This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.
Taipei, Taiwan – Night was once Ted’s greatest enemy *.
For months, after fleeing to Taiwan from the front lines of the Hong Kong protests, Ted was haunted by a recurring nightmare. He dreamed that he was trapped in a ring of light. Beside him, his fellow protesters were beaten, tortured and raped by the police, but he was unable to move. Unable to help, he could only watch.
Ted would wake up screaming from his little bunk bed in Taipei and find himself covered in a cold sweat; alone and safe.
The 22-year-old man is among some 200 people the Taiwan Association for Human Rights believes fled Hong Kong for the island after participating in pro-democracy protests, which began in June of last year amid massive opposition to a bill that would have allowed suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial.
Fearing prosecution and political prosecution, many exiles – most in their teens or early twenties – left in haste. But while backed by a network of lawyers, civil society organizations and donors who want to help them rebuild, the psychological wounds caused by months of protests – some of which have turned violent – are still fresh. .
“Guilt for abandoning the movement and their loved ones also lingers in the minds of many protesters,” said Wu Cheng, executive director and spokesperson for Taiwanese Civil Aid to HKers (TAHK), an NGO that provides assistance. to the people of Hong Kong who have left the city because of the political crisis.
Nightmares, flashbacks, PTSD
Ted fled the territory in July last year, after he and a group of protesters armed with sticks and metal railings stormed and degraded the city’s legislature.
It was shortly after millions protested against the now withdrawn extradition bill, but with peaceful protests failing to elicit concessions from the government, Ted and his colleagues protesters felt they had no choice but to take more drastic action.
That night, as the small group escaped the building, Ted was hit by two beanbag bullets. He returned home bleeding from his foot and feared he would find out his photo was all over the media.
A week later, he took a flight to Taiwan. Shortly after, the police raided her apartment.
For months, while Ted lived physically in Taipei, his mind roamed the parallel time and space of Hong Kong. He often watches with concern the live broadcasts from the territory that go on for hours on his phone, the scenes replaying over and over in his head.
He also has flashbacks to the days he spent on the front line – the sound of metal railings scratching the ground, the long summer nights that dragged into the early mornings and slept on the streets. The burning pain on his skin when he runs in the streets; thick white air with tear gas.
Sleep escapes him. When he falls asleep, he sees his friends disappear one by one in his dreams. “My roommate says I shiver a lot in my sleep,” he says. “Sometimes I jump out of bed screaming.”
In November 2019, after seven consecutive days without sleep, Ted passed out. He had followed the intense clashes during the siege of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Thousands were trapped on campus after the police cordoned off all escape routes. Hundreds have been injured and arrested.
Ted was forced to see a psychologist and was diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“The reason I went to the front line was because I wanted to protect the people behind,” he said. “But when you see people younger than you suffering, those you are meant to protect, but far away and safe, it has been the greatest pain for me.
A mental health crisis
In January of this year, a study by researchers at the University of Hong Kong found that nearly a third of adults in the city had symptoms of PTSD, and about one in 10 had symptoms of depression.
Gabriel Leung, dean of HKU medical school and public health expert, who co-led the research, says the numbers are comparable to those seen in areas of large-scale disasters, armed conflicts or terrorist attacks. “Hong Kong lacks the resources to deal with this excessive mental health burden,” he warned.
For the exiles, their daily life has been uprooted and overthrown. Faced with financial insecurities, uncertainties over visa status and the possibility of never returning home, many are struggling.
“PTSD is very common among young protesters who fled to Taiwan,” Wu added. “Some still feel anxious. Some suppose it must be the police who come when they hear footsteps at night. And many refuse to seek professional help because they fear medical records may leak to pro-China parties.
A sweeping security law Beijing imposed on Hong Kong this summer has led to another wave of departures. Some were caught fleeing, 12 of whom were intercepted by the Chinese Coast Guard on a speedboat headed for Taiwan, and were held in a mainland prison for more than 100 days.
Ted finds it all painful to watch, but he feels like he has to.
“There is no reason for me to avoid testifying,” he said. “I have already run away. It’s an inevitable pain, a pain that I have to endure.
Last July, after living off an extension of his tourist visa from three months to another for more than a year, Ted finally obtained the right to reside in Taiwan by enrolling in a local university. He majored in science in Hong Kong, but has now chosen to study politics.
“It sounds really naive,” he chuckled. “But I wanted to prepare. So that when Hong Kong needs me, I can step forward and help. “
Lessons from the past
Ted now spends his free time learning about Taiwan’s history. He travels to different parts of the island on a scooter he recently bought and tours museums, former dissident residences and sites that were once used to hold political prisoners.
He met many people whose family members were imprisoned, killed or silenced under the rule of the one-party Kuomintang. During this period, now known as the Taiwan White Terror Period, people, especially dissidents, often disappeared and never heard from again.
Martial law was not lifted on the island until 1987, and it took another 30 years before Taiwan began to search for the truth about its dark past. Ted thinks it will be the same for Hong Kong. “Hong Kong is still in pain,” he said. “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 organize a protest in Taiwan calling for support for Hong Kong. He also started to participate in local social movements on gender equality and the fight against forced evictions.
The nightmares and flashbacks that haunted Ted are easing now, he stopped going to the doctors several months ago because he doesn’t want to rely too much on the drugs.
“Being busy distracts me. After finding a new goal, I also found my anchor point. “
For Ted, healing is a lifelong process.
Living with trauma, he says, is like living with a thorn in your heart. Days and years may pass, but that doesn’t mean he has stopped caring about Hong Kong.
“It’s like there’s this indelible wound, but you can only learn to accept it and live with it,” he says. “I think all Hong Kong people are now living with this trauma.”
* A pseudonym was used to protect Ted’s identity.