A makeshift shrine built around a simple eight-foot-high wooden cross stands at the spot where, three months ago this week, at least nine Polish miners were killed by riot police following the imposition of martial law.
Every day, colleagues and relatives of the dead miners, frequently accompanied by little children, stop by the shrine to pay their respects. Some murmur prayers and pass on their way. Others lay fresh flowers or roughly scribbled messages of support for the suspended independent trade union Solidarity.
Located about a mile from the center of this grimy southern city, the Wujek coal mine is one of the few places left in Poland where it is still possible to see Solidarity's red-and-white logo on public display. Local residents say that police dismantled the shrine at the end of January, but it was rebuilt following protests to the mine's military commissar by women workers.
Both the Communist authorities and Solidarity have provided their own detailed accounts of the hand-to-hand fighting that raged at the mine between striking miners and police for three hours on Wednesday, Dec. 16, three days after the military crackdown. Until last week, however, it was impossible to check these accounts on the spot.
Last Friday the military government issued permits to a group of American correspondents to travel to Katowice for the first time since martial law. The visit revealed that the atmosphere in Poland's industrial capital and the surrounding region of Silesia is outwardly calm--but the forcible suppression of strikes at factories and mines has left deep scars in people's memories.
Together with the Baltic port of Gdansk, where Solidarity was born in August 1980, Silesia had been regarded as the biggest potential trouble spot for the military government. Before martial law, Katowice was a Solidarity stronghold. The Confederation for an Independent Poland (KPN), the right-wing dissident group that openly advocated the seizure of power from the Communist Party, had been rapidly gaining members among miners who prided themselves on their strong working-class traditions.
Some of the bitterness caused by martial law was reflected in mementos in the shrine outside the Wujek mine. Stacked up against a seven-foot-high wall, which was destroyed by tanks during the police attack, were wreaths from each department in the mine, bearing inscriptions such as, "Glory to the dead miners" and, "We shall always remember them."
On one of the wreaths was a cross bearing the Solidarity sign. An Easter card lying next to it bore the ironic message, "Happy Easter from the government and Communist Party." On the reverse side was a childish drawing of riot police tanks attacking the mine.
"The authorities will always respond to the justified demands of youth and the working class," the card said, mocking the language used by Communist officials in promising to solve all problems by peaceful means.
Another antigovernment cartoon posed the question: what is the difference between the Communist party and the KPN? The answer: the Communists steal while accusing the KPN of wanting to gain power in order to let the bourgeoisie steal.
Seven miners' helmets lie on top of the wall, which was rebuilt the day after the battle. Six miners are known to have been killed instantly when riot police opened fire after several times being forced to retreat by strikers armed with axes, clubs and pneumatic drills. A seventh miner died in the hospital the same day, as did at least two others over the next few weeks.
The 3,000 strikers at Wujek had vowed to defend themselves after hearing of beatings of colleagues in other factories and mines. Most of the fighting took place in a narrow courtyard along the wall.
A miner who said he had taken part in the battle agreed to talk to journalists on condition that his name not be used. He seemed frightened at the possibility of further police harassment and asked repeatedly for assurances that the conversation was not being secretly recorded.
Since the battle, the miner said, soldiers have not been stationed inside the mine premises. But several truckloads of armed police have arrived at the mine on the 16th of every month to prevent possible disturbances.
The miner's description of the fighting agreed in broad outline with accounts released by Solidarity in January and with a four-part series in the local newspaper, Trybuna Robotnicza, that gave the police version of the incident. He said that riot police, surprised by the ferocity of the resistance, used up all their tear gas and were forced to summon fresh help from helicopters.
"We were crying and tears were streaming from our eyes," he said, pointing to a scar on his forehead where he claimed to have been hit by a tear gas grenade.
On some points, however, the miner's version differed from that of the police. While the newspaper account said that only officers had carried firearms during the attack, the miner said that ordinary riot police also had been armed. And while the police said their investigation established that bullets had been fired from "more than two meters," he said the police had been standing at least 15 or 20 meters away. This cast doubt on the official claim that the shots had been fired solely in self-defense.
The miner's account supported claims by Solidarity that some doctors and ambulance staff were beaten when they tried to remove wounded miners. He said the incidents occurred because police were looking for strike leaders.
All allegations of police brutality toward injured protesters or medical staff have been strenuously denied by officials, and police who fired shots were cleared of any wrongdoing on grounds that they had acted "in a situation threatening to their health and in defense of their wounded colleagues."
Various accounts circulate in Katowice about the number of dead. The eyewitness claimed that in addition to the nine officially acknowledged deaths, four people later died of their injuries in the hospital, including a 13-year-old boy who allegedly was beaten by police. The local Roman Catholic bishop, Czeslaw Domin, however, accepts the figure of nine dead miners.
Mystery also surrounds the numbers of riot police killed in the action. The government has refused to release information on police deaths since martial law--but privately officials have confirmed that at least one member of the security forces was killed at Wujek. The miner said he saw a tank crush one policeman to death.
In an interview, the bishop said the church had helped look after the families of the victims and had provided them with financial assistance. It was not until eight weeks after the incident, he said, that the government agreed to pay them pensions.
The tragic end to the Wujek strike stunned the community. It shook the traditionally defiant miners into a sullen compliance with martial-law discipline, including the surrender of their main gain under Solidarity, the 40-hour workweek. Miners confirm that, as a result of extra weekend shifts, extraction of coal has increased.
Morale, however, has suffered. Asked about the atmosphere inside the mine, one miner said gloomily: "It's hopeless. It's no longer a place of work, but a labor camp."
He said the miners were waiting to see what would happen once martial law is relaxed.
"If Solidarity is restored, everybody will join it," the miner said. "But if they try to replace it with an official Communist-dominated union, then we have all agreed that we will have nothing to do with it. Solidarity achieved more for us in 17 months than the Communist Party did in 36 years."
The authorities, too, seem to be treading a cautious line. The cross outside the coal mine and the wreaths for the dead no longer are tampered with. But every night, the miners say, plainclothesmen drive by in a black car and scoop up all the Solidarity signs and messages of defiance.