Torgeir Norling 1972 - 2010
By Andrew Perrin
e was, says Eric Solheim, the Norwegian cabinet minister and architect of the 2002 peace negotiations between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers, “the Norwegian journalist who knew Southeast Asia best.” To which Torgeir Norling, journalist and co-founder of Rain Dogs Bar and Gallery, who died in a traffic accident in Bangkok on January 3, at the age of 37, would have responded: “I’m the only Norwegian journalist in Southeast Asia.” It was the punch-line to an old joke. In troubled places, Tor was often as not the lone representative of the Norwegian press corp. It sometimes amused him. Mostly it pushed him closer to the action. He felt compelled to let Norway know about the injustices he witnessed on the other side of the world. “What are you doing tomorrow?” he would ask colleagues gathered around a table of beers in those quiet hours between deadline and what he once called “the resumption of madness.” “Can I come?” “He made it his business to go and look as much as he could – and as fearlessly as possible,” says writer Chris Taylor, a close friend. “When the U.S. took Baghdad in the aftermath of September 11, he went. He had no paid assignments. He thought it was


important enough to simply be there.” He reported from East Timor, Aceh and Sri Lanka, from the Shan and Wa states in Burma. Whispers of a revolution in Laos. Atrocities in Sudan. Death squads in the Philippines. A massacre in southern Thailand. He always went. “Many people are drawn to the tragic places, and are moved to anger by their injustice. Tor was too, but he never panicked, never posed, never affected a bogus heroism, and never made it all about him,” says Richard Lloyd Parry,


Asia Editor for The Times of London. He was intrigued by war, by tragedy, by chaos, and most of all by those willing to risk their lives to bring about change. He spent days interviewing people for his stories, and when he’d finished he’d return to their homes, handing out food, medical supplies, friendship. In 1999, when East Timor was burning, he hid prominent pro-independence student leader Antero Bendito Da Silva in his hotel room for two days, while machete-wielding militia roamed the streets outside. “He probably saved Antero’s life,” says Dutch journalist and author Minka Nijhuis. “He was nervous about it. But he did it. It was such a brave and noble thing to do. Tor cared about injustice and he cared about the people he spoke to. People were not just sources of information but people living in an unjust world and that mattered to him.” His intimate portraits of conflict and tragedy established his name in Norway, and brought offers of secure staff jobs at home. In 2005, shortly after marrying his long-time girlfriend Supattra “Jum” Vimonsuknopparat, now a producer in Bangkok for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, he accepted an offer to edit Global Knowledge, a foreign affairs magazine in Oslo. He did it for a year, and then returned with Jum to Bangkok.

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His story, he said, was in Asia. “His knowledge and insights of Asia gave his articles nuances and depth rarely seen in Norwegian media,” says Mariann Ruud Hagen, a Norwegian diplomat. “Tor didn’t just stop by and get a headline, but followed the story long after the headlines were gone. He approached his story with integrity and never compromised with the truth.” The humanist instinct he inherited from his liberal schoolteacher parents, Geir and Elisabet, and then cultivated through the choices he made as a young man growing up with his brother Jorgen in the picturesque mountain village of Etnedal, 150 km north of Oslo. A good student, and an even better shot (he was ranked among the best junior rifle range shooters in the country at age 14), he was, says his father, “quiet and a little shy” but nevertheless always determined to “go his own way and find things out for himself.” When it came time for him to do national military service a few years after leaving school, he declined, choosing instead to do civil service at The Bellona Foundation, an international environmental NGO and direct action protest group based in Oslo. He became involved in the celebrated case of Alexander Nitikin, a Russian submariner arrested by security forces on charges of treason and espionage for his contributions to a Bellona report on nuclear safety within the Russian Northern Fleet. Tor played a key role in the Free Nitikin campaign, organizing demonstrations in Oslo and traveling to Russia to gather information. The release of Nitikin 10 months after his arrest made Tor a believer in an idea that he would carry throughout his life, that political activism can lead to change. His radicalism led him into journalism. Leaving Norway in 1996 to study international politics at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, he gravitated towards the activists on campus. He traveled to northern Australia to protest uranium mining in the world heritage Kakadu National Park. Then, in 1998, he traveled alone on a tourist visa to Dili, East Timor, to (he told a friend) “have a look.” What he saw – pro-independence Timorese university students courageously staring down battalions of Indonesian soldiers – moved him to make a bold choice of his own. He contacted a newspaper in Norway and offered to send them stories. He then set about recording – in words and pictures – the events leading up to the independence ballot on August 30, 1999, and its bloody aftermath. From the start he displayed an

