January 7, 2018

An Ominous Snowy Night in Poland

John Darnton

At 11 p.m. on the night of December 13, 1981, I was sitting in my New York Times office in Warsaw, Poland, when my phone went dead. That was strange. I went over to my telex, a machine used in those days by foreign correspondents to send stories to the home office. It was dead, too. Doubly strange.
I looked out the window. It was snowing heavily. The flakes spiraled down in a funnel of yellow light from a street lamp. Could this be it, I wondered? The crackdown that everyone in Poland – and much of the world – feared?  
For 16 months, Poles had been rebelling against Communism that had been imposed after World War II by the Soviet Union. They established a trade union called Solidarity, which was illegal under Communist doctrine and it had turned into a mass movement for freedom. Moscow threatened to invade to squash the rebellion.
I rushed to my car and headed to a building downtown where four Western news agencies had their offices. The car skidded in the snow. I thought I saw a group of army officers at one intersection. What were they doing? It looked as if they were setting up a roadblock.
At the building, reporters were scurrying around frantically. All the phones and telexes were cut off. Rumors bounced around – reports of tank movements and widespread arrests of dissidents and activists. The reporters were on top of the most important story of the year, and they had no way to get it out.
Three of us went to the local Solidarity headquarters. We saw police in battle gear pushing people into vans and carrying files. I drove around the city. Roadblocks were everywhere. Groups of soldiers carrying AK-47s clustered around fires in metal barrels. Tanks and armored personnel carriers were deployed. The crackdown was real. But who was behind it? The Russians?
At 6 a.m., things became clear. The Polish leader, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, appeared on television to announce a state of martial law and a list of draconian edicts. Civil rights were curtailed. The country was cut off from the outside world.
Luckily, I had made arrangements with the American Embassy to use a secret transmission system, so I was able to file a story that first night. (The headline covered the entire top of the front page, I discovered later). But that arrangement lasted only one day. What was l to do the following days?
I did what reporters in tight situations have done for years. I used what we called “pigeons” to carry my stories – in this case Westerners who were leaving the country.
One person carried a story stuffed into a pack of Marlboro cigarettes. Another inside his boot. A third story was hidden on the stretcher of a sickened diplomat being flown home. When they arrived in a Western country, the pigeons were asked to call a phone number in New York and dictate the story line by line.
I typed each story with two carbon copies and, since I had no way of knowing if it arrived safely, sent all three. I’ve calculated that altogether I sent about 24 stories by pigeons. And the remarkable thing: no one that I approached refused to carry the story out. Not a single one.
Now that I’ve retired from the Times, after 40 years as a reporter and editor, I sometimes think back to those days in Poland.
At a time when people castigate the press and mistrust news in mainstream media, I like to recall an era when reporters were able to thwart censorship imposed by a dictator because readers and well-wishers in the West helped them do so.   

John Darnton has worked for the New York Times for over 40 years, including as a foreign correspondent in countries such as Nigeria, Poland, and Spain. He has won the Pulitzer Prize for his work and has also published five novels.

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