HorseheadsPosted: July 31, 2013
[Spanish translation here]
Sofia, July 31.
Let me tell you a story. It’s the kind of story you would hear around the fire in winter. Now in summer, you can hear it around the piano.
It was told to me by comrade M., the man who carries a styrofoam horsehead on a stick every evening, in protest against the mafia. Comrade M. is a repatriate. There is no way for me to verify if his story is true, but frankly I don’t care. A good story doesn’t need to be weighed down by truthfulness.
M. was 17 years old when he fled from communist Bulgaria in 1980, together with his dad. They didn’t really have a choice at the time. His dad was an engineer who had invented a device for the quick and even distribution of cocoa powder. The authorities seized his machine, and employed it for military purposes, replacing the cocoa with gunpowder. M’s dad was furious. He had constructed his device for the joy of all man kind, not to sow death and destruction. So he raised hell.
Criticizing authorities in a communist regime can be very dangerous, deadly even. Faced with the choice to die at the hands of the secret police, or to die while trying to escape to the free world, the inventor chose the latter. His son decided to take the risk and come along.
For one month they were in hiding along the border with Yugoslavia, observing every single defensive measure that the Bulgarian state used to protect their citizens from the evil temptation to leave.
There were mine fields, electric fences, watch towers with armed border guards, and booby traps linked to invisible fishing lines strung between distant poles. On the day of their attempt, they made it through the minefield, they crossed the electric fence with a special ladder constructed for the purpose, they avoided the booby traps, but they didn’t manage to escape the attention of the border guards.
For fifteen kilometres into Yugoslavian territory, the Bulgarian border guards came after them with dogs. Fortunately, they were prepared for this. They used little bundles of pepper to disorient the dogs’ sense of smell. Until they lost them, finally, somewhere deep in the forests of Serbia.
It meant by no means that they were safe. Yugoslavia wasn’t part of the eastern block, but it was a communist country and it had supposedly struck a deal with the Bulgarians to curb illegal emigration. For every refugee caught and returned by Yugoslav authorities, the Bulgarians offered a trainload of salt as a reward.
M. and his dad had to walk, all through the country, 32 days to the Austrian border. They couldn’t fool the locals they encountered. Everyone could tell that they were refugees, but in all the republics they past – Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia – none of the locals turned them in.
The border between Yugoslavia and Austria was practically unprotected. They stayed in observation for three days, fearing that it might be a trap. Finally, they took their chances and successfully crossed into the free world.
M. ended up as a shop owner in Chicago, where he a made a decent living for more than a decade. Then the Wall came down and in 1992 he decided to return to his home country, convinced that a new age of freedom and opportunity was dawning on Bulgaria.
Oh, how bitterly wrong he was! The Communist Party was replaced by the mafia, although the people remained more or less the same. Because of his contacts in the U.S., he was offered to become part of the organization. He refused. And ever since, for over twenty years, he has been struggling to get by.
Now he is one of the familiar faces of the protest. He proudly carries the horsehead, a new one each day, because every evening at the end of the march from Communist Party HQ he throws it over the barrier onto the steps of parliament. A friend of his always carries a sign that explains that these heads are fake, but that the real ones are coming, once the people will get rid of the ‘red scum’.
I don’t know what happens to the horseheads, but I already imagine a future museum of democracy, where they are all lined up, one after the other, each with a sign that shows the date, right up to the end, when the government came down, and the people took power.
M. notices my glass, it’s empty. “Here, have a refill.”
“Just a little bit.” He pours the homemade wine from a plastic bottle until the glass overflows.
“To the brim, man. To the brim!”
I smile, I lift the glass. “Cheers, mate.”