Smolensk

A personal recollection of the days after the tragedy and a friend who was on board

Mariusz Handzlik, a very good friend of mine, was on board the flight to Smolensk. I knew him well from my time as Gazeta Wyborcza’s bureau chief in Washington D.C., where he worked as a diplomat in the Polish embassy. He was heavily involved in Poland’s negotiations to join NATO and was in charge of contacts with the Pentagon.

He was extremely smart, hardworking and focused on his career. Mariusz’s main goal in life was to serve his country and he was an ideal civil servant. In the 1990s I wrote a big story about Poland joining NATO and highlighted 10 people that were vital to the accession negotiations behind the scenes, and he was one of them. He worked very hard at the Pentagon, even organising a football league in order to get in with the military personnel.

After he was made Polish ambassador to the UN, I used to stay at his Manhattan flat when I was in New York. When President Kaczyński asked him to be his foreign affairs advisor, I was staying with him and he asked me what I thought he should do. I’m very American at heart, and my philosophy is that if your president asks you to do something, you do it. So I told him that it was a big chance for him and that he should go for it. We last met for dinner a week before the flight, and he told me that he was planning to go on vacation with his kids after the trip to Smolensk.

When I first heard that something had happened to the plane, I thought it was just a mechanical fault and that everything would be okay. It was a Saturday, so I was at home where my TV is always tuned into 24 hour news. I must have seen coverage on TV but the days after the crash are a blur in my memory. It was similar to the days after the September 11 attacks, which I covered in New York. Both were extremely hectic and overwhelming to live and work through. I was foreign editor at Gazeta Wyborcza at the time of the crash, so I was editing stories as they came in. At the end of the day, journalists are humans and it was hard to keep the personal and professional separate.

Covering the Smolensk story was an emotionally draining experience because we didn’t know the names of the victims at first: we knew that the president was on board, but it took a while for the other names to filter through. Nobody ever follows every person who accompanies the president on official visits, so we had no idea who exactly was on board. People were shocked and confused as the names were announced. We just didn’t expect people like the President of the National Bank would be going to Smolensk. Mariusz’s friends from the Pentagon were calling to ask me if he was on board and we were hearing stories of people who missed the flight because it left very early in the morning and they’d overslept. It was a very emotional time.

Smolensk has changed Poland a lot. It was a defining moment in our history: the democratic elections in 1989 were one and now the crash is another. One thing that has stuck in my mind from the days after the crash is when the bodies were flown back to Warsaw. A lot of people were crying and everyone felt numb. I don’t think people could make sense of the loss.

When I was a foreign correspondent in Moscow, I learnt a Russian word: ‘bardak’. It means total chaos or mess. I don’t believe that something evil or intentional happened in Smolensk, I think it was ‘bardak’. I miss Mariusz a lot and I think Poland does too. Right now, I think he would be at least the deputy foreign minister, if not the actual minister.

‘Mariusz’s main goal in life was to serve his country and he was an ideal civil servant’

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