Behind The Front Lines Of Hong Kong’s Campus War

BuzzFeed 4 days ago

HONG KONG — May peered down into the dark hole. The glow of her friends’ headlamps revealed a hint of filthy gray water, but not all the shit or cockroaches swimming within. Beneath May’s feet was Hong Kong’s labyrinth system of drainage and sewer pipes — and her best chance to escape the university campus where she had been trapped by police.

May is 21 and in college, although her slight frame and wide eyes could make you think she’s still a teen. The battle at the university was the toughest and longest one that May had ever fought, even after spending months on the front lines. At night she could still hear the pop of rubber bullets and the screams of protesters who had been caught by police when she tried to sleep.

Hong Kong has been engulfed in protests for nearly six months — they were at first over a controversial extradition bill that’s since been rescinded, but soon evolved into calls for greater police accountability and full democracy. Over time, the demonstrations have shifted from mass marches to running street battles. But after a strike on November 11 plunged the city into chaos, universities across Hong Kong unexpectedly became the central battleground, ultimately culminating in a 12-day-long police siege on the grounds of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

BuzzFeed News

BuzzFeed News spent two weeks on campuses and in the streets talking to dozens of students, people on the frontline, and medics to tell the story of how the battle at the university became one of the darkest chapters in the protracted fight for democracy in Hong Kong. As students used the swimming pool to practice tossing Molotov cocktails or learned to shoot bows and arrows, police surrounded them and threatened to use lethal force — signaling a fight that has only grown more entrenched between pro-democracy protesters and a government that remains loyal to Beijing.

Before the two-week siege was officially over, Hong Kong would vote in a slew of pro-democracy district councillors, widely seen as a referendum in support of the ongoing protests. And US President Donald Trump would sign the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which allows the US to impose sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials for human rights violations. Beijing was furious and would respond with its own sanctions; but in the meantime, residents drank champagne in the streets to celebrate these rare victories.

But while those events unfolded, some students remained trapped at the Polytechnic University, growing increasingly desperate as police officers refused to release their grip on the campus.

Eventually, May and her friends decided they couldn’t wait any longer. Facing a possible 10-year prison sentence for rioting if she were to surrender to the police, she slowly lowered herself into the sewer system. Using a compass and headlamp to guide her, May crawled through the opening on her stomach, wearing a gas mask to filter the smell.

There are more than 150,000 maintenance hole covers across Hong Kong; as she crawled, May realized there were multiple different tunnels she could take.

Even with the aid of maps, she wasn’t sure where she might pop up — or if she would get out of the sewers at all.

A protester on the Chinese University of Hong Kong's campus.

It started with the death of a student.

In the early hours of November 4, Alex Chow fell from a parking garage as police were firing tear gas to clear protesters from the area. A few days later, the 22-year-old died from a brain injury sustained in the fall. Across the city, people held vigils to mourn the loss. Protest chants called for revenge.

Over Telegram, an encrypted messaging app, protesters organized a strike that week to shut down the city, voting in polls to decide the day and the time. They asked residents to stay home from school and work, calling it the “dawn action.”

In a residential neighborhood of the city called Sha Tin, 20-year-old Lee woke up around 3 a.m. on the Monday of the strike — one week after Chow’s fall. Dressed in all black, the standard uniform of protesters, she pulled her hair into a low ponytail that revealed a few delicate ear piercings and headed out of her dorm at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). In the dark, she and other students began gathering materials and headed toward the sprawling eight-lane highway that hugs one side of the campus. The rest of the university is carved into the side of a mountain, and the hilly terrain and leafy trails make it a natural fortress.

Together, Lee and her group dragged items like bricks, cardboard boxes, and bikes to block Tolo Highway — a critical thoroughfare that commuters use to travel to Hong Kong Island, where the city’s main business district is located. Others set fire to the tracks at a nearby subway station to stop people commuting to work. It was one of a number of strategic locations where protesters had planned operations to paralyze the city.

“The original aim was to block the road and block the trains, not to fight with police,” said Lee. BuzzFeed News is only identifying protesters by their first names or English nicknames because of widespread fear of arrest.

Across the city, the strike had already led to early morning clashes. Hong Kong was waking up to videos of police officers shooting protesters with live bullets, including one man who was struck in the abdomen around 7 a.m, as well as a police motorcyclist weaving among protesters, trying to hit them.

