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The Hong Kong pit stop in Snowden's getaway

Edward Snowden fled the United States three years ago.
Published Sep. 8, 2016

HONG KONG — When the 42-year-old Filipino woman opened the door of her tiny Hong Kong apartment three years ago, two lawyers stood outside with a man she had never seen before. They explained that he needed a place to hide, and they introduced him as Edward Snowden.

"The first time I see him, I don't know who he is," the woman, Vanessa Mae Bondalian Rodel, recalled in an interview. "I don't have any idea."

Rodel is one of at least four residents of Hong Kong who took in Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, when he fled the United States in June 2013. Only now have they decided to speak about the experience, revealing a new chapter in the odyssey that riveted the world after Snowden disclosed that the NSA had been monitoring the calls, emails and web activity of millions of Americans and others.

At the time, governments and news outlets were scrambling to find the source of the leaks, which were published in the Guardian and the Washington Post. In an interview recorded in a hotel room, Snowden identified himself and revealed that he was in Hong Kong. Then he went into hiding. About two weeks later he turned up in Moscow.

It was never clear where Snowden was holed up during those critical days after leaving his room at the five-star Mira Hotel, when the United States was demanding his return. As it turns out, he was staying with Rodel and others like her — men and women seeking political asylum in Hong Kong who live in cramped, substandard apartment blocks in some of the city's poorest districts.

They were all clients of one of Snowden's Hong Kong lawyers, Robert Tibbo, who arranged for him to stay with them.

Rodel said Snowden slept in her bedroom while she and her 1-year-old daughter moved into their apartment's only other room. Not knowing what he would eat, she bought him an Egg McMuffin and an iced tea from McDonald's.

"My first impression of his face was that he was scared, very worried," she recalled.

Rodel said her unexpected guest "was using his computer all day, all night." She said that she did not have Internet service but that Tibbo provided him with mobile access.

On Snowden's second day there, he asked Rodel whether she could buy him a copy of the South China Morning Post, the city's main English-language newspaper, she said. When she picked up the paper, she saw his picture on the front page.

"Oh my God, unbelievable," she recalled saying to herself. "The most wanted man in the world is in my house."

Jonathan Man, another of Snowden's lawyers in Hong Kong, said he had initially considered hiding him in a warehouse but that he and Tibbo quickly dismissed the idea. Instead, after taking him to the United Nations office that handles refugee claims in Hong Kong and filing an application, they brought him to the apartment of a client seeking asylum.

"It was clear that if Mr. Snowden was placed with a refugee family, this was the last place the government and the majority of Hong Kong society would expect him to be," Tibbo said. "Nobody would look for him there. Even if they caught a glimpse of him, it was highly unlikely that they would recognize him."

There are about 11,000 registered asylum seekers living in Hong Kong, mostly from South and Southeast Asia. They generally cannot work legally and survive on monthly stipends that rarely cover living costs.

Tibbo said he turned to these clients for help in part because he expected them to understand Snowden's plight. "These were people who went through the same process when they were fleeing other countries," he said. "They had to rely on other people for refuge, safety, comfort and support."

He noted that Snowden was not wanted by the Hong Kong police at the time and that he had advised his clients to cooperate with the police if they showed up. He said his clients had decided to come forward in the hope that the publicity would put pressure on the Hong Kong authorities to expedite their applications for refugee status and resettlement.

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