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Witnesses to Tiananmen Square recall 'massacre' on 20th anniversary

OTTAWA - The iconic image of the young man staring down a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square doesn't represent the only hero of China's repressed pro-democracy movement for Shelley Fines.

OTTAWA - The iconic image of the young man staring down a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square doesn't represent the only hero of China's repressed pro-democracy movement for Shelley Fines.

The Regina native recalls dozens of champions - some dressed in schoolgirl skirts and shoes - sprawled protectively across a Beijing tank route in the middle of the night, the scene lit by a single lightbulb jerry-rigged on a nearby guardhouse.

"It was almost surreal - thick and heavy and you could hear the crickets," Fines said Wednesday at a Parliament Hill news conference.

"Everyone was lying there, shaking."

Thursday marks the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, a bloodbath the country's Communist government still barely acknowledges, but that survivors are determined to keep alive in the public conscience.

Sheng Xue recalls standing across the street from the square's southeast corner on the morning of June 4, 1989, when troops suddenly opened fire.

Two people beside her were shot, and the entire group flopped to their bellies.

"It was just a street," Sheng, who now lives in Mississauga, Ont., said of the space separating the shooters from the protesters.

"I could see the soldier was so young and so innocent. He didn't know what he's doing."

Her husband ended up cradling a dead 19-year-old woman in his arms, her hair and brains splashed on his storefront window from a bullet through her skull.

If there was a theme to Wednesday's testimonials, it was that the Chinese uprising of 1989 represented much more than a collection of young firebrands being oppressed by an opaque government.

As journalist Jan Wong, who was in Beijing at the time, said at the news conference, she considers the driver of that lead tank in the famous photo a hero as well.

"Because in the face of all the pressure on him to run that man over . . . that tank driver stopped."

Fines, a teacher at the time at the Beijing Broadcast Institute, saw the riveting spectacle of Chinese citizens facing down Chinese troops for days on end before the fateful June 4 explosion.

The school and its residence were on a main eastern thoroughfare into Beijing - the route used by troops reinforcements called in to quell the Tiananmen protests.

For 10 days, a spontaneous posse of students, factory workers, bus drivers, fruit vendors and others kept the troops from rolling through.

Fines said her students created a self-titled "Dare-to-Die Squad" that would lie in the street.

"People would be running, screaming that the tanks were coming, the tanks were coming!" Fines recounted, struggling to maintain her composure even 20 years later.

"And these people would lie down. Little girls in their skirts and shoes, they'd be shaking, but they would lie down in the road to stop them with no thought for their own safety."

Older people, inspired by the young, knelt down behind them, she said.

"And they stopped them - over and over this happened! There were heroes everywhere."

Fine recalled one tiny Chinese friend confronting a military commander.

"We have orders!" he shouted.

"What are your orders?" the woman demanded.

"He says, 'To clear the square.' And she says, 'Then why have you brought guns when you should have brought brooms!'

"Everyone applauded and he was so angry, he went back and slammed his door and rolled up his window."

Early on June 4, the troops smashed the blockade outside the school, leaving a trail of death, bloodshed and destruction.

Even then, said Fines, "we stopped them for hours before they blasted through."

She counted 70-plus troop carriers "armed to the teeth" that roared by on that last night.

China's Communist government continues to suppress all information about Tiananmen - including blocking numerous web sites in the lead-up to the anniversary.

Wong said she's explained to her 19-year-old son why she drops her journalistic neutrality and advocates annually on the Tiananmen anniversary.

"Because in China they can't do this," said Wong.

"And with the Internet, with Skype, with Twitter, when we demonstrate here in Canada where we have the freedom to demonstrate, they know about it in China - they know about it instantly."

"It's very important for them to know that somebody somewhere says: 'That was not right."'

 
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