“How Close I Had Come To Freedom”

Sam Buliga lay in the edge of the forest on the Romanian side of the Danube River in the late-night hours of the summer of 1988. He was desperately looking across to Yugoslavia and freedom. Sam was waiting for the moment that he and five friends would make their daring escape from the oppression of Communism. Sam breathed a sincere prayer, “God, if you allow me to escape, I will do whatever you want me to do.” Laughingly he says, “I didn’t really know what that meant at the time!” Then he quickly adds, “But it has been all good!”

Labeled as a dangerous Christian insurrectionist by the Securitate (Secret Police), denied the opportunity to work and promised prison if he wasn’t working, Sam knew that it was urgent that he find a way of escape. If he stayed, it would mean certain arrest, torture, prison time and possibly the loss of his life.

His first attempt to escape was with two other friends. They had planned to walk through the forest and into Yugoslavia. But one of the friends injured his leg and could not continue. They retreated to a nearby village that was close to the border. But, the people in this village were informants for the Romanian Secret Police.

During those days in Romania, no one could be trusted. The police rewarded informers and two out of every three had agreed to report any activities that the Securitate might be interested in, and trying to escape was certainly of interest to them. Even fellow church members, professing to be Christians, had sold out to these power-hungry thugs.

The Securitate eventually arrived and arrested all three and they were forced to travel by train to Turnu Severin. Here they were split up and interrogated separately. Sam’s two friends were beaten by the police. But Sam was spared a beating because his interrogating officer was slightly intimidated.

Upon questioning, the officer learned that Sam was an accountant and had attended Timisoara University. He began to write and Sam noticed that he spelled University with a lower-case “u.” The officer replied, “You mean it is supposed to be capitalized?” Sam said, “Of course. It’s a shame that you don’t know that.” The officer was embarrassed that he had made a mistake and the tone of his voice immediately changed.

The officer told him that he was associated with the wrong kind of people. “I feel sorry for you that you will be locked up for a very long time.” Sam made the next statement because, as he says, “I based it on the fact that the Lord would see us through, and I believed that with all my heart.” To the officer, he responded, “I know that we will be exonerated soon.”

The officer sneered as they were led away to jail. But it would only be for a week, as they waited for the judge to pass sentence on them. Then, suddenly, a pardon was given to them.

Once every five years President Ceausescu would grant amnesty to prisoners who had been incarcerated for ten years or less. This would come because of special occasions and it happened to be the President’s birthday.  Sam says,“Once again I saw God’s sovereignty and His mighty hand in my life.”   

 Sam unexpectedly saw his interrogator at the train station as he was boarding the train and headed home. He exclaimed, “O, hello, Mr. Officer! Did I not tell you that I would be exonerated soon?” The officer mumbled an acknowledgement and went on his way. (I think Sam liked to mess with them at every opportunity.)

Sam was working in Timisoara, in western Romania, approximately 500 miles from where his family was. He intentionally kept his escape plans from them because he knew that it would be even worse for them if the Securitate found out that they had known.

Six young Christian men carefully formulated their plan to escape from Communist Romania in 1988. Sam Buliga was twenty-nine years old and it was good that he and the others were in very good physical condition. They believed that they had a good plan and they began to implement it.

They knew the location where it was best to cross the Danube River and the plan included a three-day hike over a mountain and through the forest to the banks of the river. They packed enough food and water for three days and all was set. But as the plan unfolded, everything that could go wrong, did.

As it was getting dusk, their car approached the village of Baile Herculane, where they needed to begin their journey. All six were quiet and reserved and concentrating on the seriousness of the moment and the tension was growing stronger each second. They were leaving their homeland and seeking freedom and a future. Extreme care now was required so as not to be noticed by anyone in the village.

Instead of three days, it would take these brave men seven days to complete their mission. They made it over the mountain without any problems, but when they entered the forest, they became lost. The nightmare intensified as after the third day the food and water ran out. The thirst for water was desperate, and they ate wild berries and drank spring water as they could find it for the next four days.

Sleeping on the ground of the forest was difficult enough. But it became very stressful as they would wake up to a bear in their midst one morning and a stampede of wild hogs on another. As they walked, one of Sam’s friends alerted him just in time before he stepped on a huge poisonous viper in the path, coiled and ready to strike.