Police arrived outside CUHK, that morning too, where students were still working on blocking the road. Before 8 a.m., officers started firing pellets filled with pepper spray, or pepper balls, at students on a bridge that crosses the highway. Known simply as “bridge two,” it is one of four main entrances to the university.

Lee was nearby when police officers first fired and threw back some bricks, but she wasn’t prepared for a confrontation with police. There wasn’t a standoff or a large crowd to disperse that typically draws police fire. And universities hadn’t seen any clashes before. Lee had none of her protective gear, such as goggles or a gas mask, with her that morning.

“No one really expected that they would attack the university,” said Jane, a 23-year-old student at CUHK.

About 6 miles south of CUHK, Polytechnic University students were also trying to block the tunnel that connects the Kowloon side of Hong Kong to Hong Kong Island. Police officers entered the campus and fired tear gas after protesters threw Molotov cocktails. And police officers used tear gas at the University of Hong Kong that morning too, where students were also blocking roads.

While months of protests had brought clashes to the airport, malls, and subway stations, November 11 was the first time tear gas had been fired at universities — three campuses were hit in one day, and 11 colleges had canceled classes.

Without anything to protect themselves, Lee and her group at CUHK left to gear up. The police, however, didn’t move. They had departed the University of Hong Kong and Polytechnic University that morning, but police vans remained parked at the base of bridge two at CUHK. A row of riot police officers formed a perimeter at the top of the bridge and were positioned firmly at the entrance of the school. The cordon was meant to block students from throwing things onto the highway, they said.

Word spread around campus about the police presence, and students started gathering nearby behind makeshift barriers of umbrellas and track-and-field hurdles.

“It got more and more tense because the police were still there and students kept gathering,” said Lee.

A protester with his self-made bow arrow.

Bricks, Molotovs, and tear gas flew from all angles as students battled with police at the intersection of the CUHK bridge and the main campus road on Tuesday afternoon. Police had continued to occupy the bridge overnight. A university official had tried to persuade students to retreat, but this had only inflamed tensions further.

“Why do we need to retreat? This is still our place, our home,” Lee recalled thinking. Instead, students pushed their barriers forward toward the line of riot police.

After about a half hour, police charged forward through the protesters’ front line and wrestled students to the ground, making several arrests. One student was led away, his hair slick with blood that trickled down his face. Others ran into the athletics stadium, locking the gates to protect themselves. They dragged high jump mats to the gates and set them ablaze. Dozens of police officers, pushing deeper into the campus, continued to pursue the students, arcing their tear gas cannisters onto the track and sending students running up the bleachers.

Police eventually retreated back to the bridge while protesters took refuge up the road. But they took little pause and methodically prepared to defend their campus. Some smashed bricks into smaller pieces using shot puts from the athletic field, poured paint thinner into bottles to build a supply of Molotov cocktails, or brought down chairs from classrooms to build bigger barricades.

Jane, the 23-year-old university student, said she tried to help by building other roadblocks nearby with a group of protesters.

“In terms of weapons, we’re never going to win. So the only thing we could think of was to divert or distract them,” she said.

In the afternoon, the head of CUHK, Rocky Tuan, tried to negotiate directly with police officers who remained stationed at the bridge. But when he returned to speak to students, the compromise he offered did little to soothe things. Tuan said the police would retreat to the bottom of the bridge if students stopped throwing things onto the highway.

Many felt betrayed and angry — ultimately police had only agreed to move back about 20 yards.

“Where were you for the last two days?” someone shouted at Tuan as students huddled around him. “Could you promise that no more tear gas or rubber bullets will be fired inside campus?” another asked pointedly. One student hugged his knees to his chest and started heaving with sobs when it was clear that police weren’t leaving campus.

“The police shouldn’t be in the university. They broke into our place and arrested our people,” said one resolute student at the front lines. “If the police don’t leave the bridge, then we are not leaving.”

Fighting broke out once more that night as students spent hours trying to force the police to retreat from the bridge, lighting their way with endless volleys of Molotov cocktails. They blocked the road to the school with dumpsters and plastic barriers, setting them ablaze to keep police from rushing campus as they had earlier. Flames licked tree branches and police shields as students launched more and more Molotovs from behind umbrellas. Even in battle, someone managed to keep a black protest flag flying.

This night was different than the street battles that had become routine in the last five months. While the strategy had long been “be like water” — disappearing and reemerging in different parts of the city to keep police on their toes and avoid arrest — this was now a fixed battle centered on a narrow corridor of the bridge to campus— just the width of a couple vehicles.

