He grew up in a Christian family during Ceaucescu’s communist regime. As his schoolteachers tried to brainwash him with their atheistic philosophy, he wondered about God’s existence. But during a daring escape attempt when he was only a teenager, God revealed Himself in powerful ways.
“We listened illegally to Radio Free Europe,” says Aurel Antimie, a 49-year-old building contractor with a sturdy build and graying hair. “My dad listened to the radio secretly with pillows in the windows so no neighbors could detect us and report us to the authorities,” he says.
Aurel experienced some tensions in the school system because he came from a Christian family. “Teachers would make me stand up in class and mock me,” he recalls. “We were taught that there is no God, and that man is his own god,” he says. “They washed the brains of people – telling them there is no Creator.”
At 16, he began to question the faith of his family. He wondered who was right, his parents or his schoolteachers. “I said, ‘God, if you are somewhere and you still reveal your identity to people, I need to know you are there.’”
During the next two years leading up to his 18th birthday, Aurel began to dream about escaping Romania. President Ceaucescu had launched his own version of the Cultural Revolution inspired by trips to China, North Korea, and North Vietnam. More and more, he used neo-Stalinist tactics to influence the direction of Romanian society. Aurel and his family watched the deterioration of their beloved country at the hands of the heavy-handed regime.
Even as a teenager, Aurel’s heart began to yearn for freedom, and he plotted his escape.
To hike or to swim?
His first challenge is that he lived on the east side of his country, near the border with the former Soviet Union. He would have to cross 600 miles to get close to the western border with Yugoslavia. His first thought was to attempt to cross the river Dunube (Danube in Germany), which straddles the border with Yugoslavia. The river is often a mile wide in many places as it flows toward the Black Sea.
“My original plan was to cross the river, but I didn’t swim very well. There are a lot of soldiers with boats and they have sensors to detect additional noise. You can be detected very quickly,” he notes.
Once spotted, a swimmer is no match for a motorboat. “They come after you very quickly and in most cases they will spike you in the water. Then you drift downstream and they have a screening point where they collect all the bodies.”
According to Aurel, failed escapees were buried without witnesses. “The soldiers just do their duty commanded by the communist party,” he notes.
Aurel and two other teens began to plan an escape together: his cousin Constantine Coca and their mutual friend, Doru Ilioi. After they rejected the idea of a water crossing, they decided they would cross the border on foot, which presented its own challenges. First, they had to take a bus to a village near the border, then walk 30 miles through fields, farmland, and rugged mountain terrain to eventually cross a militarized zone.
Another problem they faced was that many people in Romania received money as informants to spy on their neighbors — or anyone who appeared suspicious. The three would have to be cautious in their travel to avoid arousing interest.
On August 23rd, 1979 – Romanian Independence Day, the three boarded a bus at 6:00 a.m. and headed for a village near the Yugoslavian border. To evade suspicion, they sat apart from each other on the bus. “Security people travel on the buses, so we couldn’t communicate,” Aurel notes.
When the bus let them off, they began their 30-mile hike. In small bags, they carried green clothing they hoped would serve as camouflage, a set of stolen binoculars, small towels, and energy bars.
Not very far into the journey, they were startled by the appearance of three armed soldiers who began to follow them from a distance on foot.
The teenagers panicked. They realized they could be thrown in jail merely for possessing the binoculars, which were not available to the public.
As a car approached, they pretended to be hitchhikers, and got a ride into the next big city. The soldiers watched from afar as they drove off.
The young men spent the day in town looking in stores, buying a few needed items, then they landed in a dormitory for the evening as they pondered their next move. Constantine decided their venture was too risky and he backed out that night.
Constantine’s Bible verses
Aurel and Doru were disappointed to leave Constantine behind, but decided to continue. The next morning they assembled their belongings and walked to catch the 7 a.m. bus. Back in the dorm room, Constantine started to feel some remorse. ‘What if they get out,’ he thought to himself.
Constantine began to pray. “Lord, if it’s your will we escape today, give me a word from your scripture.” He opened the Bible randomly, and his eyes landed in the Psalms: “I will praise your name among the nations and carry your word through the earth.”
‘This is a good sign,’ he thought to himself. He prayed a second time, and again opened the Bible. This time he opened to the Book of Daniel and the story of God’s protection for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace.
Immediately Constantine jumped up, grabbed his belongings, and ran for the bus.
As Auel and Doru sat on the 7 a.m. bus, they began to wonder why the bus driver delayed their departure. They looked at their watches. It was 7:10, then 7:15, then 7:20.
Finally another passenger asked the bus driver, “Why are you not leaving?”
