Hong Kong (AFP)
When Hong Kong protester Hei saw activists behind bars for taking part in last year’s democracy protests, she was determined to keep the flame burning by writing letters to them.
Thousands of people have been arrested and taken into custody for a series of offenses during the massive and sometimes violent protests that rocked the financial center last year.
The city’s prison system strictly controls inmates’ access to information about life outside, so Hei decided to update them on the democratic movement by putting pen to paper. Its mailing list now numbers nearly 60 people.
“It’s a relationship between comrades in arms and we trust each other,” the 22-year-old told AFP, asking to use only one name to protect her identity.
“We share the same pain. I hope that writing letters can build people’s confidence in the movement. ”
In addition to writing handwritten letters, Hei develops a DIY journal called ‘Pass the Day’, which includes a summary of headlines, social media posts and political memes from online forums popular with protesters. .
She also visits the activists, bringing books, snacks and essentials. Her friends jokingly refer to her as being “half-imprisoned” by her engagement.
Of the more than 10,000 people arrested during protests since June 2019, more than 2,300 of these cases have been prosecuted, according to the authorities.
Hundreds of people are held in pre-trial detention or are serving sentences after conviction.
– Letters like “candle” –
One of those jailed was Max, 43, convicted of arson for throwing a book on a barricade bonfire lit by protesters.
During the four months he spent in prison, Max likened the letters to “nutrients” and recalled that he would like to respond to them immediately, while they were still “cool and warm”.
“When I was inside it was like walking in a tunnel and I couldn’t see any light,” he recalls, provided only his first name was used.
“These letters were like candles showing me the way to the other end.
Compared to the twice-monthly and half-hourly allowed visits, the letters were “the kind of support you can hang on to.”
Without a proper desk and chair, he spent hours writing letters on his cell bed, burning three pens a month.
Prison regulations allow sentenced prisoners to send one free letter per week. Those who want to send more have to earn money for stamps through work. Letters received – as well as books – are also examined.
Since his release, Max has continued to write to inmates and activists who are still in prison.
“I don’t expect much of how these letters might extend the movement, but I hope the comrades can live a good life inside and find mental support,” he said.
– ‘Not alone’ –
The letter writing campaign was supported by former lawmaker Shiu Ka-Chun.
Since January, more than 5,000 letters from the public have been sent and 500 correspondents have been matched.
“That’s the beauty of this movement. People find their own positions and roles to show their support, ”Shiu told AFP.
In addition to writing letters, Shiu also participated in campaigns to help inmates send flowers to relatives outside and organize learning materials for young inmates.
“I hope more people can continue to write to our friends in detention to let them know that they are not alone,” he said.
Jennifer, a 30-year-old office worker, called the crushing of the democratic movement “really dark” and said she was frustrated that much peaceful dissent had been banned.
So far, she has written 48 letters to prisoners, which she says helps her deal with her own feelings and comfort her pen pals.
“Sometimes I would cry while writing these letters,” she said, simply asking to use her first name.
“Physically I am free, but mentally we all live in a prison. ”
© 2020 AFP