Inside the Hong Kong university siege: 'Some are scared, some have hope'

A scrawled graffiti message near an American flag read: "Liberty or death."

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By Bill Neely and Patrick Smith

HONG KONG — With his face covered with one of the masks that have come to define Hong Kong's anti-government movement, one young protester summed up the mood inside the city's Polytechnic University, where it's thought up to 100 young people have been holed up since Monday, surrounded by police.

“Some of them are scared, some of them still have hope,” he said, as he was arrested and led away by police along with two other protesters after they finally left the university complex that has been under siege.

Asked why he had left, the man, who declined to give his name and appeared to have sustained a foot injury, said: "Here, it is not safe."

NBC News gained access to the university complex Wednesday, where the protesters have barricaded themselves in amid extensive supplies of homemade or improvised weaponry, medical items and protective clothing.

A slogan scrawled in graffiti near an American flag reads: "Liberty or death."

A gymnasium used by protesters as a dormitory inside the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in the Hung Hom district of Hong Kong on Nov. 20, 2019.Nicolas Asfouri / AFP - Getty Images

At least two dozen protesters could be seen inside, most wearing masks and all apparently in their early twenties or younger. Riot police guard the scene 24 hours a day.

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The mood is calmer here than on Monday night when protesters attempted to escape by clambering down ropes to waiting motorbikes. The authorities said more than 600 people left the campus peacefully Tuesday.

But scenes of devastation were all around: debris was strewn across rooms, with some flooded by water that was gushing down a stairwell. Hammers, chisels and axes could be seen, alongside walkie-talkies, military-grade bulletproof vests and helmets.

In addition, there were hundreds upon hundreds of molotov cocktails, some strapped to gas canisters. Protesters had also ransacked the university's chemistry labs and taken some volatile, flammable liquids. Bandages and drips hanging from hooks were just some of the medical gear on display.

However long this siege lasts, it's clear the protesters inside are well-prepared.

While many protesters have already left, concern is growing among concerned onlookers and family members for those trapped inside.

Li Kim-Man, a high school principal, said: “Our students are right now in danger. This is a dangerous phase. I’m here trying to persuade students to leave. There are at least 30 people inside who are under 18."

“They are mentally unfit now. They are scared. We just hope there is no force coming in," he added.

Asked whether he feared a disaster, Li simply replied: “Yes.”

A Hong Kong flag painted on the ground of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University is partly covered up by a stockpile of Molotov cocktail in Hong Kong on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019.Ng Han Guan / AP

Also inside were medical organizations such as the St John's Ambulance, working in groups of three to treat wounded protesters.

However, the police are also well-prepared. Looking relaxed, with riot shields in place, they appeared unfazed by the situation.

Police said six people were arrested Wednesday, four while removing a manhole cover outside the university and two while using the sewer system to emerge from the manhole and escape.

In total, some 5,000 people have been arrested in connection with the protests since June.

Reuters contributed.