Despair, frustration and fear set in among the last remnants of student protesters in Hong Kong’s besieged Polytechnic University on Tuesday, but a flicker of defiance still ran strong among the small group, as they vowed to continue their four-day standoff with the police.
In the trashed campus canteen, plastic litter and uneaten food strewn on the linoleum floor, some half dozen young men and women still wore black body armour and talked in hushed tones while one repeatedly punched a pillar and another toyed with a bow and arrow.
In another corner, Mark Wong, 21, his face covered with a white dish cloth, sat with two female companions, hunched over their phones as they plotted potential escape routes.
They appeared to have lost their moment. Several dozen are believed to have escaped on Monday by climbing over walls, abseiling down ropes to waiting motorbikes or laying low in nearby buildings before blending into the crowd. By 11pm on Tuesday, around 800 people had voluntarily surrendered, said the police.
Most were arrested, but some 300, all minors, had their information recorded by officers but were allowed to go home after successful negotiations by school principals.
For Mr Wong, surrender was not an option. “I’d rather die than get caught,” he said. “It’s not about the long prison sentence but we fear what the police may do to us.”
The softly spoken young man admitted he was afraid to be on the frontlines of the almost six-month long pro-democracy movement in defiance of Chinese rule, but after three nights of no sleep, no shower, and anxious about the coming hours, he said he had no regrets.
“My family are worried about me and I feel guilty about that,” he said. “On the other hand, I can’t stop coming out to the protests. We desire freedom and if we don’t have our freedom then we are just surviving.”
Other youngsters, mainly in their teens and early twenties looked lost as they wandered through mounds of debris, past smashed windows and trampling over discarded clothing, helmets and goggles.
Between 30 to 100 are believed to still be holed up on the now eerily quiet campus. The Telegraph saw about 40, late last night.
The atmosphere was calm, but scorched paving stones and the burnt-out shells of tables and chairs are testimony to fierce battles fought with riot police over the weekend.
“Dear World, Be Aware or Be Next” and “Give me liberty or give me death” are among the dark messages scrawled in black on the brick walls, offering a hint of the nihilistic desperation driving many of the city’s youngsters to risk their lives or to face long prison sentences.
Hong Kong’s worst political crisis in decades began over angry opposition to a controversial extradition bill but has now snowballed into a wider cry for democratic elections and rights, and has seen increasingly violent clashes with the riot police.
Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets over the past three days to try to rescue those in the university, prompting intense battles with the police who have used tear gas and rubber bullets to repel them.
More than 1,000 people have been arrested since Monday, and almost 300 injured. Parents of trapped students have been spotted pleading at the gates for their freedom.
“Don’t condemn them as rioters, just encourage them to come peacefully,” said one frantic father.
However, Kwok Ka-chuen, a police spokesman, said it was “alarming that universities... have turned into weapon factories.”
At a Tuesday briefing, he stressed the police were “searching for a peaceful resolution” and had only used force as a last resort.
“Over the past few days, we repeatedly appealed to the rioters to surrender their weapons and leave the campus,” he said.
For some still within the campus walls, the fear leaving in handcuffs to face a ten-year-prison sentence on rioting charges has rooted them to the spot.
As the police cordon tightens around the property, others have sought more creative routes of escape. According to one report, several people attempted to flee down a sewer on Tuesday.
At around 11pm, about 10 masked protesters attempted a more brazen escape from the main entrance and were quickly surrounded by police.
TIME IS RUNNING OUT. #SOSHK Listen to urgent cry of protestors in #PolyU! Running out of food & medical supply, starving & injured protestors counting down to confront #hkpolice bullets with bare hands. Is the world going to witness bloody crackdown w/o stopping ruthless regime? pic.twitter.com/szkxxICLDF— Joshua Wong 黃之鋒 �� (@joshuawongcf) November 18, 2019
Isaac, a 17-year-old escapee, told The Telegraph how he had gestured his phone number to observers in a nearby building, who then told him when it was safe to make a dash for the entrance.
The teenager made it inside through a barrage of teargas and rubber bullets, and sheltered in an office for nearly 24 hours before mingling with employees and walking to safety.
However, Paco, another 17-year-old school student, remained trapped in the university canteen.
“My family is just saying just be safe, I’m so worried. They want us to come out and surrender, but I can’t do it, because when you admit you joined the protest, they will judge you as rioting, that’s 10 years,” he said.
“If I had to choose again, I’d still come here,” he added. “Hong Kong people are afraid of China’s governance because of Tiananmen, and the government won’t listen to other people’s opinions.”