Straight from the Polish battleground: reflections from a student

At POLIS and the CDE, we encourage our students to be critical and to engage. And we are always extremely proud of our students, who get involved to effect positive change and/or to stand up against injustice and oppression. We are very pleased that one of these students, Joanna Rurka, agreed to tell her story here. For her, being a politics student comes with the “responsibility to fight for a better future”, in this case for a better future in Poland, where women have fair choices and rights.  Our thanks to Dr Viktoria Spaiser for encouraging Joann to write for us.

My name is Joanna and I’m a third-year Politics student at Leeds University. Right now, because of various circumstances, I’m stuck in Poland, my home country. You might have heard about the ongoing circus we have here at the moment, but if you haven’t, despair not as I will spill it all. This is my story, straight from the Polish battleground.

Our fight started in 2016 when the Polish government tried to impose abortion restrictions. In response, thousands of women all across the country flooded the streets wearing black, a sign of mourning for their reproductive rights. Since then, every year on March the 8th (International Woman’s Day) we march through the streets of every major city in Poland with our black umbrellas and coat hangers. Therefore, when in October of 2020 after all this fight, the constitutional court banned almost all types of abortion, women simply got mad.

I knew this time the protests could be unsafe. Thus, I debated whether to take my 14-year-old sister to what I knew would be a dangerous battleground between citizens and police. For our first protest, a day after the ruling, my sister packed milk (for pepper spray) and wrote a number to a lawyer (provided by the organisers for everyone in need) on her forearm. While clutching my hand, she complained about her homework for the next day and her eyes darted around every so often in search of the police. She run away whenever someone was slightly agitated in the crowd. She shivered while passing the cordons of white helmets ‘guarding’ the march. Nevertheless, with a little encouragement, she persisted till the end and returned the next day. And the day after that. And every day for a week. It was dangerous and exhausting. Sometimes there were people dragged out of the crowd and into the police van, sometimes there were flares thrown into the crowd by the nationalist militias. But, at the same time, there was dancing and music and singing, and monopoly playing in the middle of the street, and just such an atmosphere of pure joy in those tiring times of a pandemic. It felt like a healing process for a lot of us I think. But then, came the Friday, the day when the gendarmerie came to the capital to aid the police.

Everyone thought Friday was going to be the biggest protest and we were right. My friends joined nationalist groups in order to know about their movements beforehand. Social media was overwhelmed with advice on how to dress for protests and what to bring. People were sharing pictures of water cannons riding to Warsaw and military squadrons crossing the streets of the capital. The atmosphere was nerve-wracking, but it felt almost like a fantasy. Is this my country? Is this my city? There were a dozen of gendarmes in front of my favourite bakery. We were all a little unsettled. We knew we were the ones in danger, but we were excitingly talking amongst ourselves about it all because it didn’t feel real.

The protest started with a nationalist militia attack on the crowd of protesters at the square in the city centre. They dragged people into the alleys and beat them up. Thankfully police helped. It was the first time I was looking for the white helmets because I preferred to be taken by the police than by the self-organized militia. In the beginning, it was frightening. People would suddenly start running and no-one knew where to go, because nowhere was safe. Helicopters were flying above us and there was police everywhere. Because we didn’t know where the militia was going to strike again, we didn’t know where to go. We just knew it was best to stick to the main road and keep close to the biggest crowd. We would go one way and then we would run the other way, people shouting about an ambush. It felt surreal like the country was in a state of emergency and only tanks driving on the streets were missing.

After a while, we found the organisers’ truck heading towards the ruling party leader’s house and we decided to stick as close to it as possible. It was hard to communicate since the internet and mobile networks weren’t working because of too many people in one place. Therefore some of my friends stayed behind while my group went ahead. It was peaceful then. I was walking right alongside a giant fist carried by eight people with a big red lighting painted on it, while listening to music played from the truck in front. I got lucky because while we found a safe space, my friends who stayed in the city centre were constantly aware of the danger and had to actively avoid the militia.

I suppose it all ended peacefully, and while no major incidents have taken place, when I returned home I felt like I had been gone for months instead of just a few hours. This feeling of entering your safe heaven. Listening to the silence of your peacefully sleeping family, in contrast to the sound of your blood pumping through your veins, sirens wailing in the distance and all the screaming. It took me a while to find balance. I am still terrified that while ‘nothing’ happened, I could be this scared on the streets of my own hometown. Nevertheless, the problem prevails and the protests still go on. Additionally, the opposition is lively as ever. Using the excuse of the Independence Day celebrations, on the 11th of this month, extremists burned down a flat in the city centre. With organisers present, in bright daylight, they were throwing Molotov cocktails at the balcony with a banner supporting the Black Protests. They missed and an innocent person’s home was ruined.

The atmosphere in Poland is fragile. We are balancing on the edge and every time we think it will all tip over, we somehow get our balance back. It doesn’t help though, because we keep walking this tightrope towards conservative church-state governed by one madman with disturbing priorities.

Joanna Rurka, Third year BA(Hon) Politics student, POLIS, University of Leeds