Ten months in a communist prison


By Don Milam —

Church in Maputo
Church in Maputo

It was June 3, 1975 and I was at home having lunch with my family when there was a knock at the door. As I got up to answer the urgent rapping, I did not realize that when I opened that door the course of my life would change forever. The man on the other side of the door was a detective from the secret police of Mozambique. He confirmed my identity and then told me I would have to come with him to the police station.

Let’s spin the time clock backward to 1967. At that time I was a junior at Prairie Bible College in Alberta, Canada. During that school year the Worldwide Evangelization Crusade (founded by the British cricketer, C.T. Studd) came to talk to us about the 19 point evangelistic program. They informed us of their intention to reach 19 places in the world that had not been evangelized by the Gospel. One of those places was northern Mozambique. During those years I had already heard many missionaries speak of the great opportunities to reach the world. However, it was at this point that I knew that Mozambique was in my future.

Micki and I graduated in 1968 and got married that summer. Because Mozambique, a Portuguese colony, was not open for new missionaries we decided to work with Teen Challenge, a drug rehabilitation program founded by David Wilkerson. We arrived in Philadelphia in the fall of 1968 and worked on the streets of Philadelphia for two years. We did not realize that this decision would be crucial to our future work in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. At the end of those two wonderful years we heard that there was a little crack in the door to Mozambique so we said goodbye to our friends at Teen Challenge a drug rehabilitation program founded by David Wilkerson. We arrived in Philadelphia in the fall of 1968 and worked on the streets of Philadelphia for two years. We did not realize that this decision would be crucial to our future work in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. At the end of those two wonderful years we heard that there was a little crack in the door to Mozambique so we said goodbye to our friends at Teen Challenge and moved to Ft. Washington and joined the Worldwide Evangelization Crusade.

In 1972 my wife and I and our two children flew to Lisbon where for the next 10 months we would study Portuguese in preparation for the journey to Mozambique. At the end of that time we heard that we had been granted a temporary visa to enter Mozambique. On our last day in Lisbon we packed up our belongings and headed for the ship that would take us to Maputo (called Lourenco Marques in those days). For three weeks we sailed down the coast of Africa, rounded the Cape of Good Hope and finally landed in Maputo. We were met by a South African couple that had prepared for our arrival.

When we arrived in Mozambique we knew that the Portuguese colonialists had been in an ongoing struggle with freedom fighters in the North of this beautiful country. FRELIMO, the communist-backed rebel group, had been waging a guerilla-type war for independence. This war had been going on for ten years but it had not affected life in Maputo. In the South, where we lived in the capital city, life went on in a relatively normal fashion. No one really talked much about the war mainly for fear of attracting the attention of the PIDE, the Portuguese secret police.

It was about a year later that I met Joao, a young man addicted to drugs and prostitution. Joao accepted Christ and this encounter would change the direction of our life in Mozambique. After Joao’s brother committed suicide while high on drugs, Joao asked me to talk with his uncle who was grieving over the death of his nephew who had jumped from the 7th floor of their condo. The conversation eventually turned towards our involvement with Teen Challenge. They were fascinated by the tales of lives changed by the power of God. A few days later the uncle called me and asked if he could take me to visit a friend of his. Well, the friend he was talking about just happened to be the Secretary of Health for Mozambique.

The outcome of that meeting was that the government decided to finance the opening of a drug rehabilitation center in Matola, a suburb of Maputo, and give us all permanent visas to stay in Mozambique. Tom Bauer and Salu Daka Ndebele, who had just come to Maputo from the Youth With a Mission base in Zimbabwe, joined our staff. They were a great addition and their work on the streets reached a lot of kids. Many of these young people were delivered from drugs, a standing testimony to the power of God. My dream for ministry in Mozambique was becoming a reality.

In 1974 the unimaginable happened. The military in Portugal successfully launched a coup d’état against the government, and the first thing the new junta did was give independence to their three African colonies, Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bassau. For us in Mozambique that meant that FRELIMO would take over the government of Mozambique.

At the urging of the U.S. Consulate, most American missionaries had already left the country, but Micki and I and our staff sought the Lord for direction and felt it was right for us to stay. The people we had been ministering to and come to love had no place to go for sanctuary. We could not leave them.

A year later, in April of 1975, the people of Mozambique celebrated their independence from Portugal and FRELIMO soldiers drove through the city of Maputo in their jeeps firing AK-47s into the air.

One month after Independence Day that fateful knock on the door of my home happened. I was about to enter into what St. John of the Cross called “The Dark Night of the Soul.”I was arrested and taken to the police station not suspecting how my life was about to dramatically change. I was questioned for six hours and had no way of knowing that Clecius, our Brazilian co-worker, was also being interrogated in another room. Later that evening I was put in a military jeep with armed soldiers and taken to my home. Several soldiers woke my wife and children as they searched our house, waving their weapons at us. I didn’t know what they were looking for and had only a minute to quickly whisper to Micki that it would be all right. This was just a big misunderstanding, and once they realized it, I would return home. How wrong I was!