As the crush of bodies pressed forward on the bridge, protesters were also turned into easy targets for the police officers who fired round after round of rubber bullets and bean bag rounds in rapid succession.

“It was so dangerous because it was so packed,” said Samuel, a first-aid volunteer and a high school student studying pharmacy who had come to help out. “They’d get hit and then we had to go in and drag them out.”

Police fired more than 2,300 rounds of tear gas that day, according to a government report. This amounted to around a quarter of all the tear gas rounds fired since the protests began in June, and the most tear gas that had been fired in a single day — much of it was on CUHK’s bridge. The clouds of smoke became so thick that protesters used leaf blowers to try to clear the air. First-aid volunteers said they had to carry people affected by the smoke as far as a mile away before they could find relief.

“It was obvious there was a very violent and major confrontation going because we were seeing lots of injuries,” said Darren Mann, a surgeon in Hong Kong who showed up to help after a call for doctors went out on Telegram. The school gym turned into a makeshift triage center. Mann quickly listed off the bashes, burns, bruising, and bleeding that he treated throughout the night.

“These are the wounds of war. They’re the same everywhere,” he said.

Dramatic images of smoke and raging fires on the bridge haunted Justin, a high school student and frequent frontliner who was watching the livestream from his phone. When he couldn’t sleep, he showed up at the university around 3 a.m. and headed straight to the bridge to help out. Justin was one of hundreds who started arriving at the campus throughout the day as word of the clashes spread. While it was centered on a campus, it was bigger than just the students.

“It wasn’t about defending the school, it was about defending the fight. If we don’t protect the people who are protesting on campus, it means we don’t care about them,” said Justin.

Police had already retreated by then, but hundreds of protesters didn’t move from the bridge that night. Some nodded off with their cheeks against their knees or against another’s shoulders, while others, like Justin, kept watch for police and remained alert.

No one knew when the police might return.

A bust of late hotel tycoon Hui Yeung Shing at the campus of CUHK.

On Wednesday morning, some students were still curled under silver thermal blankets, sleeping in the gym. Two girls poured hot water at the front desk into cups of instant noodles for people who were hungry. Some showered in the basement locker rooms. There were piles of fresh clothes, organized by size, for people who had grown cold or gotten wet from the water cannon.

Supplies continued to pour into the school. Buses pulled in filled with bags of hot meals, clothes, and more equipment, such as fresh gas mask filters. People across Hong Kong were pitching in to help. More showed up in support — to sweep away debris, pick up garbage from the night before, or just act as an extra body in case police returned.

“The point is we like this area, this place. This is our home. We want to protect our home,” said John, a 22-year-old student who was helping pick up garbage.

The campus was calmer, but everyone was on guard to see if the police would come back. The president of the CUHK student union, Jacky So, filed an injunction with the high court, hoping to keep riot police off the campus permanently. It requested that police not enter the university and refrain from using crowd-control equipment.

Classes were already canceled; but by the end of the day, the rest of the semester would be canceled too, only underscoring how the protests had dismantled some of the routines of normal life. Still, at some moments, Jane and other CUHK students were like any other college kids; they confessed they were happy about having no class as they hung out in the grass outside their dorm on Wednesday. “I was supposed to have a presentation today,” said Jane.

“I had three essays due this week!” her friend broke in. “It’s impossible to concentrate when all of this is going on anyway,” she added.

Hong Kong police condemned protesters’ actions in a press conference, saying the university had become “a breeding ground for rioters and criminals.” Police officers had “strong suspicions that the school was used a turned into a weapons factory as several hundred petrol bombs were fired in one single day.”

Many protesters are insistent that their actions have become more aggressive only in response to the police, and the government’s inaction on their demands. For months, several of the protesters’ demands have revolved around increased police accountability, calling for dropping riot charges, releasing arrested protesters, as well as an independent inquiry into police violence.

“I do throw cocktails, but the purpose is not to hurt the cops. It’s to stop their attacks. It’s a defensive weapon.” said Justin, the high school student who showed up to CUHK. In the protests, frontliners often divvy up roles. The Molotovs are referred to as “magic,” and people like Justin who throw them are known as “magicians.”

The high court agreed with police that officers had reason to enter the campus by force, considering the violent clashes at the bridge, and rejected the injunction.

