The spring of 1989 was warm and humid. For the first time in history, people from all over the country had come to Beijing to take a stand against the regime. They were in open revolt: one out of ten had left their homes, their safe havens, in search for a brighter future, one out of ten had joined the protest to make a change, one out of ten fought for a better, a democratic China.
This is a story of the brave, a tribute to the ten percent who joined the battle that gave us the right to be free. I was there those days, and so was my sister, Mei.
Our message was painted across the city, and like us, thousands of people roamed the streets to share it with the world. My sister held a banner up, and I glanced back at the vast body of people that had formed behind us in mere minutes. It reminded me of the Yellow river, a place where dad used to take us since we could barely walk. The past years, reforms and restrictions in our country tumbled upon my people like rain falls onto the Bayar har-mountains. Although a part of the water sips into the ground, another part seeks its way out: this is the beginning of a source. My dad used to say that the heavier the storms become, the higher the river will rise.
“And always remember, Fengxia,’ he once said, “a river will not be tamed.”
They should have known that.
The chants of angry men gave off an electric pulse, it was both energising and paralysing at the same time. I looked at my sister as she nodded and started to join in, a little off-key. We were there to let our voices be heard, and so we did. As the continuous flow of people advanced Tiananmen square, we saw several journalists join in as their pencils had been colouring inside the lines for far too long. I saw a man raising a banner that read:
“OUR PEOPLE DESERVE TO KNOW THE TRUTH!”
My sister caught my glance before I had the chance to look away, and and as she smiled back at me, we walked on.
When we crossed the next block, more and more people joined our forces: I recognized doctors, nurses, scientists, all dressed in white coats – a colour that represents purity. As I felt the ground had started to rumble and heard escaping gasps of laughter amongst the crowd, I looked to my left. I could not believe what I saw: Chinese Navy troops were marching up to join the revolt.
“Hell yeah!” my sister burst into laughter, “It feels good to be on the winning side, doesn’t it?”
An uncontrollable force was building among the crowd, and we were all very aware of it happening. The virus of freedom had spread all across the country, and everyone joined in to protect it. It was finally time for the old regime to fall, for corruption and censorship to be over, and for a bright future to take off.
This is where the transport trucks came in – a few big trucks, and several smaller ones. My sister tossed me a concerned look as we approached the square. We had to reach it before they did, as we knew it would be impossible to regain it as soon as it fell into their hands.
“Block the roads!” Someone yelled. “Don’t let them pass!’
We were all told to position ourselves in the nearest suburbs and barricade the streets. It was no longer just us: workers, students, city residents, even children – everyone joined in to lend a hand. People all across the city parked their cars across the street, dragged couches from their apartments and even lied down themselves to stop the trucks from infiltrating the city. Mei and I took off to one of the outer streets along the square, as we witnessed a woman trying to catch a soldier’s attention.
“Please sir, this is a peaceful movement. We mean you and the government no harm. We merely ask for the freedom the Chinese people deserve!”
Another joined in, screaming angrily.
“You are supposed to protect us, aren’t you?” He hesitated, but finally continued “So protect us!”
Various people tried to appeal to the soldiers, using even their children to persuade them. And they did. These slightly confused, glassy-eyed soldiers were touched by their compelling words. Even they were victims of the regime. They were forced to leave their homes, their families, to fight someone else’s war. Once they realised this might have been the opportunity they had been waiting for, they turned around and drew back. As people cheered, I looked at my sister and realised that this was very real, and that we actually had a chance.
The next few days went by fast. We set up our camp at the square, just like thousands of others had done before us. We were offered food and water, and we would sit around the fire exchanging stories with other students. The area was filled with positivity, warmth and laughter – we had a good time.
Even though the Tiananmen square area felt sound and peaceful, the outside pressure around it increased. We all made sure all roads towards the square were securely blocked. We used busses, wooden pallets, trucks, anything we could find to barricade these streets.
In the evening of June 3rd, the army had reached the barricades and started blasting them down with force. We hurried towards the nearest one to help sustain it. The people who were manning the barricades at that time, tried throwing rocks and debris to fend off the advancing army tanks. One of the soldiers threw a gasoline soaked rug inside one of our busses, in return. It caught fire a split second later. More soldiers joined in and we realised it was only a matter of time before they would break through our blockades. I skimmed through the crowd, looking for my sister. Thank god, she was right behind me.
“Stay close!” I cried. A rush of adrenaline surged through my body, as I knew we weren’t safe. My sister looked scared. I heard gunshots. Troops began to fire in all directions. People were screaming and crying.
“How dare you shoot your own citizens, you bastards!” A man stood up against one of the tanks. “Murderers!” He cried.
