By Jessie PANG
HONG KONG (Reuters) – When protesters took over the campus of Hong Kong Polytechnic University in November, many felt compelled to make a statement. Sometimes it was personal. I felt it, too.
As I sat on a bridge overlooking campus, I sent a WhatsApp message to my closest friend. I had already told her I was on the campus reporting. This time I typed out another message, saying that as a Hong Konger born and raised, I felt reporting was the only thing I could do for my city.
The campus was encircled by thousands of police, blocking off escape routes. Inside, hundreds of protesters were preparing to fight with improvised weapons, including arrows and petrol bombs.
I stayed put. A police crackdown seemed imminent.
I followed a group of protesters as they attempted to block one of the back routes to the campus to prevent police from storming in. As I ran after the black-clad protesters carrying metal pipes and umbrellas, I passed a library with black graffiti sprayed across its bulletin board.
“Why have universities become battlegrounds?” it read.
I had aspirations of becoming a war correspondent one day, but I never imagined that my hometown would become a conflict zone.
I had already spent almost half a year covering near daily protests and sometimes violent clashes between police and pro-democracy demonstrators for Reuters. I had seen and felt the anger, desperation and fear of the protesters of my generation, people in college, people graduating to an uncertain future.
Not knowing how long the siege would last, Reuters reporters and others converted an empty classroom into a makeshift newsroom. We projected live feeds on a whiteboard to monitor attempts by protesters outside to rescue the students and the encroaching police circling the campus.
As it became clear they were trapped and police would wait them out, protesters tried different ways to flee. Everyone understood they could face prosecution and prison if arrested.
Some abseiled down a bridge, jumping down to getaway motorcycles on the highway. The police began firing tear gas toward the bridge and arrested some escapees.
THROUGH THE SEWERS
There was Ethan, who, like many others, asked to be only identified by his first name. Ethan studied blueprints of the Hong Kong sewer system he found online to engineer an escape for his friends trapped inside campus. He went down the sewers from outside, and waded through raw sludge for half an hour to lead his friends back out the way he had come.
There was Bowie, who had tried to escape on her own through the sewers, crawling for an hour in the dark labyrinth under campus, cutting and bruising herself. She finally found an exit, only to realize that she was still trapped inside. She was carried away in an ambulance.
As the protesters argued about whether they should leave, a teenage protester walked up to me and asked me for a pen and paper.
“I want to write down that I don’t have any severe injuries before leaving the campus,” he said, voicing a fear common among protesters that they could be injured during arrest and detention.
I gave him my pen. I apologized I had no paper with me.
On the morning of Nov 19, after two days inside the campus, I was taking a walk when I came across a rainbow formed when the morning light hit water dripping from a hydrant opened by protesters. It was a rare moment of grace, near the bridge where protesters had earlier fled by night.
Soon, the campus began to feel deserted. The stench of rotting food was everywhere. Conversations became terse and infrequent. Fears of undercover cops spread. Some protesters isolated themselves.
After five days and four nights, I left, swapping out places through the police lines with another Reuters reporter. The siege continued for another week.
Afterwards, the police said they had arrested 1,377 people, 318 of them under 18.
Police fired 1,458 tear gas rounds, 1,391 rubber bullets, 325 bean bag rounds and 265 sponge rounds.
Nearly 4,000 petrol bombs, 1,338 explosives, 601 corrosive liquids and 573 weapons were seized.
The campus will resume classes on January 13, officials said.
(Editing by Kevin Krolicki and Raju Gopalakrishnan)