It had been a frightening and intense seven days for Sam Buliga and his five Christian brothers. Their escape plan from Communist Romania was supposed to take three days. Now, after seven grueling days, four of which were without food, then swimming the mile across the Danube, they lay in exhausted heaps on the Yugoslavian side of the Danube River. They had reached the shores of freedom that they had so desperately and bravely struggled to realize. Or had they?
They felt relieved and truly blessed by God after enduring that week-long ordeal. Many who tried to escape to freedom across the river in those days of Communism were discovered in the water and drowned by Romanian police who attacked them in boats. And 70-75% of escapees were sent back to Romania from Yugoslavia. It was a win/win situation for Yugoslavia. Romania would pay salt for returned escapees and the United States was supplying $50 per day for the Romanians that were accepted.
A bright spotlight engulfed the six as they wondered if they were actually on the Yugoslavian side. After four days without food, and struggling in the water for two hours, they were somewhat disoriented, to say the least. But they realized they were relatively safe when the guards began speaking Serbian and took them to the military facility for a meal and interrogation.
They were kept in a prison for fifteen days as each was checked for any criminal record. Then they were sent to a United Nations camp in Belgrade where interviews would be held to determine their immediate futures.
Sadly, one of Sam’s friends was sent back to Romania. The big guy that swam on his back, allowing the team to cross safely, was now in Yugoslavia as a third attempt at freedom. But, for reasons unknown, he was rejected and turned back to the Romanian authorities. He had six children and suffered under the Communists in prison, even attempting suicide at one point. He was eventually released after the revolution.
The Romanian guards were severely punished if anyone escaped under their watch. If escapees were returned, the Romanian guards took the opportunity to punish and badly beat them for getting past their watchful eye at the border. Sam’s friend had $500 hidden in the sole of his tennis shoe and they were to divide it among themselves when they were free. Sam has wondered if the Romanian guards ever found it or if it was thrown away with the worn-out shoe.
The United Nations camp in Belgrade was very crowded, with thirty people to a room and two to each bed. Sam spent fifteen days here before his interview with the Serbian officer, Olga. She spoke in broken Romanian and Sam says that this was a very bizarre interview.
For thirty minutes Olga gazed at his papers. Then she asked him his name and then asked him if he could turn out the light and turn it back on and then if he could move the chairs around the room. Frustrated, Sam said, “Ma’am, can I tell you my story?” The reply was sharp, “No! I don’t want to hear your story. I have everything right here.” After thirty minutes Sam was sent back to his room.
There would be two times each day that guards would appear. The first, at 10:00 am, the guards would be harsh and call the names of the detainees that were to come with them. These would be sent back to where they had escaped from; back into the hands of the angry Romanian guards. The next time would be 12:00, when the guards would have friendly dispositions and call names of the ones who would have been granted freedom.
For seven days, the guards would show up at each hour and repeat this procedure. And for seven days Sam’s nerves and emotions were pressured to the limit as he feared being called at the 10:00 hour and very disappointed that his name wasn’t mentioned at the second, 12:00 hour. Day after day the frustration grew.
Then one day the door opened at 11:00 am, an odd time, and the guard called, “Sam Buliga.” As he walked with the guard to the office, Sam asked him why was he called at a different hour. The guard replied, “Because you are going back to Romania.” Then he closed the door and told him that the truth was, Olga had been sick for seven days and now she wanted to give Sam and extra hour to prepare because he had been accepted.
Sam said, “This was the joy of my life! I knew that if I had been returned it would have been very bad for me in prison for many years and possible death. But now I was extremely happy!”
Sam’s parents, back in his small village, knew nothing of his escape. While he was in Belgrade, the police went to his father for a series of days and told him that Sam had died while crossing the Danube. His wise father said, “If he is dead, why don’t you bring me his body so that I can bury him?” Finally, they had to admit the truth that Sam had indeed escaped.
So now, Sam was under United Nations protection and he was given a hotel room to stay in while he waited for his next interview with the United States Ambassador in Belgrade. This was another strange interview.
It began with the Ambassador asking Sam what his name was and why his parents had named him such. Sam replied, “They are Christian and they gave me a Biblical name, Samuel.” The man replied, “But you are Christian. Why didn’t they name you from the New Testament, instead of the Old Testament?” This seemed very strange, but as it turned out, the Ambassador was Jewish and if Sam had been Jewish he would have been immediately accepted into the United States.
He was a political refugee and Sam had to wait another seven months for his paperwork to be processed. Then, finally the day arrived and he received his documents, signed by President George H. W. Bush. He was sponsored by a Catholic organization in the Dallas, TX area in May, 1989. Sam was diligent to eventually pay back the money to his sponsor. Some refugees didn’t and it did not go well with them when they applied for citizenship.
Sam Buliga, now a free man with a brand-new future stretching before him, asked God what direction he should take at this critical point in his life. His mind immediately went back a year earlier to the late night in the woods on the Romanian side of the Danube River. As he lay there gazing at freedom on the other side, he had made a covenant with his Lord, “If you allow me to escape this night, I will do whatever you want for the rest of my life.”
Sam knew this was a serious commitment and he knew that God would not let him forget it. His conversation with the Lord was candid. “God, I am twenty-nine now and I believe that I need a wife. I need to learn English and find a job here.” But the answer was clear to Sam, “No, I want you to get a seminary education.”
Sam thought, “That’s impossible!” But he knew it was God’s will for him. When he would mention his intentions of a seminary education to his friends, they would say, “Sam, that is crazy! You’re twenty-nine years old. You should get married and go to work.” But Sam always knew and he always replied, “I made a covenant with God and I need to keep it. God will not let me do anything if I’m not following Him.”
He met a friend from Romania who was starting his seminary training at Dallas Theological Seminary. This was one of Sam’s friends from the secret Bible studies in the mountains that the Secret Police raided. He encouraged Sam to apply and so he did. A year later he was accepted and started his seminary training in September 1990.
Sam says, “It was not easy. It took me six years instead of four. I met my wife in the meantime and took a year off before returning to finish.” His Romanian university degree was in accounting and now he was getting a theology degree. In 1995 he began working at International Commission, printing literature to be used in their mission work.
Today Sam is the Vice President, Eastern Europe and Central Asia for International Commission (www.IC-World.org). They are a church-based partnership evangelism organization. Sam has done mission work in over one hundred countries, which of course, includes Romania. He returns there a couple of times each year, working with the Romanians in Christian evangelical work.
“As I look back, I cannot believe this has happened to me,” Sam says. “If someone told me that I would escape, go to the United States, get a seminary degree and become a missionary, I would’ve told them they were crazy!” Sam is still stunned that God has blessed his life so. “When I didn’t have a job in Romania and was marked as dangerous by the Secret Police, I asked God why this was happening! I had dedicated my life to serving Him. And now it was so difficult.” But Sam looks back and sees that God’s hand was guiding his life all along and he is very grateful and humbled by it.
Sam Buliga, we also stand in amazement at how God has protected you and guided your life. Thank you for sharing your wonderful story with us.