Warsaw: Mourning and protest

WARSAW, Poland — Poland’s capital has been turned into a funeral home in the week following the air crash in western Russia that killed the country’s president and many other prominent political and military figures.

Tens of thousands of people have waited for as long as 12 hours to pay their respects to Lech Kaczynski, Poland’s president, and to his wife Maria, who are lying in state in the presidential palace.

About two miles down Warsaw’s main ceremonial avenue, another line of people waits to pay their respects to Ryszard Kaczorowski, the last president of the Cold War-era Polish government in exile, based in London. Across the street is the defense ministry, where a tent guarded by two soldiers holds a book of condolences for the senior commanders of all branches of the armed forces, as well as the deputy minister of defense, who were killed in the disaster.

The city’s airport has seen almost daily flights carrying coffins of the dead from Moscow, where they were taken from the western Russian city of Smolensk for identification after the crash.

“We are Poles and we really respected the president,” said Barbara Adamiszyn, 75, standing in front of the presidential palace where the front courtyard has been filled with flowers, votive candles and flags.

What has made the deaths particularly poignant is where the accident took place — not far from the Katyn forest, one of the places where the Soviets executed more than 22,000 captured Polish officers in 1940.

“The president’s death has allowed him to complete his mission — to let the world know about Katyn,” said Magda Kamieniecka, 34, also standing in front of the palace.

Although there were immediate suspicions about the cause of the crash, early investigations seem to indicate it was an accident. The Russian air traffic controllers at the mainly military airport tried to divert the Polish aircraft to another airport, but the military pilots were determined to try landing, despite the thick fog.

Photographs taken at the scene show treetops sheared off starting just under a mile from the runway. The Russian-built Tu-154 airliner then hit a larger tree with its wing, spun off to the side and smashed into the ground, immediately killing everyone on board.

Polish investigators who have listened to the black boxes retrieved from the crash say the crew was aware they were going to crash from three to five seconds before the final impact, although it is unclear if the passengers were also aware.

Russian authorities have been very cooperative, eager to ensure the blame for the catastrophe does not affix to them.

The crash has also prompted a dramatic change in the way Moscow talks about Katyn. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister, had made an opening to the Poles during a meeting with his Polish counterpart Donald Tusk at the haunted site 10 days ago, but now the Russians seem to have broken through a barrier that had prevented them from admitting who did the killing.

“It is obvious that the Polish officers were shot on orders from the then-leaders of the USSR,” said Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who is expected in Krakow for Sunday’s funeral of the first couple.

U.S. President Barack Obama, and as many as 80 other world leaders are also expected at what will be the largest gathering of dignitaries in Polish history. That is if the ash cloud produced by the eruption of an Icelandic volcano dissipates in time to allow flights into Polish airspace. By Friday afternoon, all flights in Poland were grounded, and forecasters were unsure of what the situation will be by Saturday night, when many governments will make the final decision on whether to attend.

The burial location in Krakow has proved to be very controversial, and shook the national unity that had enveloped the country after the disaster. The Kaczynskis are to be laid in the crypt below the Wawel cathedral, the traditional resting place of Polish kings and national heroes like Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who fought in the American Revolution before trying and failing to preserve Polish independence at the end of the 18th century.

Kaczynski was not a popular president, and he looked sure to lose his bid for re-election later this year. Demonstrators took to the streets in Krakow to protest the decision and Andrzej Wajda, the director of the 2007 Oscar-nominated film “Katyn,” about the wartime murders, issued a statement condemning the burial location.

But for many Poles, the most important thing is to treat their president with respect.

“We loved him,” said Kamieniecka.