society.

After a lovely breakfast lecture about the importance of Gabriel García Márquez to the author Pedro Carmona-Alvarez, who came to Norway from Chile as a young boy, I therefore went directly to a panel called "Norway at War", which opened with a clip of wonderfully frank documentary footage created by young Afghani women, trying to show the real Afghanistan. Unfortunately it was cut short, and I never found out what the documentary was called.

The panel lasted two and a half hours, and was divided into segments, controlled and directed by Vidar Kvalshaug. First, the Norwegian politicians Kjell Magne Bondevik and Bård Vegard Solhjell; then, the head of the Norwegian veterans' organisation, Thor Lystøen; he was followed by Kristin Solberg, a journalist who lived in Kabul between 2011 and 2013; and finally a look at the human cost of war, in Aurora Skare Haavaag and Guri Skare, the daughter and sister of a Norwegian soldier who lost her life in Afghanistan, and Solhjell, who lost his cousin.

The occasion of the panel was the withdrawal of (the majority of) the Norwegian armed forces from Afghanistan, which is scheduled to happen this year.

The Politicians
For those unfamiliar with Norwegian politics, Kjell Magne Bondevik is a right-wing politician from the Christian Democratic2 Party, who was Prime Minister when Norway entered Afghanistan; Bård Vegard Solhjell is a left-wing politician who has been the parliamentary leader of the Socialist Left Party3 and served as a minister in two different governemnts.

Neither man identified as a pacifist (Bondevik made the interesting claim that it would be impossible for a pacifist to be prime minister, which I think could make for a lengthy discussion), but it was interesting to see where they drew the line at Norwegian military involvement. It should be noted that Norway's military identifies as a defence force ("Forsvaret"), and the question of when and how it can function outside the nation's borders therefore becomes potentially tricky. Both Bondevik and Solhjell considered Iraq beyond the pale, but they disagreed about Afghanistan.

Bondevik's apparent criteria for "just war" (which he talked about with the full weight of his theological studies) are that we must have been attacked, that one of our NATO allies must have been attacked, or that the international community in the shape of the UN must have decided to go to war. I cannot help but be sceptical, seeing no criteria on whether attacks on our allies could be justified (as I recall, most definitions of just war speaks of resistance to oppression), nor criteria considering whether war is the appropriate solution to the problem(s) at hand. I suppose he does deserve some credit for facing down Bush (again drawing on their Christian cofraternity, which is of course the root of good sense) on the Iraq matter. Let's move on (I can feel myself growing sarcastic, and it is so bad for one's digestion).

Solhjell (who, unsurprisingly, is much closer to my own position) argued that while it is a good start to have a UN mandate, it is by no means enough. He argued that Afghanistan (which is about the size of Western Europe) is not a place where you can enter and simply remove a threat like Al Qaida, nor a place (considering the history of the region) where a Western force will be seen as anything but hostile (calling up memories of colonialism and the Soviet invasion).

Both men agreed that the West should have added resources for democratic development and welfare at a much earlier stage, and Bondevik admitted that one should have entered into talks with the Taliban at a much earlier stage. Solhjell pointed out that the world has used ten times as many resources (read: dollars) on the war in Afghanistan as it has used trying to lay the ground for peace and development in the country. Which, when you think about it, is profoundly disturbing, but explains a lot. Clearly the people in charge have a problem with identifying the correct end of the stick. He also said, and can we please keep this in mind when talking about Gaza, that
You are allowed to talk to people even when you do not agree with them.
There was a also some discussion on the topic of where and when we should intervene. Norway has increased its participation in international operations over the last few decades, but according to Solhjell (unless I misheard, and I sincerely hope so), 98% of those operations have been NATO, rather than UN led.

The Veteran
Thor Lysenstøen, who is the general secretary of The Norwegian Veterans Association for International Operations talked about the effect of international operations on Norwegian soldiers. The veterans in question range from 22-yearolds to World War Two veterans.

Lysenstøen's last deployment was in the Balkan conflict, and he talked about his pride in having helped save the lives 2,500 people from the carnage that killed 100,000 others. He also talked about the psychological cost of war to soldiers, providing graphic examples of situations that had stuck with him, as well as his continued hesitance when stepping on a lawn (because of landmines). PTSD, like other psychological problems, is harder to quantify than deaths and physical damage: He claimed that it takes on average 14,5 years before any sort of quantifications can be legitimately attempted, but it is estimated that 5% struggle with it and around 200 Norwegian veterans have committed suicide since 1978.

1978, of course, is the year of the Norwegian entry into Libanon with the UN, and Lysenstøen also talked about how utterly unprepared the Norwegian soldiers were. Not only where they sent out almost directly after arriving at the base, after only very basic training, they were also expecting to keep the peace, rather than be in the middle of a war. There is a definite distinction there, which Lystøen emphasised. He said that among the 100 peace-keeping operations that Norway has been a part of, only two (Cyprus and Egypt) could legitimately be called that, or seen as successful attempts to keep the peace. The rest were wars.

The Journalist
Kristin Solberg did not embed herself with the troops; she lived in Kabul for two years. As she put it, Western media has a tendency to focus on the shooter; she wanted to see where the bullet landed and the people it affected. As she put it, nobody has counted the number of civilians killed, neither in Afghanistan nor in Iraq, though it runs to the hundreds of thousands; how many do we know the names of? Whose stories do we get? These are people whose homes are destroyed, whose livelihoods are ruined, people who cannot predict their lives and plan ahead, and they are people who have not chosen to be a part of this war.