Lots of students stuck around campus, preparing for another police advance, but officers didn’t return to CUHK.

By now, though, the entire city was shocked by how authorities had advanced on the university in one of the most brutal nights of the protests so far. There were at least 100 injuries. Other schools, like the University of Hong Kong, Polytechnic University, and Baptist University, began making their own preparations — building barriers and stocking supplies — in case police tried to advance on their campuses as well.

Justin spent a few days at CUHK, mostly keeping watch for police, and then headed to Polytechnic on Friday as the number of protesters there continued to grow. His father had already cut off his monthly allowance and canceled his phone plan because of his participation in the unrest. The 19-year-old is supposed to begin his first year at university next year, but is unsure he’ll do well on his exams after missing so much school due to the protests. Higher education seems less important than continuing his fight at the front lines, anyway.

“Hong Kong is a big deal right now with everything happening,” he said. “I don’t think I should quit yet.”

Inside Polytechnic University, tucked into the dense Kowloon neighborhood, students gathered up bows and arrows they had found among the campus’s archery equipment. Justin learned how to shoot in one of the classrooms that had been converted into a practice range. Protesters began dismantling the spokes inside umbrellas and stockpiling them to use as extra arrows. The school’s drained swimming pool had also become a place to practice tossing Molotov cocktails; the repeated explosions of glass and fire has left black marks on the bottom of the pool. Inside the canteen, a cook prepared meals, and there were piles of dry food and snacks.

“There was gas masks — everything you need. Even Calvin Klein underwear,” said Justin.

The campus of Polytechnic University, Hong Kong.

Polytechnic University was more vulnerable than CUHK. Students had the cover of the campus’s mountainous terrain at CUHK, which could provide potential escape routes. But Polytechnic was in the middle of a dense urban neighborhood on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong. The campus was flat, and its buildings were arranged in rows. There were only a few exits.

When police started firing tear gas early on Sunday, November 17, Justin, who had already been at Polytechnic for a couple of days, was on the ground floor of a school building, tossing Molotov cocktails at authorities just a few yards away.

Protesters at Polytechnic had prepared for this. The street outside the school was filled with nails to puncture the tires of vehicles that got too close. And on the second floor of one of the front buildings, protesters had fashioned makeshift catapults from plastic helmets and thick resistance bands sourced from the university gym to launch bricks and Molotov cocktails over the school’s gates.

Justin had missed the battle on the bridge at CUHK, but after months of working as a frontliner, the unrelenting hours-long clash with police at Polytechnic became the most intense battle he had ever seen.

May, the 21-year-old student, arrived around noon that day and worked as a firefighter on the front lines, grabbing the canisters of tear gas fired by police and throwing them back, or dousing them with water.

More continued to join the front lines as clashes continued throughout the day. Isaac, a student at Polytechnic, arrived in the afternoon. Tall and lanky with hair that flopped over the front of his glasses, he had shown up with a friend.

“I had wanted to go to CUHK, but we couldn’t get there,” he said. “So my partner and I, we just went to the front lines and helped defend the school from the police.”

As the night wore on, and there was little sign that either side would stop. Police announced in a message on its Facebook page that anyone leaving the school could face rioting charges, which carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. Police officers said they would use lethal force in response to violence if necessary.

The police warnings ricocheted across social media, though they did little to discourage the protesters. Mann, the doctor who was also at CUHK, and some of his colleagues decided to leave the Polytechnic campus and head to the hospitals where they could still assist with the mounting injuries.

“It was a difficult decision because medics never like to leave.” he said. “But we agreed among ourselves it was pointless in us all getting arrested, because that would only impact care.”

Mann passed the police cordon with one group of colleagues around 10 p.m. when he thought it was still safe to leave. But a second group of medical professionals, not far behind him, was detained by police. His phone started ringing. When he walked back to see what happened, he saw his colleagues kneeling on the ground wearing their high-visibility vests marked “doctor” or “nurse,” their hands zip-tied behind their backs.

Officers later said they were justified in making the arrests because they suspected protesters were posing as medical professionals or journalists.

“It is unheard of for them to be arrested while delivering medical care,” said Mann, dismissing the police’s explanation. He wrote for the Lancet in November about how the Hong Kong Police Force had violated international norms.

Inside Polytechnic, as the battles continued, May watched one of her friends get hit in the head with a tear gas canister and fall to the ground. Without thinking, she put her right hand on the canister, burning herself. A first-aid responder wrapped it, and she quickly returned to the battle.

