Led by First Lady Anna Komorowska, a group of nearly 200 travelled to Smolensk early Sunday morning. Families of the victims had appealed to the first lady for assistance in arranging a pilgrimage to the site to commemorate the six month anniversary of the 10 April crash. The spring disaster left 96 casualties, including former President Lech Kaczyński and his wife Maria, alongside many top-ranking public figures. At first, there was talk of taking the now infamous Warsaw cross after its removal from in front of the presidential palace. However, there was no unanimity, and the cross was not taken to Russia.
On Sunday, the pilgrims were joined by Russian First Lady Svetlana Medvedev for Catholic, Orthodox, and Evangelical services that were held at a memorial rock, which lies a few metres from the place where the plane fell to the ground. Pieces of the aircraft can still be found amongst the surrounding woodland, but the largest remnants of the plane are now under military security at the North Smolensk Airbase.
“The pain of Poland in those days was fully shared by the Russians,” said Svetlana Medvedev, addressing the gathered pilgrims.
“We were standing by your side and praying together with you that God give us strength to overcome the tragedy. I am here to offer sympathy from me, from President Dmitri Medvedev and from the entire Russian people.”
Russian news sources covering the memorial imply that the meeting of the two first ladies in Smolensk is further proof of improving relations between the two nations. Both first ladies also reportedly commemorated the 20,000 Polish officers murdered by the NKVD at Katyn and elsewhere in 1940.
Uncanny technical problems with return flight
After Sunday’s ceremony, a group of returning family members were stranded in Vitebsk, Belarus. Their plane was set to take off with everyone onboard when it began to experience engine difficulties. Paweł Jurasz, from the Polish embassy in Belarus, described how at take-off, problems arose when changes in the rotation of the engine could be heard, followed by yelling from the cockpit and an increasing number of airport personnel approaching the plane. When it was declared that the plane would not be able to take off, priority was given to passengers with children waiting at home or with important obligations to return to Warsaw in the empty seats of the next flight out of Vitebsk.
According to unofficial reports from Andrzej Zaucha, Moscow correspondent of TVN-24, the plane that was brought as a substitute for the first aircraft also had technical issues, which understandably made it undesirable for the returning travellers. He said the plane was apparently capable of making the return flight but the risk was in restarting it once the engines were shut off. This would have necessitated that the families board the plane to the racket of running engines and an explanation of its technical problem. It was decided that the pilgrims would stay in Belarus until a technically-sound aircraft arrived. The tired passengers were well taken care of in Belarus, where a luxury hotel was arranged for them, according to Roman Wilkoszewski of the President’s Office.
This morning, the 24-hour news network quipped “third time lucky,” when reporting that as of this morning, the third attempt for the remaining pilgrims to return to Poland was, in fact, successful. Two planes sent from Poland left Vitebsk en route to Warsaw with the remaining 120 or so stranded pilgrims onboard the hour-and-a-half flight.
Kaczyński family not in attendance
Not all the victims’ families attended the 10 October memorial services in Smolensk. Most notably, the former president’s brother and leader of the Law and Justice (PiS) party, Jarosław Kaczyński, stayed in Warsaw for the occasion, telling the press that he would rather commemorate the event in a place where the truth surrounding the crash investigation is being sought, not hidden from the public. The PiS political party has appointed its own investigative body that has already begun to make accusations of responsibility for the crash.
The only child of the deceased presidential pair, Marta Kaczyńska- Dubieniecka, also did not attend, telling the press that her place on this anniversary was with her parents in the crypts of Wawel Cathedral. She also mentioned the on-going investigation into the crash, saying that she has not been able to come to peace with the causes of the catastrophe. She continued that she finds herself internally protesting and growing more bitter with time at the issues surrounding the investigation, but that she hopes that the truth will come out in the end.