The lingering trauma of Hong Kong’s exiled protesters

This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.

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 had been being crushed, 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 lined in a chilly sweat; alone and protected.

The 22 12 months outdated is amongst roughly 200 individuals the Taiwan Association for Human Rights estimates have fled Hong Kong for the island after taking part within the pro-democracy protests, which started in June final 12 months amid mass opposition to a invoice that might 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. But 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 contemporary.

“The guilt of leaving the movement and their loved ones behind also lingers in many protesters’ minds,” mentioned Wu Cheng, Executive Director and Spokesperson of Taiwanese Civil Aid to HKers (TAHK), an NGO offering help to individuals from Hong Kong who’ve left town due to the political disaster.

Nightmares, flashbacks, PTSD

Ted fled the territory in July final 12 months, after he and a gaggle of protesters armed with sticks and steel railings stormed and defaced 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It was shortly after hundreds of thousands had marched in opposition to the now-withdrawn extradition invoice however with peaceable demonstrations failing to immediate concessions from the federal government, Ted and his fellow protesters felt that they had 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 dwelling bleeding from his foot and was involved to find his photograph was all around the media.

Per week later he boarded a flight to Taiwan. Soon 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 area. He typically stares with concern at hours-long reside 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 time nights that stretched into early mornings and sleeping on the streets. The burning ache on his pores and skin when he runs by way of the streets; the air thick and white with tear gasoline.

Sleep eludes him. When he does go to sleep, he sees his buddies disappearing one after the other in his desires. “My roommate says I shiver a lot in my sleep,” he mentioned. “Sometimes I jump up from my bed, screaming.”

In November 2019, after seven straight days with out sleep, Ted fainted. He had been following the extraordinary confrontations in the course of the siege of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Thousands had been trapped on campus after the police sealed off all escape routes. Hundreds had been injured and arrested.

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

“The reason I went to the front line in the first place was because I wanted to protect the people behind,” he mentioned. “But when you see people younger than you suffering, those who you are supposed to protect, but you are away and safe, this for me, was the greatest pain.”

A psychological well being disaster

In January this 12 months, a examine by researchers on the University 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 despair.

Gabriel Leung, the dean of HKU’s college of medication and an knowledgeable in public well being, who co-led the analysis, says the figures are akin to these seen in areas of large-scale disasters, armed battle or terrorist assaults. “Hong Kong is under-resourced to deal with this excess mental health burden,” he warned.

For the exiles, their day by day lives had been uprooted and turned on their heads. Faced with monetary insecurities, uncertainties of visa standing, and the opportunity of by no means returning dwelling, many are struggling.

“PTSD is very common among young protesters who fled to Taiwan,” Wu added. “Some find themselves always anxious. Some assume it must be the police coming when they hear footsteps at night. And many refuse to seek professional help because they fear that medical records would leak to pro-China parties.”

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 in the course of the march. He hopes to proceed his combat in exile [Hsiuwen Liu/Al Jazeera]

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

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

“There is no reason for me to avoid bearing witness,” he mentioned. “I have already run away. This is an inevitable pain, a pain that I must endure.”

This July, after dwelling from one extension of his three-month vacationer visa to the following for greater than a 12 months, Ted lastly acquired residency rights in Taiwan by enrolling in an area college. He was a science main again in Hong Kong, however now he has chosen to review politics.

“It sounds so naive really,” he chuckled. “But I wanted to gear up myself. So that when Hong Kong needs me, I can step forward and help.”

Lessons from the previous

Ted now spends his free time studying about Taiwan’s historical past. He travels to completely different components of the island on a scooter he not too long ago purchased, and visits museums, former residences of dissidents and websites that had been as soon as used to detain political prisoners.

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

He has met many individuals who had members of the family imprisoned, killed or silenced below the Kuomintang’s one-party rule. During that point, now generally known as Taiwan’s White Terror interval, individuals, particularly dissidents, had been typically disappeared and by no means heard from once more.

Martial legislation 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 it will likely be the identical for Hong Kong. “Hong Kong is still suffering from pain,” he mentioned. “But one day, maybe 30 or 40 years from now, we will also need experiences in transitional justice. I need to learn 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 are actually 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 finding a new goal, I have also found my anchor.”

For Ted, therapeutic is a lifelong course of.

Living with trauma, he says, is like dwelling with a thorn in his coronary heart. Days and years would possibly cross, but it surely doesn’t imply that he has stopped caring about Hong Kong.

“It’s like there is this indelible wound, but you can only learn to accept it and live with it,” he mentioned. “I think all Hong Kong people now live with this trauma.”

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