She talked about how Kabul is a dangerous city, and that from 2011 to 2013 (when she lived there) it got progressively less safe, though it was not clear whether it got less safe for her as a Westerner, as a woman or as a human being. She did, however, talk about the problem of being a journalist in Afghanistan both as a human (finding a flat that was not near a potential target) and as a woman (the Burqa as a tool, and the access to women's spaces).

Her first room in Kabul was referred to as "the death room" by the other journalists she lived with because its outer wall faced a control post; if the control post were bombed, her wall would collapse on top of her. And when travelling, she would travel with two cars, so that if one broke down in a dangerous part of town, she would be able to get out quickly. She also discussed the usefulness of an armed guard, pointing out that if you are trying to find out what the potential shootees really mean, it is not helpful to have a potential shooter standing by your side.

While unaffiliated with the army, as a Western woman she was still often seen as part of an occupying force. The burqa was therefore a useful tool. She described it as an odious (and unhealthy) garment, which made it hard to breathe (through the nylon), impossible to see properly (making everything blue, unclear and giving you tunnel vision), and made you dizzy in the heat, but which could be wonderfully useful in that it turned her from observed into an invisible observer, and gained her access to areas that would otherwise have been closed to her. This included the Afghan countryside in Taliban controlled areas, where she entered women's communities and women's schools and talked to the women who have been doubly unreachable to embedded male journalists.

War and conflict involves serious violations of women's rights. Quite apart from the fact that war increases the general level of violence in a society, including violence in domstic situations. In particular, she talked about a group of girls who were studying to become midwives. Their schooling had been cut short in one way or another, and she took the opportunity to point out that all the schools in the world make no difference if the cost of attending is forbidding (not in terms of school money, but in paying for uniforms, books &c) or if the road that takes you to school is unsafe. 50% of girls in Afghanistan are still not in school, and only 4% make it to higher education.

One of the girls who wanted to become a midwife had a brother who was kidnapped by the Taliban. He was told that he would be let go if he took his sister out of school. He did, but after seeing how much it affected her, he negotiated with them and reached an agreement where he would pay them a year's salary in exchange for his sister's continued education. She was returned to the school, and her brother was promptly kidnapped and tortured by the Americans under suspicion of contributing to the Taliban.

Solberg also talked about the result of the current Western withdrawal from Afghanistan. Because proper social structures have not been set up, she imagined a dim future. As the media withdraw with the soldiers, and the money disappear little by little, the country is also left with a staggering unemployment: When a large American base is dismantled, 30,000 Afghans who work there will lose their jobs (and thereby 30,000 families left without providers), and when no alternative employment is set up in their place... As one of my history professors said: it is not the middle class that goes radical.

The Bereaved
The final segment of the panel highlighted the experience of those left behind when Norwegian soldiers die. The participants in the first half were the daughter and the sister of Siri Skare, the first female aviator in the Norwegian armed forces. She died in Mazar-i-Sharif in 2011.

It is of course difficult to walk the line between a sort of pornography of sorrow and the too-clinical discussion which defeats the purpose in this sort of segment, and while Kvalshaug did seem to push the young girl a little too much for details on how it felt and what she did when she learnt of the death of her mother, the frank and clear responses he got were perhaps more affective than the tears he kept provoking.

I couldn't help but notice Kjell Magne Bondevik left half-way through. I hope he had somewhere important to be.

Meanwhile, Solhjell joined the two to talk about his loss of a cousin in Afghanistan the same year. His account was complicated by his position as a politician: he learnt of the attack and the loss of life as a politician before he learnt of the death of his cousin as a private individual. This tension between the public and the private individual was threaded through the story, and was also very much there in his presence on the stage: Having sat there two hours earlier, fairly impersonally discussing the justifiability of war and when it could be used, his tone was now much less measured, and the quesiton of the possibility of divorcing the personal from the political was raised but never really answered.

The Others?
There was one thing missing from this panel. Possibly, they felt that the panel's topic, "Norway at war" indicated a particular focus; possibly, they felt the journalist could speak for those she investigated; possibly, they felt the short snippet of a documentary could do the trick. But there was no one there from Afghanistan.

1 Together with Alexander Kielland, Jonas Lie and Henrik Ibsen; most sensible people would include Sigrid Undset, who won the Nobel Prize of Literature. This is not the place to get into the absurdity of reducing a literature to four dead men, but let me just say this: Norwegian literature is more than Ibsen. Quite a part from Knut Hamsun, to name another Nobel prize winner, there is Ludvig Holberg, Camilla Collett, Sigbjørn Obstfelder, Amalie Skram, Tarjei Vesaas, Haldis Moren Vesaas, Inger Hagerup, Jens Bjørneboe, Olav Duun, Agnar Mykle, Cora Sandel, Arnulf Øverland, Nordahl Grieg and Sigurd Hoel, just off the top of my head.

2 Directly translated, this should be the Christian People's Party. Possibly, they thought that sounded too... something.

3 The more I think about it, the worse the English names of Norwegian political parties sound.
Arul likes this


Ole Petter,  29.08.14 19:28

Interesting article, thanks! Also, maybe this is the documentary:

Are,  29.08.14 20:16

Good summary. It was a really interesting (and long) session. Spanned quite a lot. As you point out, would've benefited from an Afghan perspective.
Camilla,  30.08.14 01:34

Yep, that's the one.