Last stand at Szczecin

December 28 1981

Last stand at Szczecin

December 28 1981

Last stand at Szczecin


It was a week in which the iron grip of winter and the mailed fist of Prime Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski combined to shake the resolve of Poland's Solidarity trade unionists. Screened by a news blackout and operating against pockets of resistance which were isolated by draconian martial law measures, the country's hated militia and police achieved some success.

Perhaps on the premise that a show of irresistible force would prevent widespread bloodshed, the government used strong-arm tactics to end sit-ins by students and professors in Warsaw and sent tanks and troops to suppress strikes at such union strong points as the Lenin shipyards in Gdansk. But after seven miners were shot down in Katowice, smuggled reports spoke of stiffening opposition.

A leaflet from Solidarity leader Lech Walesa appealed to the Catholic church:

“Don't let us be crushed." The church, however, was more concerned with avoiding civil war, and with the government beginning courts martial against some of the thousands detained the outlook was grim. Among the few correspondents to succeed in filing eyewitness dispatches last week were Maclean’s Sue Masterman and Chris Mosey. From Y stad, on his return to Sweden, Mosey reported:

In the ice-filled harbor of the port of Swinoujscie, near Szczecin, a Soviet Alligator-class landing craft (capacity 2,000 men) is a stark reminder that Warsaw Pact troops are already inside Poland and ready to complete the crushing of Solidarity if they are needed. As I sailed out of Swinoujscie aboard the ferryboat Wawel, bound for the Swedish port of Ystad last Thursday, the decks of three Soviet corvettes nearby were lined with sailors staring across the harbor through steadily falling snow. On land, a demonstration of about 100 people, including many women, was being broken up by militia. An army truck stood by to carry away those arrested.

Reports from two independent sources said that following the brutal ending of a strike at the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk, workers armed with smuggled guns and ammunition had occupied the shipyards at Szczecin. They had enough food and water to hold out for weeks. Gezim Myhagjeri, a Polish student living in the Swedish port of Malmö, said that the reoccupation was carried out on the direct orders of Solidarity leader Lech Walesa. The instructions were smuggled out of the villa

near Warsaw, where Walesa was originally put under house arrest. Friends among the shipyard workers showed Myhagjeri, 24, copies of the handwritten letter. It called for a last stand at Szczecin to muster national support for Solidarity’s ideals. The yard, said Walesa, should hold out “as long as possible.”

It appeared to be a well-planned operation. The army was unprepared. But both Myhagjeri and Swedish journalist Jorgen Einstad, who both boarded the Wawel at Swinoujscie, reported seeing troops and tanks moving on Szczecin as they left on Thursday. Myhagjeri, who had been visiting his grandmother in Szczecin, said he heard gunfire from the direction of the shipyard.

I travelled on the 3,801-tonne Wawel, commanded by Capt. Janusz Derewiecki, to Swinoujscie late Wednesday. I was one of a complement of passengers that included badly frightened Poles returning home and journalists going—as it turned out—nowhere.

On arrival, against Capt. Derewiecki’s urgent advice, we presented ourselves at passport control and said we wanted to travel on to Szczecin. I had time to give a cigarette to a soldier stamping forlornly in the snow and to visit the duty-free shop. But when I tried to question the assistant who served me, a uniformed official from the ferry company, Poleferries, spoke harshly to the woman, who seemed clearly frightened. “What do you want?” he asked me. “She has nothing to tell you.” I was hustled back aboard the Wawel where I was held under armed guard. Then the Wawel put out

to sea. The radio telephone was cut and the ship bobbed listlessly amid the ice floes as a thick mist closed in. There was no sign of air or naval activity, just an eerie silence broken only by muted pop and martial music from Radio Warsaw, played over the ferry’s loudspeakers.

After 10 hours, the Wawel put into the ferry terminal once more. A new crew of 48 men from Gdansk came aboard, followed by a handful of passengers. They included a Norwegian who had driven food to various towns in Poland. He said he had seen trucks carrying away arrested workers to two concentration camps which had been set up because the prisons were now filled to overflowing.

Two men— believed to be members of

the Polish secret police—boarded the ferry. Crew members feared they were there to stop them jumping ship when the boat arrived in Ystad. Fortunately, their main attribute was incompetence.

In all, seven crew members deserted, one of them a young officer, Tomaz Moljewsly, who led me to a cabin for a meeting with four colleagues. Moljewsly told me: “Tell them the truth about Jaruzelski. He is lying when he says he won’t go back to how things were before August, 1980. He wants to crush Solidarity. He wants to crush us completely.”

Moljewsly and his friends described what happened when troops crushed the strike at the Lenin shipyard at 6:20 a.m. on Tuesday. Tanks smashed down the No. 2 gate of the yard and the strikers fell back, blinded by tear gas

thrown by riot police.

Added another crewman, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals against his family still in Gdansk: “They say one young man stood there in front of the tanks. They ran him down, severing both his legs just above the knees. Then they let him bleed to death.” The sailor said that all the main intersections in Gdansk were patrolled by soldiers. Shop windows in the centre had been smashed by angry demonstrators. “I saw workers pick up a militiaman and throw him through a window,” he said. “I think they killed him.”