At that moment, Constantine turned a corner at full speed and was shocked to see the bus still there! He reached the steps of the bus and climbed aboard, huffing and puffing. The moment he stepped aboard the driver turned the key, started the engine, the door closed, and away they went.
After the three were dropped off, they started their 30-mile trek. “We got into the woods right away,” Aurel says. It was a rugged, wild area, with no signs of other hikers or travelers. During the first few hours, Doru damaged one of his shoes and had to walk barefoot. About 2 p.m. the woods opened up into a broad expanse of fields and they noticed a small village nearby.
Ahead of them was the mountain peak they must climb to cross the border, but first they had to go through a large field filled with sheep. “We saw shepherds with about 2,000 to 3,000 sheep,” he recalls. “They also had huge dogs they used to help watch the sheep.”
As they surveyed the scene, they realized if they went through the field, most likely they would be spotted and turned in to authorities. The three knelt down in a cornfield and began to pray.
A prayer for the weather
“Lord, would you make a cloudy day and give us some rain?” Aurel asked. They reasoned that if rain appeared, the shepherds and their sheep would leave the area where they grazed.
It wasn’t long before the unexpected happened. “Minutes later it clouded up and started a very heavy rain,” Aurel says. As predicted, the shepherds left the fields and sought shelter away from them.
Aurel was amazed and elated by this speedy answer to prayer. “I strongly saw the hand of God,” he says. “God was dealing with my heart to understand that this is a God who deserves to be praised and worshiped and served.”
Now soaking wet, the three continued their journey. As the shadows of the day began to lengthen, they felt the briskness of Fall in the air. Before they could start their ascent of the mountain, first they swam across a river about 40-feet wide. After they plunged in and swam for the other bank, they realized everything they had with them was soaked.
Now they began to climb. By 5 p.m. they got close enough to the summit to see a line of watchtowers that ran along the border at the ridgeline, spaced about 300 yards apart. Each watchtower had 50-70 steps that spiraled up to a small cabin on the top.
“The soldiers were armed and they had dogs with them,” Aurel recalls. The sun was still out as they sought shelter in a ditch and plotted their next move. If they moved forward, they could easily be spotted. There were no bushes, trees, or anything that might obscure their view from the watchtowers. They were stuck.
The Lord moves
“Let’s pray again,” Constantine suggested. “We said, ‘Lord, do something. We can’t continue our journey.’”
About 10 minutes later they watched a small gray cloud, the size of a man’s hand appear in the distance. “That gray cloud got bigger and bigger and it came lower and lower,” Aurel says. They realized the cloud was moving toward the watchtower. “We were watching like you would watch a movie,” Aurel notes, “looking at a screen, wondering what was going to happen next.”
“The minute that cloud touched the watchtower, it stopped,” Aurel says. They could still see the stairs going up, but the cabin with the soldiers inside was shrouded by a thick, dark cloud.
They looked at each other, their eyes wide with amazement and wonder. In a fraction of a second they recognized what had just happened. “This is God,” Aurel exclaimed. “Only God could do this!”
They realized it was God’s hand that moved the cloud and positioned it perfectly for their protection. Their faith and trust in God bolstered as never before, they stood up and began to walk and run toward the border. “That was the moment God turned everything around,” Aurel recalls. “There was no more fear.”
Now it was past 6 p.m. and dark. They knew that before they crossed the actual border they would encounter a trip wire about six or seven inches off the ground. “If you touch it,” Aurel explains, “it launches fireworks that light up the area – then they know where you are.”
To avoid such a possibility, they got down on all fours and began “cat walking.” They would take a few steps as they watched for the trip wire, then stop, take a few steps, then stop. “It was muddy,” Aurel says. “You can imagine how we looked after being in the rain and the mud.”
Constantine was in the front, then Doru, then Aurel in the rear, carrying their baggage. They found a ditch that obscured them somewhat, so they followed it. They tracked along with it for a while, but were startled to find it had led them directly into another watchtower.
They changed their direction, then saw in the moonlight the actual border, protected by a barbed wire fence that would be very difficult to get through.
The Lord’s gate
“There was another miracle,” Aurel reports. The fence was under construction. The place they arrived was exactly the point the soldiers had finished their workday. On the left side was the old fence and on the right side was the new one. They looked at each other in wonderment at three posts installed with no barbed wire.
“We couldn’t believe our eyes,” Aurel exults. “It was like a gate the Lord opened for us!”
They passed through, elated, only to realize this was a “false” border, fully 400 yards behind the real border they still needed to cross.
As they crept forward carefully, they knew that sometimes soldiers are stationed in hidden places on the ground with dogs. “They use German Shepherds with very strong bodies that are trained to kill,” Aurel says.