When they finally arrived at the Danube, after four days without food, they were totally exhausted and felt “we were at the end of our ability to walk any further.” But Sam says, “The thought of freedom awakened every fiber in our bodies and we were able to relentlessly push forward, in spite of the circumstances.” He would lay on his stomach for hours waiting for the cover of darkness before crossing to Yugoslavia. As he lay there, Sam remembers “looking desperately to the other side, knowing how close I had come to freedom.” He says that he could even taste it, “and yet not being able to reach it made me sick at my stomach.”

 When darkness fell, they made their way to the shoreline. This crossing point was ideal because the Danube was only 200 meters wide at this location. But they were dismayed when they realized that this place was swarming with Romanian guards. There was no way they could cross here.

So, the next plan was to make their way a half mile to a very dangerous crossing point. The Danube was a mile wide here and the currents would make it extremely difficult to swim across. There were only two guards at this location because of the lower risk of anyone braving these waters.

The group had prayed for a dark, rainy night to keep them hidden as much as possible. But instead it was a bright full moon. In any other circumstance, you would have said that is was a beautiful August night. Everything seemed to be against them, except the grace of God. Starved, exhausted, bright moonlit sky, the most dangerous crossing point and guards on duty; you couldn’t write a better script for God to show His care and protection. They all agreed, “We couldn’t attribute anything to our own power or abilities; we had to totally rely on omnipotent God.”

These adrenaline-charged men, very quietly and carefully, slipped into the water, after loading their meager possessions onto the small inflatable raft they had. They began their mile swim and after making some headway, realized that the current was so strong that it was shoving them back to the shore, where the guards were standing. They were hiding around the little raft while they helplessly fought the current. But they were being taken directly towards the guards.

Sam remembers that they were so close to the Romanian guards they could hear every word they were speaking. He remembers the profane words and their conversation as they manned their post:

Soldier 1, “Hey man, do you want a cigarette?” Soldier 2, “Yeah, thanks. There are also some bottles of beer hidden, but watch out for the big boss, since he promised us a visit tonight.” Soldier 1, “Yeah, yeah, whatever. He makes me sick anyway! Man, look at the full moon. It’s a great night for us. There’s no way anyone could escape our eyes on a night like this.” Soldier 2, “####! You can count on me. If I see anyone trying to escape, I’ll blow their brains out!” Then there was uncontrollable laughter.

As the escapees desperately fought the current and the highly likely possibility that they would easily be seen at any moment, this chilling conversation echoed in their ears. Many people had attempted escape by swimming across and had died as the guards went out in boats and held them under water until they drowned. These men knew that and realized that there was only one thing to do – continue to fight and pray.

For the next 1 ½ hours they tried swimming to freedom, constantly being shoved back into the Romanian shoreline, so close to the guards that, humanly speaking, it was impossible for them to not see these six men as they thrashed against the force of the current.

But, Sam knows why they were never found out. He knows that God blinded these men, “They didn’t have eyes to see us, because the Lord God Almighty covered their eyes and ears. It was as if we were not even there, or as if they had a veil covering their eyes.”

Finally, the biggest man in their group suggested that he swim on his back against the current and they all could swim in his wake. This worked and they crossed the middle of Danube, the border and all the way to the Yugoslavian shore. There were steep, rough rocks here and now they were struggling to find a way out of the water, which was still very deep. As they fought their way out, their bodies being slammed into the rocks, they experienced minor lacerations on their feet.

Now on the shore, they collapsed, completely exhausted, hungry, thirsty and soaked. They lay there for a long time just trying to gain some strength. At this time, they were disoriented and weren’t sure which bank they were on. They stood in fear and shock as a car drove up and shined bright lights on them. They feared the worse, but hoping and praying with all their beings that they were on Yugoslavian soil. Their fears quickly vanished as this man spoke Serbian. A minivan arrived, with Yugoslavian guards, and transported them to the nearest military facility.

We will end there for now, realizing that Sam’s ordeal wasn’t completely over yet. Next time we will pick up the story and continue to show how God protects and blesses His faithful children.

I would like to explain that my story comes from, not only my interview with Sam and his wife, Valetta, but also from her careful notes of Sam’s life. She plans on writing a book about his life that will include much more detail. I hope you get a copy when it comes out.