The Polytechnic University campus in Hung Hom was quiet on Wednesday, nothing at all like the protest stronghold from which masked radicals kept up fierce pitched battles with police on Sunday, hurling petrol bombs and setting an armoured vehicle ablaze.
Only about 100 remained on campus, after more than 1,000 escaped, surrendered, had their details recorded or were caught and arrested.
Some of those still holding out, refusing to heed police orders to vacate, said they now worked in smaller groups, unlike earlier, when radicals and their supporters tried getting away in bigger numbers.
“We tried to escape together in a big group at first, but that did not work,” said a 24-year-old construction worker, who only identified himself as K.
He was referring to Monday’s multiple attempts by protesters to escape. Most ended up arrested or forced to retreat, after police manning every exit of the university fired tear gas at them.
Police had urged them all to come out, warning that those who remained inside could face arrest for rioting, an offence punishable by 10 years’ jail.
K said those still inside had abandoned their earlier strategy of trying to escape in large groups of dozens or more, and now worked in “squads” of four or five.
Explaining the switch, he said: “Everyone knows they are bound to be spotted by police if they go in a big group.”
His squad of three men and a woman tried running towards the train tracks that go all the way up to Ho Man Tin, and even considered fleeing through manholes and sewers, but nothing worked.
They almost succeeded in getting away via the tracks, but another group behind them suddenly rushed towards a main road near them, attracting the attention of police. His squad had to turn back.
“People have become wary of others,” he said. “They do not want to be tailed, for fear of having their plans ruined.”
He said those in different groups now barely spoke to each other, and took care of their own meals, a stark contrast to the weekend, when a “community canteen” prepared meals for everyone.
K said he could not surrender when he did not do anything that deserved being arrested for rioting.
“So many of our comrades have been arrested for supporting us,” he said. “How can we face them if we just walk out of the campus and turn ourselves in?”
He blamed police for locking down the PolyU campus and leaving people like him in their current state. “It is inhumane psychological warfare by police,” he said.
Agreeing with that sentiment, Lin, a 23-year-old higher diploma graduate from another institution, said he joined a group to defend the protest front line on Saturday, but now was left with only one partner.
“We have to think about ourselves,” Lin said, explaining why he and his partner broke away from others. “Everyone starts to suspect that there are spies among us.”
Their main aim was to find a way to get out. Lin said he and his partner refused to surrender because they did not believe they would be treated fairly by police if they were arrested.
The 9.46-hectare red brick campus has been trashed after a week of being occupied by radical protesters and their supporters.
Food waste, garbage, protest supplies and petrol bombs are strewn all over the place.
Food supplies are running out, although it is understood the canteen still had frozen meat and instant noodles. A campus convenience store was looted, believed to be the first instance of looting over more than five months of anti-government unrest.
The hygiene situation left much to be desired, with trash, food scraps and dirty dishes left everywhere in the canteen, creating a stench and discouraging people from using the kitchen.
Some of those holding out were upset that so many others were persuaded by political figures and school principals to leave.
“We are in a dire situation, with fewer people staying,” K said.
Among those still on campus was a man, who declined to be named and insisted that he was a peaceful protester.
He said surrender was not an option because he did not do anything radical. He said he only helped in the logistics of protest supplies on Sunday, and did not think he should be charged for rioting.
He said he had barely slept over the past four days, staying up with some others to find a way to escape.
“If I were a radical protester, I might have risked my life to flee through different high-stakes routes,” he said. “But I am not. I have not done anything. Why should I risk my life for that?”
Edward, 22, a Chinese University accounting student who came to PolyU on Sunday, said many of those remaining had lost the spirit to fight back.
He and some others even thought of calling for an ambulance to take them to hospital, to avoid being caught by police. He said they feared being treated roughly by officers, adding it would be unfair for him to be arrested for rioting, when all he did was man the cooking station.
Edward added that his parents called him every day, fearful of a crackdown similar to the bloody end to student protests as in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and police have said several times that the authorities are hoping that the campus lockdown would end peacefully, as they urged those still at PolyU to come out.
But a 16-year-old, in full protest gear and calling himself T-Rex, said there were about 40 hardcore radicals on campus – some as young as 12 years old – and they had pledged not to leave until everyone else was safe.
“We either leave together or die together,” he said. “We would rather die than surrender.”
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