Anniversaries are important.

Tomorrow will mark 75 years after the D-Day invasion of Normandy and will be marked solemnly as it should be.

Yesterday marked 30 years since the massacre of student demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square by troops following orders from the Chinese government.

My presence in Beijing those final days of May and early days of June 1989 was simply a matter of happenstance.

I’d been invited to take part in a People-to-People conference centering on economic issues and had no idea when I signed up what would await me upon my arrival.

The demonstrations began in April, and by the time I arrived for the conference it’s safe to say that hundreds of thousands of Chinese — young and old, student and worker — had taken part.

Like any mass movement, there were multiple agendas and grievances. But most centered upon a desire for greater openness, greater economic freedom and greater freedom of expression along with contempt and frustration over corruption and cronyism within the leadership of the Communist Party.

Sometimes those agendas were in sync; sometimes they were in competition. I will always remember a young woman who was wearing a sort of banner like a scarf. One side said, “Long live democracy,” and the other side said, “Long live Communism.”

In other words, it was a complicated time.

For me, it was what can only be described as a life-changing experience.

Whenever it was feasible in that week, I skipped out on the conference and went to Tiananmen, where I hung out with students, took photo after photo and felt that I would never be closer to witnessing history firsthand.

Next thing I knew I was in the square at midnight, thanks to some assistance from some Chinese graduate students who were attending the conference. I can still hear the harangues coming from loudspeakers around the square, telling the students to go home.

And I will always remember the moment I stood up on the back of a cart to attempt to take a picture of a group of workers singing a patriotic song at midnight. The second I raised my camera to my eye, they stopped singing and turned as one to stare at me. Suddenly, I was a threat in a secret-police society. 

I put my camera down and got off the back of the cart.

I brought it back to my eye the morning that the Goddess of Democracy statue was erected.

It was before dawn had fully broken. Students had brought the statue — constructed of lumber and plaster for the most part — to the square in the dark of night. It arrived in large chunks which were then put together. A makeshift scaffolding surrounded the statue as the chunks were put together into one structure.

Completed, the Goddess — her torch raised high — stared across the central avenue into the eyes of a portrait of Mao at the gates of the Forbidden City.

And then — perhaps because of the Goddess’s affront to Mao — things went sour in a hurry.

On the night of June 3, only a couple days before I was due to return to Indiana, I found a different mood on the square. I would call it paranoia, except for the fact that it was justified.

Unease. Distrust. Anxiety. Those were the prevailing moods.

A cadre of police had already made a move through the square, beating students with truncheons.

“Tell this to President George Bush,” an old man told me as I took a photo of a student with a head wound lying on a stretcher.

I knew by then it was time to leave. It was after 9 p.m., maybe later, but the sun had not yet gone down.

Making my way north of the square, I found a cab and got back to my hotel.

Troops were moving in. “Tank man” was making his stand. And automatic weapons fire would echo through the night and into the middle of the next day.

I made it home, of course.

But every year about this time — particularly when we hit something like the 30th anniversary — I think of Tiananmen.

I think of the students who had traveled hundreds of miles by train from their agricultural university to take part.

I think of a young student demonstrator sleeping on the stone pavement amid a sea of debris and detritus.

I think of a couple I photographed. Clearly in love, they were putting their lives at risk together.

And I am humbled once again.