Tor shaving dried horse meat with a pen knife in the jungle for me, him turning up at my house straight from Norway with a bloodied bag of whale meat for my fridge, the way he would read a menu – scan the prices and jab the highest number with his index finger ‘that one!’ - him turning up out of the blue to meet me in Paris, walking across the whole of that city with him in one day & getting lost, a butterfly landing on his shoulder as he sat in a river (our last crossing back to the relatively safer zones of Shan State Army held territory after days of walking through that dark and strange land), him buying me a ticket to Sri Lanka because he felt I needed to get out of Bangkok, him turning up, anywhere and everywhere on countless occasions to lend me money, bail me out of situations when I had nothing. His dusty feet, him turning up unexpected whilst I was hanging an exhibition, just to be near by - Trym (his son) being held under one arm, hanging from his hip so to speak. Him trying to give a thousand baht to a flower seller at a red light, the way he would carry crumpled thousand baht notes in his pocket (he never cared about money), him carrying that old mattress down his stairs for me to sleep on countless of times mumbling ‘the Oli mattress, hmmmm’ - his smile, his genuine happiness for any positive turn in my life, any good news I had, anything that lit me up like a Christmas tree would make him glow. Just a few kaleidoscopic memories of my dear friend Tor. He was always there for me during the times when I most needed someone through so much, right there next to me, behind me, sitting in front of me listening. From the moment I met him to the very last time I saw him he was there. An intensely gentle and deeply empathic soul, a compassionate human being who felt so much, absorbed so much, and always tried to give back. I often felt he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders, in a sense he did. He had an inner drama, had his shadows and darkness like many of us do but what made him a diamond in the desert was his readiness to help other people unthinkingly, it was an unstated motto of his, he never expected anything back in return, just gave and loved unconditionally. He lightened the burden and made the journey softer. – Olivier Pin-Fat


Dateline Bangkok • FoURtH QUaRteR 2009

ways. There is a lot of often unrecognized talent in Bangkok, both in terms of music, art, photography and much more, and I think we have managed to establish Rain Dogs as an outlet for some of this talent.” A ramshackle house beneath an elevated freeway at the end of a dark soi, Rain Dogs – the name was taken from a Tom Waits album – knitted together the disparate elements of Bangkok’s creative life and offered them, for the first time, a home. Film-makers, musicians, photographers, writers, journalists, painters – many of them established international players and all of them friends or friends-of-friends of Tor – performed, screened and exhibited in the offbeat space, often for free, and usually to full houses. Tor’s concept for Rain Dogs made it popular. It also meant the bar made very little money; for a while, beer was all it sold. For Tor that was enough. He did not like to compromise, and as a result his life could be frequently chaotic. With Jum he had a beloved son, Trym, who was born in June 2006. Trym anchored him, and his role as a father was a source of increasing pride and joy. “He had an inner drama, had his shadows and darkness like many of us do, but what made him a diamond in the desert was his readiness to help other people unthinkingly,” says photographer Olivier Pin-Fat, one of Tor’s closest friends. “It was an unstated motto of his, he never expected anything back in return, just gave and loved unconditionally.” Former TIME correspondent Andrew Perrin first met Tor in East Timor in 1998.


instinct for conflict, and the temperament to combat it. “We would go out together and do loops through the worst areas of East Timor to gather information,” says Australian journalist John Martinkus, who used one of Tor’s photographs on the cover of his best-selling book about East Timor, A Dirty Little War. “I was always comfortable working with him because in violent, unpredictable situations – situations that could turn deadly if someone said or did the wrong thing – you could always rely on Tor to take a measured view and read the situation well.” He reveled in the camaraderie of colleagues traveling through chaos together. He could sometimes be reckless with himself, but never with his friends. “He had a great sense of humor and he appreciated the absurdity that is an unavoidable part of covering conflicts,” says Nijhuis, who remembers Tor returning from Australia to a destroyed Dili loaded up with French wine and cheese. “I have no idea how he managed to get those extra kilos on board a military aircraft, but he did and with that big smile of his he generously refueled us all.” He had a natural reserve and could appear on first meeting removed if not distant. Meet him again and a connection was usually made, especially with those like-minded travelers who, as one friend put it, “pushed at the extremities.” “The thing about Tor was that if you spent time with him you would end up in intensely weird, intensely beautiful situations. He never judged you. He gave a lot but he never asked for anything,” says American writer Nick McDonell, whose second novel The Third Brother

was informed by a week he spent exploring Bangkok with Tor and Jum in 2003. “The real subtext of what he did was that we were lucky to have the lives that we did. That’s what drove him.” When, in mid-2007, he and Jum acted on an impulse to create Rain Dogs, he built it in his own image. It was not a profit-making exercise. It was, rather, another generous gift to his friends and fellow travelers through life. “I think the concept is an answer to … the increasing slickness and commercialization of the bar scene in Bangkok, where customers are merely seen as walking ATMs rather than individuals,” he told a magazine journalist writing a review on the bar in September 2009. “Rain Dogs, on the other hand, belongs to the customers, and rather than sucking them dry for money we encourage them to contribute in other

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