The liberator

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I met him in Tbilisi - the heart of the Caucasus. He was a professor of Ottoman history and a Soviet academic star. When he found out that I was a Bulgarian, he told me about his one day in Bulgaria that changed his life.

Dato had been a low-ranking officer in a Red Army commando unit: the first one to cross our border. The point they had to take was Vinitsa Heights, which dominated Varna Port from the north, and by chance he was the very first man to bury his feet in Vinitsa's loose soil, followed by his men: mean, haggard, desperate, their mouths full of the three-year-old stench of war.

He said the hillside was warm in the September sun, and the waters in the harbor reflected it against the southward slopes, which looked like a huge herd of living grapevines running toward the waterline as his parachute hurled him head first into the vineyard. He pulled the parachute down, and felt the sweet smell of the smashed ripe clusters of grapes penetrate deep in his Georgian heart, for like any real Georgian, he was raised on grapes and grape juice. His men followed. They started digging their knee-deep trenches hurriedly, then suddenly an old man jogged toward them, cane in hand. The sergeant - a burly Ukrainian peasant - pulled his machine gun to readiness.

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''Hey,'' shouted the old man, waving his cane as if to chase off a flock of cranes. ''Hey!''

''Is he mad?'' the sergeant asked.

''Hey, papasha!'' Dato shouted back, ''Uhadi! Go away! Have you lost your sense? You'll get hurt! It's war! Voyna!''

''Voyna, voyna!'' The old man repeated the last word and then went on cackling in his native tongue. Dato recognized the words but not the meaning, which didn't prevent him from understanding the old man: ''It may be war, but you watch my grapes! I've cut them, and watered them. It's time to bring in my crop, so you watch what you're doing with those funny trenches! And that boy there is in my vegetable garden!''

Dato looked to where the old man was pointing, and saw a young lad biting into a tomato as he listened to what was going on.

''Throw that tomato away!'' Dato ordered, and the lad gulped the rest of the tomato in a hurry. Then he shouted back to the old man, ''We are commandos. We are obliged to kill you on the spot without giving it a second thought!''

Dato saw the sergeant dry the tears in his eyes with the back of his hand and then lock a bullet in the barrel of his submachine gun. The huge Ukrainian was shaking, and Dato knew that his heart was stung by the same feeling of unexpected normality that he felt. ''What does he want of us!'' the sergeant thundered in order to chase the old man away before he got killed. ''What does he want!'' Then he started shooting volley after volley above the old man's head.

Only then did it occur to the old man that the men in front of him had traveled thousands of miles of war, horrors, and hatred, so he threw his cane aside and ran back through the heavy rows of grapevines and further on and up toward the road.

They stood where he had left them, knee deep in the vineyard not daring to look in each other's eyes; totally disarmed for the first time in three dreadful years.

''Whom are we liberating?'' Dato remembered asking himself, and in the years to come he never forgot the answer he found to that question: It was the old gaffer who had liberated him, Dato, for a brief moment from his beastliness. He had brought back to life his normal human reflexes and with them a new scale of values that was to carry him through the rest of his life; a ripe cluster of grapes was worth more than all the Trafalgars on earth.

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