Students

Nora is in Hong Kong

‘It’s not fair that I get to go home’

RUG student Nora Leidinger’s exchange semester in Hong Kong has taken a dramatic turn. She got burnt by tear gas and saw her university turn into a war zone. She’s been helping her friends where she can, but now she has to go back. ‘I feel so helpless it hurts.’
By Anne de Vries

When the protests broke out, there were twenty-nine RUG students in Hong Kong. Several of them have since returned to the Netherlands or will be returning soon. Others have decided to travel through Asia since the universities in the former British colony are closed. Some students are staying because they’re interested in what’s happening in the city of millions of people.

The RUG has been in contact with the students through email. They’re getting advice on what to do and where to go if they get in trouble. If they have to spend money to, for instance, change their flight home, they might be eligible for financial compensation from the RUG.

The shouting takes them by surprise. Nora Leidinger (22) and her friend are walking home in October after a day of vintage shopping in Hong Kong. It’s an attempt at normalcy in a city that has seen increasingly violent demonstrations for months.

Suddenly, the RUG student of arts, culture, and media and her friend find themselves in the middle of a confrontation between protestors and the Hong Kong police.

They don’t speak Cantonese, so it takes them a while to understand that the policemen demand to see their faces that are shielded from the rain by umbrellas. Scared, they clutch each other’s hands. But when the officers reach for their canisters of tear gas, they know enough: they turn and run as fast as they can, not stopping until they’re behind the protester line.

Now they find themselves at the front of the group of protesters. The people around them are prepared for a fight. They wear full-body protection; from their black gloves up to the gas masks that cover so much of their faces that they can only be recognised by their eyes. But Nora and her friend have nothing to protect themselves with as the tear gas envelops them.

Classes suspended

Last week, the protests in Hong Kong took a violent turn. Universities and schools in the area closed their doors. City University, where Nora is doing her exchange as one of the twenty-nine RUG students in Hong Kong, suspended all classes for this semester. She has been recording the protests and handing out food where she can. ‘We’ve been through hell and back this week’, she says.

Most of the protesters are kids, teenagers, and young students. And it shows: on the graffitied walls, drawings of genitalia intersperse the political messages and slurs. The protesters rejoice in training with a bow and arrow and cheer when their makeshift slingshot works. ‘It would be cool if this were a game’, says Nora. ‘It would be cool if this were not their reality, but there’s no way they can win.’

We’ve been through hell and back this week

Two weeks ago, a twenty-two-year-old student fell off a parking garage while running from the police. He died on November 8. The next day, a report surfaced stating that a sixteen-year-old girl had had an abortion after reportedly being raped by police officers after her arrest. The police deny they had anything to do with either instance. Then, last Monday, a policeman shot a twenty-two-year-old student in the chest with live rounds instead of rubber bullets.

The protests started in June, in response to a bill that would allow extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China. Protesters say this will undermine Hong Kong’s independence as a Special Administrative Region. They fear a growing influence of the Chinese government. And even though Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam withdrew the bill in September, demonstrations continued and have become increasingly violent. It was too little, too late, the protesters thought.

Tear gas everywhere

That day in October, Nora and her friend are caught in the middle. Hoping they won’t be shot at, they run through the fog. Tear gas burns their eyes and skin. They stop to cough and Nora’s friend throws up. A bystander gives them some water. The pain isn’t even the worst. Nora’s throat and lungs go numb. It’s hard to breathe and she starts to panic.

They run until they reach Nora’s apartment building. Her roommates know the drill. They pour oil over the girls to dissolve the tear gas, telling them to change out of their clothes and wash their hair. She has to stay in the common area, because the tear gas has filled her room.

‘With the amount of tear gas in the air, even the tap water has been contaminated’, says Nora. They stock up on water bottles. And they always have a stash of non-perishables like pasta and rice, because when the protests are really bad, all supermarkets are closed. They’re sick of pot noodles by now.

The food and water are not just for her and her international roommates. Nora tries to visit the main protests every day to share. ‘Maybe they’ll feel encouraged if we bring them cookies and candy or they get a hug from a stranger.’