“If they see you cross the border they can’t shoot you or come after you by international law, but they send the dogs after you and they maul you.”
To the left they heard a noise. It was three soldiers on the ground huddled together with their dogs, as they listened to Romanian country music.
“The blessing of God was the wind was blowing from them toward us, so the dogs didn’t smell us,” he notes.
With their eyes carefully watching the soldiers and their dogs, they crept forward toward the real border, which consisted of a belt of smooth, fresh dirt, 18-feet-wide, that allowed soldiers to check for the footprints of escapees.
“We cat-walked across the border, leaving six marks with our knees,” Aurel says. “We thought that if the soldiers spotted us, we would run as fast as we could.”
They got 120 feet past the border, stood up, and walked forward slowly. “We realized it was a victory,” Aurel says. A little bit farther, when they felt safe, they stood very still and prayed together. Exultant, they offered thanks to God for their miraculous arrival in Yugoslavia.
The three young men walked through the night and used their watches to help them read a small map. They traveled through corn fields and cucumber fields and other crops that would soon be ready for the harvest. They stopped to wash their clothes in a creek.
Arrest and interrogation
The next morning, they entered a village and were immediately picked up by the police. Because they lacked passports and had clearly entered illegally, they were handcuffed and taken to the police station. Constantine was the first to be interrogated.
“At that time there were Yugoslavians who would take a lot of money to transport people across the border. They wanted to know which group helped us, and refused to believe it was possible we pulled off such a feat without assistance.”
After separate interrogations, the three were called together. “They said if you don’t tell us the truth, about which group helped you, we will take you back across the border and turn you over to the Romanian authorities.”
“It didn’t matter how much we told him no one helped us, he wouldn’t believe us,” Aurel says.
Increasingly angered, one of their captors hit his boot against the door. “There is a military base on the border that’s impossible to get through,” he said, his voice rising, “so don’t lie to us.”
Constantine suddenly got an insight from God. “Let me tell you one thing we didn’t tell you before,” he said. “The three of us are Christians, and God did a miracle in our lives.” He explained to the guard the three miracles with the rain, the cloud, and the missing section of fence.
As soon as Constantine finished, something very unexpected happened — a tear dropped from the eye of their interrogator. God broke through the hard exterior. The man paused for a moment, his voice lowered and he said, “I believe you, and I will help you achieve your dreams.”
As much as he wanted to help, he couldn’t free them right away. “You were caught illegally in Yugoslavia,” he said, “so you must stay in jail 20 days.”
After 20 days, they learned they would be transported to a U.N. refugee camp outside Trieste. “We traveled one full day in a mini-bus with two guardians,” Aurel says. They spent the night in a dog shelter, then drove in a different vehicle for one hour on a windy country road. They seemed to be in the middle of nowhere.
“We thought maybe this was the end,” Aurel recalls. “Will they kill us?”
Suddenly the car came to an abrupt stop and they were ordered out. One policeman removed their handcuffs and the other drew a line in the dirt with his boot. He barked at them, “This is Yugoslavia. This is Italy. Move fast.”
A mysterious guide
They started walking toward Italy, but had no idea how to find the refugee camp near Trieste. None of them spoke Italian; how would they find where they needed to go?
Unexpectedly a man appeared, dressed in a black suit and white shirt. “It was the whitest shirt I’ve ever seen,” Aurel notes. “We asked if he knew where the camp is in Trieste.”
He said very clearly in Romanian, “I was sent to take you there.”
They set out, keeping a few steps behind the man. “We were very tired because we didn’t sleep in the dog shelter,” Aurel says. “We followed that man two hours until we arrived at the camp.”
As they stepped forward to the registration booth, Aurel looked behind himself to see if he could say thanks to the one who led them. The man had disappeared.
Aurel asked the people at the registration booth, “What happened to the man in the black suit?”
“We didn’t see any man in a black suit,” they told him. Aurel now believes this was the last miracle of God during their escape to freedom.
One of Aurel’s first actions at the camp was to send a postcard to his father. “We made it, we’re alive,” the postcard read.
“Since then, I’ve tried to be faithful to God,” Aurel says. “This completely changed my life, when I saw how God works, how detailed He is. I never understood Him before this. With the miracles he did in my life, I can’t deny Him.
“As long as I have breath I will testify that God is real and God is doing miracles today.”
Aurel, Doru, and Constantine eventually moved to the United States. Aurel and his wife, Mariana, have nine children. Active in the Romanian Church and as a building contractor, he recently completed a church in Nashville that seats 500.
He offers a special word to Americans: “Do not take your freedoms for granted. This is a blessed country – don’t give away your freedom.”
Constantine also lives in Nashville, near Aurel. Doru is a pastor in Phoenix, Arizona.