“I could only rest for a few minutes,” she said. “I kept seeing people shot by police. They just fell down. I didn’t know whether they were dead or not.”

After more than 20 hours of battle, police burst onto the campus around 6 a.m. on Monday — now an entire week after police first occupied the bridge at CUHK. They started to grab students from the bottom of the stairs at the main entrance to the school. In an effort to prevent arrests, protesters started tossing yet more Molotov cocktails at the top of the entrance; a massive blaze erupted, crackling and feeding off the chemicals, chairs, metal railings, and pieces of cardboard. Another huge fire raged at the bridge near the front of campus.

As the school was still enveloped by the night’s darkness, there were screams, and the quick slaps of people’s feet running in panic. Some were crying in fear as the blazes created a disorienting, thick black smoke and intense heat without a safe exit on campus. A few protesters screamed at people trying to put out the blazes. It was still a strong defense against police, but now they were all trapped.

Isaac got crushed in a corridor outside one of the front buildings as he and others tried to escape both the fire and police. Even through his mask, his eyes blurred with tears.

“We didn’t know what was happening. The air was so cloudy. We couldn’t see anything,” he said. “I couldn’t even move a little. Everyone was so close to each other.”

He and others finally broke through the glass doors of the building to escape, and ran up to hide on higher floors. May also retreated from the main entrance once the fire broke out, finally falling asleep outside after 18 hours of dousing tear gas cannisters. Justin stuck around and continued to shoot arrows and throw Molotovs, charged by adrenaline.

As others were panicking and trying to run off campus or jump from the bridge, Justin said, he tried to remain calm and counsel others to stay since so many police officers were still surrounding the school.

“This is one of the tactics of police. They just want you to lose your mind,” he said.

Two protesters during the battle with riot police at PolyTechnic University.

Just hours after the police stormed Polytechnic on Monday morning, a young woman knelt to the ground blocks away from campus, her hands clasped in prayer.

“I’m so scared and mad,” the 24-year-old said when she stood up, as tears fell down her cheeks onto a face mask. “I am praying to God for our students.”

Crowds had gathered around the school in response to the police siege as images and videos of the surreal scenes on campus spread quickly. Many people were visibly shaken. The police cordon blocked even press and medics from entering initially.

By midday, protesters began digging up bricks and dismantling bamboo scaffolding to build elaborate barricades in the streets. “Save Poly” was scrawled in black spray paint on a street sign near the school. More riot police officers were dispatched to respond to protesters around the school.

“We’re trying to protect the students,” said Robin, a 24-year-old college student, as others worked around him.“If police come to us, then it will take attention away from the students and they can get free.”

Like others, he had remained glued to his phone the night before.

“I couldn’t sleep at all last night, so I just came out, because I couldn’t just sit around anymore,” he said.

Police responded to disperse the crowds and clashes broke out throughout the day on Chatham Road and Nathan Road, two major streets that lead to the school.

A makeshift barricade of chairs and other debris at the Polytechnic University.

Even with a steady supply of Molotovs, the imbalance was obvious as riot police drove an armored car up and down Chatham Road with an officer firing rounds of rubber bullets and tear gas from the top of the vehicle. A water cannon rolled alongside the car, firing heavy blasts of chemical-laced water at the crowd.

By the evening, just a few streets over from the clashes, a couple hundred people tried a different technique, staging a sit-in at the police cordon, hoping for some sign that the students inside were okay. They held signs up that said “save our students” in both English and Cantonese.

A mother and son sat close to the cordon as they waited to hear from Moses, a 16-year-old high school student who had left for Polytechnic University on Saturday. “He had school on Monday, so I told him to bring his homework,” his mother told BuzzFeed News. “He’s not a radical. He’s a kid.”

A pastor also attempted to speak with the riot police officers behind the orange tape and negotiate access to at least check on the humanitarian situation of the students. Later, dozens of social workers held up their registration cards in an attempt to gain access. But police stood stone-faced and didn’t move.

Thousands more continued to fill the streets around Polytechnic University Monday night. As they marched toward police cordons, they chanted, “Save Poly.” Protesters formed long chains to bring supplies to the front lines in an attempt to break the police’s perimeter of the university.

But at every entrance, police beat back the crowds. They fired tear gas, water cannons, and flash grenades, which exploded in large, disorienting bursts of sound and light. On Nathan Road, more live rounds were fired late into the night to warn people away.

