TEACHER Rupert Attlee was 25 when he visited Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
He arrived on June 3 and found a city in a carnival-like state, with thousands of students parading through the streets calling for democracy in China.
The next day, scores of people had been massacred.
Now the head of English at Cothill House School, near Abingdon, has written his account of what he saw, keeping a promise he made to a Chinese student 25 years ago.
Mr Attlee, 50, said: “People sensed something was going to happen and there were reports of the army rallying around Beijing but no-one anticipated the scale of what was to happen.”
That night, hundreds, possibly thousands, of students and others were massacred.
Mr Attlee, who was returning to Britain after a period of teaching in Australia, and his two companions heard shooting from their hotel, but it didn’t prepare him for what he saw the next day.
He got up early to get train tickets for the Trans-Siberian express.
Between his hotel and the train station was Tiananmen Square.
He said: “There were people walking around bewildered, and bodies lying around the place.”
His immediate reaction was to turn and run, but a young English-speaking student stopped him.
Mr Attlee, a father of two, said: “I was holding a camera, and he said to me ‘you have to show the world what you have seen here’.
“I knew I had to stay and try to do something’.”
The two young men climbed on top of a tank and started taking pictures of the desolation, until troops started firing at them.
He said: “I was 25, I felt immortal, and I knew this was something that need to be told, that needed to be shown to the world.”
He returned to his hotel and that afternoon it was raided by police, who confiscated cameras and films.
Luckily, he had hidden one exposed roll of film in a secret compartment in his rucksack, and was able to get it developed back home in the UK.
In the following days, the three companions fled Beijing and spent two days hiding at the Great Wall, before returning to get a plane to Hong Kong.
Yesterday marked 25 years to the day since the massacre, but reports from China suggest the government still denies the full scale of what happened.
Tiananmen Square was part of a series of pro-democracy protests and demonstrations in the spring of 1989 which culminated with a government crackdown on the demonstrators.
The protests were sparked by the death of the Communist party’s pro-reform secretary Hu Yaobang in mid-April.
On the day of his funeral, April 22, tens of thousands of students gathered in Tiananmen Square demanding democratic and other reforms, and remained there for the coming weeks.
Mr Attlee, who has made a video, below, about his experiences with the help of his students, said: “This is the perfect time for reflection on what those students tried to achieve – freedom and democracy from a controlling Communist government.”
- Our top stories: