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The lingering trauma of Hong Kong’s exiled protesters

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The lingering trauma of Hong Kong’s exiled protesters

This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Middle.

Taipei, Taiwan – The night time was as soon as Ted’s* biggest enemy.

For months, after fleeing to Taiwan from the entrance strains of the Hong Kong protests, Ted was haunted by a recurring nightmare. He dreamed that he was trapped inside a glowing ring. Beside him, his fellow protesters have been being overwhelmed, tortured and raped by the police, however he was unable to maneuver. Unable to assist, he may solely watch.

Ted would get up yelling from his little bunk mattress in Taipei, and discover himself coated in a chilly sweat; alone and secure.

The 22 yr previous is amongst roughly 200 folks the Taiwan Affiliation for Human Rights estimates have fled Hong Kong for the island after collaborating within the pro-democracy protests, which started in June final yr amid mass opposition to a invoice that will have allowed suspects to be despatched to mainland China for trial.

Fearing lawsuits and political prosecution, most of the exiles – principally of their teenagers or early 20s – left in a rush. However whereas they’re supported by a community of attorneys, civil society organisations and donors who need to assist them construct a brand new life, the psychological wounds from months of protests – a few of which turned violent – are nonetheless recent.

“The guilt of leaving the motion and their family members behind additionally lingers in lots of protesters’ minds,” stated Wu Cheng, Govt Director and Spokesperson of Taiwanese Civil Help to HKers (TAHK), an NGO offering help to folks from Hong Kong who’ve left the town due to the political disaster.

Nightmares, flashbacks, PTSD

Ted fled the territory in July final yr, after he and a bunch of protesters armed with sticks and steel railings stormed and defaced the town’s legislature.


Ted left Hong Kong in July 2019, shortly after protesters stormed the territory’s legislature and vandalised the chamber [File: Philip Fong/AFP]

It was shortly after thousands and thousands had marched in opposition to the now-withdrawn extradition invoice however with peaceable demonstrations failing to immediate concessions from the federal government, Ted and his fellow protesters felt they’d no alternative however to take extra radical motion.

That night time, because the small group escaped the constructing, Ted was hit by two bean bag rounds. He went again residence bleeding from his foot and was involved to find his picture was everywhere in the media.

Every week later he boarded a flight to Taiwan. Quickly after, the police raided his house.

For months, whereas Ted has lived, bodily, in Taipei, his spirit has roamed Hong Kong’s parallel time and house. He usually stares with concern at hours-long stay broadcasts from the territory on his cellphone, with the scenes replaying many times in his head.

He additionally has flashbacks of the times he spent on the entrance line – the sound of steel railings scratching on the bottom, the lengthy summer season nights that stretched into early mornings and sleeping on the streets. The burning ache on his pores and skin when he runs by the streets; the air thick and white with tear fuel.

Sleep eludes him. When he does go to sleep, he sees his mates disappearing one after the other in his goals. “My roommate says I shiver rather a lot in my sleep,” he stated. “Generally I bounce up from my mattress, screaming.”

In November 2019, after seven straight days with out sleep, Ted fainted. He had been following the extraordinary confrontations through the siege of the Hong Kong Polytechnic College. 1000’s have been trapped on campus after the police sealed off all escape routes. A whole bunch have been injured and arrested.

Ted was compelled to see a psychologist and was identified with extreme post-traumatic stress dysfunction (PTSD).

“The rationale I went to the entrance line within the first place was as a result of I wished to guard the folks behind,” he stated. “However if you see folks youthful than you struggling, those that you’re supposed to guard, however you’re away and secure, this for me, was the best ache.”

A psychological well being disaster

In January this yr, a examine by researchers on the College of Hong Kong discovered that almost one-third of adults within the metropolis skilled signs of PTSD, and about one in 10 confirmed signs of melancholy.

Gabriel Leung, the dean of HKU’s school of medication and an skilled in public well being, who co-led the analysis, says the figures are similar to these seen in areas of large-scale disasters, armed battle or terrorist assaults. “Hong Kong is under-resourced to cope with this extra psychological well being burden,” he warned.

For the exiles, their day by day lives have been uprooted and turned on their heads. Confronted with monetary insecurities, uncertainties of visa standing, and the potential for by no means returning residence, many are struggling.

“PTSD is quite common amongst younger protesters who fled to Taiwan,” Wu added. “Some discover themselves at all times anxious. Some assume it have to be the police coming once they hear footsteps at night time. And plenty of refuse to hunt skilled assist as a result of they concern that medical data would leak to pro-China events.”

A march in Taipei on October 25, 2020 requires the discharge of 12 Hongkongers arrested whereas making an attempt to flee to Taiwan. Ted volunteered to assist through the march. He hopes to proceed his struggle in exile [Hsiuwen Liu/Al Jazeera]

A sweeping safety regulation that Beijing imposed on Hong Kong this summer season has led to a brand new wave of exits. Some have been caught fleeing, together with 12 who have been intercepted by the Chinese language coast guard on a speedboat heading in the direction of Taiwan, and have been imprisoned in a mainland jail for greater than 100 days.

Ted finds all of it painful to observe however seems like he has to.

“There isn’t a cause for me to keep away from bearing witness,” he stated. “I’ve already run away. That is an inevitable ache, a ache that I need to endure.”

This July, after residing from one extension of his three-month vacationer visa to the subsequent for greater than a yr, Ted lastly obtained residency rights in Taiwan by enrolling in a neighborhood college. He was a science main again in Hong Kong, however now he has chosen to review politics.

“It sounds so naive actually,” he chuckled. “However I wished to gear up myself. In order that when Hong Kong wants me, I can step ahead and assist.”

Classes from the previous

Ted now spends his free time studying about Taiwan’s historical past. He travels to completely different elements of the island on a scooter he lately purchased, and visits museums, former residences of dissidents and websites that have been as soon as used to detain political prisoners.

Hong Kong protesters holding a ‘Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our instances’ flag throughout an illustration in Taipei on October 25, 2020 [Hsiuwen Liu/Al Jazeera]

He has met many individuals who had relations imprisoned, killed or silenced below the Kuomintang’s one-party rule. Throughout that point, now referred to as Taiwan’s White Terror interval, folks, particularly dissidents, have been usually disappeared and by no means heard from once more.

Martial regulation was not lifted on the island till 1987, and it took one other 30 years earlier than Taiwan began in search of the reality of its darkish previous. Ted feels will probably be the identical for Hong Kong. “Hong Kong continues to be affected by ache,” he stated. “However someday, possibly 30 or 40 years from now, we will even want experiences in transitional justice. I have to study it now.”

In October, he helped organise an illustration in Taiwan calling for help for Hong Kong. He additionally began to take part in native social actions on gender equality and combating compelled eviction.

The nightmares and flashbacks which have haunted Ted at the moment are easing, He stopped going to the docs a number of months in the past as a result of he doesn’t need to rely an excessive amount of on medicine.

“Being busy distracts myself. After discovering a brand new aim, I’ve additionally discovered my anchor.”

For Ted, therapeutic is a lifelong course of.

Residing with trauma, he says, is like residing with a thorn in his coronary heart. Days and years may move, nevertheless it doesn’t imply that he has stopped caring about Hong Kong.

“It’s like there may be this indelible wound, however you possibly can solely study to simply accept it and stay with it,” he stated. “I believe all Hong Kong folks now stay with this trauma.”

* A pseudonym has been used to guard Ted’s identification.