Despite the swell of people who filled the streets trying to help, no one made it into the school.

Protesters trapped inside Polytechnic University abseil onto a highway as they try to escape.

Isaac was still inside Polytechnic on Friday after six days on campus. He made several attempts but was unable to escape. His family had been trying to help too, texting him possible exit routes. “I usually had already tried them though,” he said.

Giving himself up to the police wasn’t an option. “Surrender is the offer that our enemy — the government — provides us. And as a protester, we are fighting against the government, we have no reason to accept their offer,” he said.

Still, by that point, many protesters had already gone. Some had managed to shimmy down a rope that dangled off a footbridge on campus and escape with the help of others on motorbikes.

By Tuesday, Moses managed to escape through the sewers, his brother later texted BuzzFeed News.

The Hospital Authority announced that 300 gravely injured people had been sent to 12 different hospitals across the city on Tuesday. Some had hypothermia after being hit by the heavy blast of a water cannon. Others had burns, bruises, or wounds from projectiles. The number of injuries was so high the Hospital Authority called for residents to avoid emergency care unless absolutely necessary, as facilities were clogged with protesters from Polytechnic University.

May eventually surfaced from the sewers — but after some time crawling, she realized she was still inside the campus.

Her knees were bleeding and bacteria from the sewer water had soaked through the bandages on her hand, which still burned after handling the tear gas canister,. She was shivering from the cold water when she finally emerged. First-aid workers who remained at the school cleaned her hand but warned her from trying the sewers to escape again. It was too risky with her injury.

Police later allowed ambulances into the campus to transport injured people before investigating them for possible charges. May lasted a couple more days after her sewer escape attempt, but she decided to leave in an ambulance when the group she was with wanted to go. It was still a hard decision, as many inside had built a community — dividing chores like cooking and cleaning, and keeping each other entertained. “We were a family,” she said.

May was not arrested but police recorded her personal information. “I felt like it was surrendering,” she said. “I don’t know if police will show up and still come for me.”

As the days wore on and the number of protesters dwindled, many people went into hiding. The campus became eerily quiet, and many were fearful of undercover cops and revealing possible escape routes to authorities. It was different from the early days of CUHK, when students had first beat back police and the campus teemed with people preparing for the next battle. Their ranks were now worn down and thinned out.

After the first round of arrests, Justin holed up with a group of people hiding in one classroom. Things became more tribal as the days went on — it was easier to trust fewer people and gather supplies for a small group rather than rely on anyone who was still left on campus.

After a week, there was still food around, but leftovers began to rot and the canteen smelled like sour garbage. Trash piled up. Many of the first-aid workers had left by the end of the week, but the medic area was still full of supplies, including inhalers, alcohol wipes, and bandages. The gym, where many people had set up yoga mats and sleeping bags, was mostly abandoned.

Justin also left in an ambulance. He didn’t make it through the sewers either. Like May, he had to give his details to the police, but he wasn’t arrested. At first, he said, he thought of fleeing the country, afraid of facing rioting charges. But now, he too has accepted that police could arrest him at any time.

For now they would take a rest, he said, but soon return to the streets. He added, “It’s not going to be a short fight; it’s going to be a long fight.”

May also seemed more resolute after finally getting home.

“Why do teenagers in Hong Kong have to crawl through the sewer just to escape from the police?” she asked. “What kind of government can allow this?”

But some of the protesters did manage to evade the police altogether.

After nearly a week on the campus, Isaac had lain on the ground of one of the parking complexes with a group of friends. A few feet away, a maintenance hole cover had been removed, revealing a route inside the sewer system. They waited to hear from friends on the outside to confirm that someone could pick them up and it was safe to make the attempt.

After a couple of hours, he and the others in his group pulled on gas masks and goggles. One of the girls tied her hair back, and another pulled on dark waterproof pants over her striped cotton pants. A couple of them dropped their phones in ziplock bags to protect them. The rest of their things were contained in dry bags, slung over their shoulders.

When word came that it was safe to leave, one at a time, they eased themselves down the sewer opening. The water was low, splashing around their ankles as they dropped down. And then each of them crouched, disappearing under the archway inside the sewer, headlamps guiding the way.

A few hours later, Isaac texted BuzzFeed News a string of crying emojis and just a few words to confirm he had made it: “Yes finally left.” ●


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