As the soldiers repositioned themselves, bullets started traveling in his direction. The man immediately threw himself to the ground. The shrieking sound of fired bullets dashed around my head. I heard a shirring cry to my right: A girl got shot in the shoulder. The red blood was gushing out her wound, and her flesh was thorn apart. I was unable to move, I just stood there, paralysed and in total shock. Everyone was in complete panic. Panic, disbelieve and anger. Instead of surrendering, though, more people came pouring in towards the square. Our river had risen so high, that even the biggest walls could not prevent a flood. We’d had enough.
I ran towards the girl and kneeled beside her.
“How do I stop the bleeding?” The girl cried. I looked at the wound with distaste. How could they do this to her, she wasn’t even half my age. My sister ran towards us and used her banner to apply pressure to the wound.
“She needs to go to the hospital.” She hissed silently. I stroke the girl’s hair, trying to calm her down. “We need to find a bike, quickly!”
A young man that overheard our conversation ran off to find one. When he came back, we lifted the wounded girl off the ground and settled her onto the bicycle.
We travelled a few blocks South and found a hospital. We tried to get a doctor’s attention, but all of them had their hands full trying to attend the daunting amount of injured, all covered in gunshot wounds and bloodstains. As I looked around, I realised the haunting image that had presented itself: I saw countless dead bodies, blood-shod, that were never to rise again, I heard a dolente of people stumbling and crying, and the place smelled awful, like death.
Along the barricades, people were still risking their lives, trying to secure what we all held so dear. However, with the army pouring in from all directions, like water in a sinking boat, we knew that we were trapped. Some people fled or took shelter in one of the buildings along the square, others held their ground. As I was trying to think straight and come up with some sort of plan, I remembered the first time dad took us swimming in the river. He taught us how to recognize its strong currents, as they posed serious danger to young swimmers like Mei and me. He told us that, if the current would ever pull us out, the most important thing was not to panic.
“Remember to turn 90 degrees and swim parallel towards the shore, and you will be fine.” He used to say.
“That’s it!” I yelled. I looked around, trying to find my sister’s face in the crowd. “Mei, listen to me, I have a plan.”
As I rushed towards her, the firing started again. A thunderous sound of gunfire filled the air once more. A helpless sight of people bustling and bolting, a boy right next to me getting pierced in the neck, blood spouting from the wound. His mother rushed towards him and collapsed into a shrieking cry.
“Mei!” I screamed, trying to get her attention. “Remember what dad used to say?”
She looked startled, as two little kids were hit by bullets right in front of her eyes.
“We have to swim parallel to the current. Try to get to the sidewalk!” I screamed at the top of my lungs, hoping she would understand what I was trying to say. The shrieking sound of a grieving mother transformed into an alarming sound of state sirens. The army started throwing smoke bombs – as our vision became foggier, so became our mission.
“Stay inside!” We heard government announcements. “Those who choose to stay in the streets will be held responsible.”
Suddenly, the electricity was cut off and all the streetlights went out. I lost Mei, and while I waited for my eyes to get used to the darkness, I tried to find her.
“Mei!’ I screamed. “Mei, please answer me. Where are you?” I tried looking for her, but it was hopeless – It was pitch-black outside.
Her absence worried me.
“Please, Mei!’ I sobbed. “Please let me know you’re okay!” I continued searching for her as I tried to move towards the sidewalk, just as we had just discussed.
Through the shrilling sounds of frantic bullets, I heard a scream. My heart sunk. It was hers.
“Mei!’ I cried. I couldn’t see anything, but I would not give up. I knew she was close, and I had to find her to make sure she was alright. That’s when I saw it. The silhouette of my own sister, dropped to the ground, covered in blood.
“Oh my god, Mei!” my voice shivered, as I kneeled beside her. Her chest was ripped open and punctured with gunshot wounds. It reminded me of the larch tree dad had planted in our backyard. Some woodpeckers had claimed it for themselves, and we always used to laugh about the funny noises they made.
“It…” Mei’s voice trembled as she glanced at her wounds. “It’s okay, Fengxia. I’ll be fine.” I tried to comfort her by stroking her hair and her precious little face. I stared at her in shock and disbelief, how could this have happened? She tried to take my hand and looked me in the eye.
“Dad would be so proud of you.” She said, softly. I sobbed and told her not to give up, but a part inside of me already did, too.
“Fengxia, I’m so sorry…” A fellow student leaned over me and my sister and tried to drag me away. “But we’ve got to go.” He insisted.
The boy led me to the monument, the place where we were told to gather. I expected to be shot right there, but we weren’t. We were offered mercy, if we would leave the square at once. To avoid more injuries and deaths, we did. We all held hands, sang our songs and promised that one day we would come back, for freedom was something worth fighting for.
It could have taken hours before the city lights were turned back on. My sister’s, however, had long burned out.