June 4 marks the 26th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, in which the Chinese army rolled into Beijing’s central square to break up a weeks-long pro-democracy protest.
On the ground among the fervor and deaths was a young British photojournalist named Robert Croma, whose archive of photos from May and June of 1989 document a critical turning point in China’s history. Croma recounted his experience on the ground to the Denver Post in a previous interview.
The student protests had been in full flow for some weeks before I arrived in Beijing in May 1989. I had been advised by news desks in New York and London that the Tiananmen story was over, and that it would be foolhardy to travel half way across the world for a dying news event. I went anyway as it seemed anything but a dying story to me. Especially considering the events percolating within the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries at the time. Global communism seemed distinctly under threat during that period.
Initially, there was a tremendous festive spirit amidst the occupation of Tiananmen. Nothing palpably menacing at all. People were open and at ease. I spent many nights in the square, talking and eating with students, photographing and sleeping in some of the makeshift tents. But nearing the end of May rumours began circulating that troops would soon attempt to clear the square. I’d received information from student sources about troop movements around Beijing. So early in June, I took a cab to the outskirts of the city and discovered a large number of soldiers stationed along the roads. It seemed something conclusive was soon to happen.
The final assault on the night of the 3-4 June was swift, brutal and decisive. I saw numerous people killed, both protesters and soldiers. I witnessed much bloodshed, trauma and atrocity. I was beaten several times, once trying to prevent an attack by an angry mob upon a young soldier. I also lost many rolls of film to what I assumed were security personnel who frisked me and beat me about the face and body for taking pictures of injured troops. It was a toxic working environment – dangerous, forlorn and unpredictable.
Robert Croma is based in London and more photos from Tiananmen Square can be found via his Flickr page.