Face masks from Taiwan

Nora has never thought of herself as a political person. She cares more about what happens to the people of Hong Kong. ‘It’s about what is right and what is wrong. About moralities and human rights.’

It’s also about her friends. She made sure she picked classes at CityU with few other exchange students in them, because she wanted to get to know the locals, rather than drink and party with internationals. She’s grown close to three twenty-year-old Hong Kong boys. ‘I have such strong motherly feelings for them’, says Nora. ‘They’re so sweet and awkward. They text me in the morning and at night to tell me they’re safe and ask if I’m okay.’

I cannot help them turn this situation around

When she went to Taiwan on a weekend trip a few weeks ago, she bought them supplies: black face masks and T-shirts. Black is the official protest colour and these items are impossible to find in Hong Kong. Still, she doesn’t feel like she’s doing enough. ‘I don’t have the resources and I cannot help them turn this situation around. I feel so helpless it hurts.’

She visited her friends who were holed up at City University and was struck by how organised the students are. Every hall has a different purpose. Signs with words like ‘food’, ‘first aid’ and ‘spray paint’ direct everyone to the right spot. ‘They even separate their trash because of climate change. It’s crazy.’

One night, she was checking up on the protesters right outside her building. Just after she’d gone back inside, she saw one of them throw a Molotov cocktail at a police officer, setting him on fire. ‘I thought, don’t do that! As soon as you commit crimes like that, you’re proving them right. But by now the protesters just have to see the uniform and they get so angry.’

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This past week she witnessed similar scenes every night. ‘It’s emotional and traumatising’, Nora says. ‘You just keep looking out the window, wondering. It’s not if someone’s going to die, but when. We don’t even say “goodbye and have fun” anymore, we say, “stay safe”.’

She records everything and posts it on Instagram. Her phone hangs from a cord around her neck. ‘The video will be upside down, but at least there’ll be a record of all of this.’

Feeling guilty

When she goes out, she checks an online live map that constantly updates with stop signs and little dinosaurs to show where the protesters and police are.

She doesn’t wear heels and she always carries a face mask and a bottle of saline solution to wash away the tear gas. When the metro stops running, she takes a cab home. Since the escalations of the last few days, she’s taken to wearing black clothing to show her support for the students.

Why hasn’t she left yet?

I don’t know if I’ll ever hear what has happened to the people I leave behind

‘I’m not ready to do that’, Nora explains. ‘I’ve met so many amazing people and they’ve been so kind; it feels like a retreat to leave.’

Even though her family really wants her home, she feels guilty for being able to leave. ‘It’s not fair that I get to go home. I think things are going to go really bad and the people I’m leaving behind may die. I don’t know if I’ll ever hear what has happened to them.’

Nevertheless, when the universities closed down last Thursday, she finally booked her ticket home. Sitting in the airline’s office, she cried and could only point to this Thursday on the calendar. ‘I’m packing up a life here, a household.’

She’s learned a lot, she sums up: ‘How to treat burn wounds, how to treat tear gas, and how to help if rubber bullets are being shot. I now know what I’d do if a similar situation were to happen in Groningen or Germany.

This weekend, police circled the PolyU ‘fortress’. Nora has been watching a livestream of the police shooting tear gas at the students for over 24 hours. She saw their machine guns and water cannons and the blocked exits of the university. ‘They shoot anyone trying to leave, including medics. Some students are so exhausted they cry uncontrollably. They throw Molotov cocktails to make the police keep their distance.’

She can only hope her friends are safe. ‘It’s nauseating waiting for the end.’


Editor’s note: Since we spoke to Nora, the situation in Hong Kong has become even more dire. Nora joined some of her local friends in the streets and saw how businessmen and elderly people organized supply chains to the frontlines of the protests.

Parents of students stuck in the universities are holding silent protests to urge the police to let their children out safely. Many protestors are injured. They’re scared to go to the hospital, because they will be arrested. Videos show a policeman stomping on a protestor’s head. ‘If the police is the one to be feared, what is their purpose?’ Nora asks.


 

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