Coming to terms with Poland’s disaster
When she got a tip-off on Saturday morning that something might
have happened to President Lech Kaczynski, one of our Warsaw
reporters grabbed her mobile phone to call a reliable government
source. No answer. Hmm, perhaps something really had happened.
Perhaps the president had fallen sick and the source was
attending an emergency meeting. A few minutes later she called
again, still no answer. The source always answered his mobile to
her. Then came the terrible news that the military plane
carrying the president and 95 other people, including much of
Poland’s military and political elite, had crashed in thick fog
in a Russian forest, killing all on board. Her source had been
At the office later, I hurriedly sifted through business cards
looking for numbers of contacts who could help us try to make
sense of the unprecedented disaster engulfing Poland. I
realised, with a jolt, that some of the cards belonged to people
whose names now featured in the grimly long list of the dead
scrolling down the television screen.
Nearly a week after the crash, Warsaw is still numb with shock.
Thousands of people throng the area near the president’s
residence, queuing for up to 18 hours to view the closed coffins
of the First Couple inside or just taking photos of the
impromptu shrine made up of candles, flowers, crucifixes and
portraits of the deceased that has sprung up at the palace gate.
Much of the palace, a large white building, is now empty, many
of those who worked within its walls having been incinerated
along with their president in a Russian forest.
Soldiers and boy and girl scouts try to keep some semblance of
order outside. One group waves a banner bearing the name and
logo of the pro-democracy Solidarity movement to which Kaczynski
had once belonged, an enduring symbol of Polish defiance.
Some visitors are lost in silent prayer, many clutch red and
white national flags threaded with black strips of mourning.
For days, Polish television has been broadcasting live from
Warsaw’s military airport the return of yet more coffins. They
are carried shoulder-high across the tarmac by soldiers to the
sombre strains of the funeral march to be met by grieving
relatives. It is as if Poland were fighting some bloody war.
And amid all the sorrow and pain, there are still many
unanswered questions. Why were so many of Poland’s top political
and military leaders flying on one plane? Why did the pilot
ignore the Russian air controllers’s advice to land elsewhere?
There is anger, too, over the waste of so much life. Anger also
that Kaczynski — whose popularity had fallen to around 20
percent and who had been expected to lose this year’s
presidential election — will be buried in Krakow, a city with
which he has no personal connection, in a cathedral normally
reserved for the nation’s heroes, poets and kings.
One small consolation is that a separate plane carrying Polish
journalists had reached its destination safely ahead of the
presidential party on that tragic day.
They had been due to cover the commemoration by Poland’s elite
of the 70th anniversary of the massacre of 22,000 Polish
officers and intellectuals by the Soviet secret police.
Now, the peaceful Katyn forest — branded “an accursed spot” by
former Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski — will always be
remembered not for one tragedy but for two — 1940 and 2010.