Mourners throng Warsaw streets


Poles gathered for memorial masses around the country this morning, a day after the air crash that killed President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria and a prominent delegation from Polish public life.

The fading shock was replaced by an even more painful realisation: Katyn, a place Poles associate with the worst horror of the second World War, is now fresh place of sorrow.

Exactly 70 years apart, two tragedies are now associated with the forest near the now Russian town of Smolensk: then, 22,000 Polish officers were massacred by Soviet forces, their bodies hidden in mass graves. Now the Polish head of state and an entire generation of politicians and leading public figures have perished on their way to pay tribute to the Katyn dead.

There is another sense of deja vu on the streets of Warsaw today, recalling the death of Pope John Paul II five years ago.

Polish flags are hanging from buildings with a black mourning ribbon attached. Now as then, groups of scouts have sprung into action, an army of unfazed teenagers steering the massive crowds and trying to put some order on the rapidly expanding sea of candles before the Presidential Palace.

“Please move back, there’s no more room here, not for candles and not even for scouts,” joked Marcin Sasim, breaking the tension in the air. “I was an overnight guard here when the pope died,” he said, “and now we are back again in this time of mourning. We all sprang to action as soon as we heard.”

As night fell in Warsaw, a group of elderly women in anoraks and mohair hats gathered on Pilsudski Square where the Polish pope urged his countrymen in 1979 to be strong in the face of the Communist leadership.

It was where Poles gathered again for a farewell mass to the pontiff in 2005.

The women gathered here now, this time for their annual Divine Mercy march, were staunch voters for the Kaczynski brothers’ “Law and Justice Party”, and devoted listeners to the controversial Radio Maryja station that rallied support for the twins.

For them, it was no coincidence that Saturday’s tragedy, like the death of Pope John Paul II five years ago, came on the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday.

“Like all faithful we believe this was a sign and that we’ll find out the meaning of this tragedy when the mercy of God reveals itself,” said Anna, in her late 50s, as she distributed Divine Mercy cards to onlookers.

For Fr Mariusz, leading the women in prayer, the crash near Katyn was just another cross for Poland to bear.

“We’ve had so tragedies in our history,” he said. “Warsaw, the city around us now, was destroyed entirely but was rebuilt because we are a nation that believes in tradition and the power of prayer.”

As they moved off on their march, acting president Bronislaw Komorowski arrived on the square, flanked by his wife and delegation.

As speaker of the parliament, he was gearing up to run against Mr Kaczynski in the autumn presidential election. Now he is the only candidate left alive after the crash robbed Poland of the incumbent as well as the Left Democratic Alliance candidate, Jerzy Smajdzinski.

"We are united in national mourning now,” said a grave Mr Komorowski, adding that political labels like “left” and “right” had, for now, lost their meaning.

It was a feeling matched by two football fans who decked a stone lion before the presidential palace in two scarves from arch-rival Warsaw football teams, Polonia and Legia.

As midnight approached, the crowd drifted from the palace to Pilsudzki Square, singing sad songs that offered an odd comfort, as they did five years ago.

Many seemed either too shocked beyond belief, others -- particularly those who were not fans of Mr Kaczynski's politics -- seemed unsure of how to react.

“The most important thing for us now is to feel a sense of community,” said Mariusz, 32. “I didn’t agree with the man’s politics at all. Hopefully through this tragedy will be able to get over old divisions and enter a new era of politics in Poland.”

Churches stayed open all night, and Warsovians drifted in and out for round-the-clock rosaries. But, compared to the death of Pope John Paul II, the funereal atmosphere did not stretch far.

Up the street from the presidential palace, bars were filled with partying young people on Saturday night. Further on, a bride-to-be in a cheap veil cackled her way along an overpass with her hen night companions.

At a kiosk, young people queued for beer and snacks as on every Saturday night.

Like five years ago, Poland is in mourning. But, unlike then, the country has not quite come to a standstill.