He said hundreds of people had been injured in the clashes in Gdansk— “many more than they say on the radio. I have not heard how many deaths,” he said. “But many—many have died.”

The men said that the army had been less brutal than the police and militia in putting down demonstrations. They claimed that workers pasted Solidarity stickers on tanks without soldiers firing on them. “We don’t want to fight the army, why should we?” he said. Several soldiers had actually crossed the line and joined Solidarity.

For Moljewsly and his friends the struggle is over. But out there, to the south, across the jet black 80-km strip of icy sea that separates Sweden from Poland, a grim, desperate struggle is continuing. There is nothing glorious about it. It is a last-ditch stand by despairing men with nothing left to lose.

It was 11:57 p.m. and I was talking to Toronto about the lack of hard news when the line went dead. There seemed nothing extraordinary about that, it happens all the time in Poland. But the incident—the start of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski’s clampdown—was typical of a week in which the problem for foreigners was to distinguish the unusual from the customary chaos of a nation that had been in turmoil for 15 months.

On that fatal Sunday, news of the military takeover burned along the grapevine soon after 6 a.m. Initial reaction from the Poles was stunned silence. Then, dismay deepened as people realized what the proclamation, read on TV, meant. Their passports were invalid. Their right to meet was restricted to the church. All public meetings were banned. Rumors and.unanswered questions ricocheted through the capital. Where was Walesa? What was going on in Radom, in the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk, in the Nova Hutta steelworks, all traditional points of resistance?

It was only when the district governors in those areas started ordering non-registered residents to leave that some eyewitness reports came through. They were alarming. There had been tear gas attacks on the union headquarters in Lodz and lock-ins at Gdansk and Nova Hutta. On Monday, I saw police oust students from Warsaw University. They used their nightsticks unsparingly.

On the eve of martial law, TV showed an episode of the BBC series All Creatures Great and Small, about country veterinarian James Herriot. Poles joked about how unfair it was to show them all that meat. On Sunday evening the screen was spattered with a bloody epic about the Soviet liberation of Warsaw in 1945. The pattern was repeated night after night: uniformed announcers, folk songs and violent films of wars past and present—enough to demolish the morale of anyone who did not exercise his right to turn the switch.

As long as the press agency lines were open, the foreign press corps felt it had something to do. As in all such situations, everyone pooled all they had to get the information out somehow. But on Monday, the last link through Reuters news agency was silenced, and the hunt for couriers began. Interpress, the Polish foreign press service, was taken over by the foreign office and the regular staff sent on leave. They cleared their desks, ripped up their files, and went with sorrow.

The few eyewitness reports to arrive from Gdansk confirmed that Lech Walesa’s wife had tried to intervene to stop other Solidarity leaders calling for a lock-in. Thousands of shipyard workers were said to have left under a shower of

wrenches and hammers from those who stayed. Other reports said that those occupying the shipyards and the coal mines had planted land mines on the periphery of their territory.

The oppressive military presence became more obvious daily. Well-informed sources said that Walesa was under the protection of the church at the late Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski’s former residence, not far from Warsaw. Walesa, it was said, was refusing to negotiate or to sign any document until union internees were released.

But the overriding question was why Jaruzelski had clamped down so harshly and suddenly. Informed sources repeatedly spoke of strong pressure from Marshal Viktor Kulikov, head of the Warsaw Pact troops. He was in Warsaw the night before the coup. Politburo hard-liner Stefan Olszowski was

also said to have played an active role. But reports that Kulikov had threatened a Soviet invasion were discounted in the absence of decisive action by the Poles themselves. After all, every Pole knows that with Soviet technicians in charge at all strategic chemical works, refineries and steelworks, an invasion is unnecessary.

To soften its strike,

< the government prom-

0 ised bread, and the bread £ appeared—with milk

< and even cream and cot-

1 tage cheese. But even that did little to ease the shock and fear felt by the

Poles. Anger flared and deepened. It appeared that many people had gone underground. Undoubtedly a resistance movement will appear soon. The Poles would have forgiven the military for pouncing on a couple of hotheads. But they are in no mood to condone the detention of respected authors, scientists, academic staff and others who were not connected with Solidarity. Estimates of those interned varied from 5,000 to 45,000, the figure mentioned in some Solidarity posters. It was impossible to check who had been seized and who had managed to disappear in time. The government had planned the tactics of a declaration of martial law for a year, but so had the union.

The church continues to play its traditional role: trying to avoid bloodshed. Archbishop Josef Glemp, with whom I spoke briefly that first Sunday, re-

peated almost verbatim the advice of his legendary predecessor, Cardinal Wyszynski, in 1956. When Poles wanted to rise in support of the Hungarians, their late primate told them there was a greater heroism than death with glory. On Sunday, Glemp spoke in the crammed Jesuit church next to Warsaw Cathedral. “I would rather be called a coward,” he said, “than risk driving people into rebellion and bloodshed.” With Christmas approaching, although no one seems yet to think seriously about it, the church will inevitably take on a central role. It will help determine whether Jaruzelski can get the country back on the rails, or whether this week’s events are merely the start of a long, exhausting and possibly fatal bloodletting.