Black shadows flitting around in small groups, deserted rubbish-strewn corridors and cockroaches in disemboweled kitchens: dawn broke on Friday to reveal a post-apocalyptic scene at a Hong Kong campus six days after a police siege began.
In a near-empty, soundless labyrinth, Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) is decoupled from the cacophony of a brash, bustling city of 7.5 million people.
The pro-democracy protesters holding this brick “fortress” are almost invisible as they hide among the maze of rooms and corridors.
They occasionally emerge, clustered in twos or threes and give interviews to the assembled media.
They are dressed and masked in black, the signature colour of the pro-democracy movement that over the past six months has turned into the biggest challenge to China’s rule of Hong Kong since the city was returned from Britain in 1997.
“The police say we are a hundred. We avoid giving a number but I can tell you that we are many more,” says one protester who introduces himself as “Mike”.
On the sprawling city centre campus, it is impossible to say if he is inflating the figure.
Hundreds of protesters have left the PolyU in recent days, a large majority of whom were arrested. Many were aged under 18.
Some slipped out through the drainage system, others made a daring breakout by ropes to awaiting motorcycles.
Remnants of battle
In Friday’s morning gloom the neon red sign of the “American Diner” still shines bright.
But after being ransacked in the early stages of the siege, empty pots, paper cups and knives litter the canteen.
An array of empty beer bottles, canisters of petrol, cooking oil and chemicals are discarded on the floor – an abandoned workshop for molotov cocktails, which were thrown in their hundreds during the fierce defence of the campus from a police incursion earlier in the week.
“The battle of Saturday and Sunday was the most terrible fight in Hong Kong history,” says Mike, who declines to give identifying details other than giving his age in his 30s.
This “brave” – as the front-line protesters call them – fears being arrested and facing serious charges.
He declines to say exactly his role in the initial clashes, but believes police at one point threatened to shoot at him with live fire.
After the initial confrontations, the stand-off turned into a siege as police surrounded the complex and arrested anyone who tried to escape.
Some of the protesters were beaten, with video footage showing police stamping on a subdued person’s head.
Over the past couple of days a few of the diehard protesters have emerged looking weary and hungry.
The remaining ones also appear exhausted but are still defiant, as they await a police ‘attack’ that may never occur.
On Friday Hong Kong’s new police commissioner said there wa”no deadline” for the holdouts to leave the university.
Police aren’t revealing their tactics, but after nearly one week it seems they may be prepared to just wait for the final protesters to emerge from the campus.
Inside, a foul odour emanates from canteens or kitchens where food has been spilled, attracting inch-long cockroaches.
In common areas, vending machines for snacks and cans have long been looted.
But the fridges and freezers of the vast campus are still full.
“The police are wrong if they think we are going to surrender,” says Mike.
“We have all the resources we need in water and food, we can keep going for a month.”
Defiance ripples out from three other young protesters.
“We’re not tired,” says “Stephen”.
For Mike, hiding in the campus is his best chance of not getting arrested.
“It’s about the probabilities. We have several thousand rooms in this campus. How many policemen can they send in? 100. 200,” he says.
“They only have a 5 percent chance of finding us… if we go out, it’s a 50-50 chance of being arrested.”