By then it was about ten o’clock at night, and I was brusquely ordered back outside and into the jeep. I was taken to the ominous-looking Maputo Civil prison. Arriving in the dark of night, I was processed and led to cell number six in prison block A. Dazed, I found myself secured in that cell with two other prisoners.The little blanket they had issued me was not pulled over my head as I sought to make sense of the events of that day. My thoughts turned to God. “Oh God, where are You?” I cried out. No answer seemed to come.

The next morning I connected with Clecius who was in Cell Block C. Two days later Salu was arrested and put in Cell Block B. Also, on that first day Mr. Cunha, head of the block, came and introduced himself to me. He and many other people on that block would become dear friends during our mutual ordeal. A month or so later two American missionaries were also arrested. Hugh Friberg and Armand Doll would join me in my cell.

That was the first of the 300 nights I would spend in that dark, fear-filled, concrete prison. I had prepared my whole adult life to serve the Lord in this very country where I now found myself imprisoned. My lifelong dream had turned into a nightmare. I was confused and depressed. Where was God, and how could He let this happen? My earlier confidence that this was all a mistake began to evaporate. What was going to happen to Micki and my three small children with chaos and violence escalating in this new Marxist country? Horror stories of the unrestrained actions of the guerillas turned “policemen” filtered throughout the prison daily.

Gradually I began to settle into the daily routine of prison life. From the very first day, the prison guards expressed great antipathy for all the foreigners under their care. The first morning I was dragged by the soldiers into the mess hall and ordered to take off my shoes, get on my knees, and wash the floor with a brush. This was the first of many humiliations. I came to dread the times when the whole prison population was brought together and made to watch while certain inmates were beaten and tortured. As a sheltered American, I was shocked at the total disregard for human life by these cruel jailers.

Adding to my ragged emotional state of mind was the fear for my family living on the outside. They were trying to get by in those tumultuous days. Single women were being targeted by roving bands of ex-guerillas, now soldiers. Food was scarce. Homes were being broken into and robbed of all belongings. On one stormy night while my wife and children were sleeping, our home was broken into and all our belongings were stripped from us. My mind was racked with a deep sense of helplessness to protect them.

In the midst of the dark cloud of fear and uncertainty that hung over me, I became aware of a quiet but powerful energy at work in me. I think this was the first time I experientially came to know the force we call grace. While I was not always conscious of this power, it was there and it was working. Grace was empowering me for this moment. It was making me stronger than I naturally was. At times I could literally feel the warmth of God’s presence sweeping over the cold gripping my soul. More often, though, I felt like such a failure and would be almost overwhelmed by depression. I was plagued by the question, “What had I done wrong to deserve this imprisonment?”

The FRELIMO soldiers who were the official guards over the prison looked for ways to frighten and humiliate the foreigners. Toward the end of my time in prison, their fear tactics increased. One Sunday they burst into my cell and hauled me and six or seven other prisoners into the prison courtyard. Handing each one of us a shovel and herding us to the middle of the courtyard, they sharply commanded us to start digging.

After digging for nearly four hours we stood in a massive hole whose lip was over our heads. During this whole time the soldiers, who were high on marijuana, yelled and waved their AK-47s threateningly at us. Finally, they screamed at us to climb out of the hole, whereupon they lined us up facing the gaping hole in front of us. “Had we just dug our grave?” I wondered if this might be the end. I was never going home; I was never going to see my family again.

With our eyes tightly closed, we listened to the frightening sound of weapons being loaded. I stood resigned, waiting for the bullets that were going to end the horror. Nothing! Suddenly a wild fit of laughter broke the silence. Immediately they started demanding that we fill up the hole we had just dug. After filling the hole they marched us back to our cells. It took me some time to realize that I was still alive. I had survived another life-threatening encounter in my Mozambican nightmare.

But not all the days were so dark. We had the opportunity to minister to many people during those days. I was allowed to preach in the Catholic chapel that was on the prison grounds. It gave hope to those enduring those times with us. I was able to lead several to the Lord including Virgilio, who had been with the Portuguese Special Forces and was a bouncer in an underground casino when he was arrested. He still serves the Lord to this day.

In December of 1975, my wife and our three kids returned to the States. We had made a mutual decision that it would be better for her and the kids to get out of this insanity. Life in Maputo was too dangerous and I would be at peace if she were at home with our families. For the next four months life would drag on. Some prisoners would be dragged out of the prison to be executed. Others were taken to re-education camps in the north. There would be repeated rumors that all foreigners would be released but it never happened.

A week or so before my release I was in my cell reading my Bible that had survived multiple searches of our cell by the prison guards. I had just started reading the Psalms and landed on chapter 13. The chapter began with a cry the mimicked my own personal cry in that prison cell:

How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts

and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, LORD my God.

Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,

and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”

and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

I paused for a moment as I reflected on David’s words that I could have written myself. Then I moved to verse 5:

But I trust in your unfailing love;

my heart rejoices in your salvation.

At that moment I just knew that my life in this prison would soon be over. There was a renewed confidence in the goodness and mercy of God. About a week later I was called to the front of the prison where a police detective told me that I was going to be expelled but that is was my responsibility to get my own ticket home. I returned to my cell to share the news with Clecius and Salu. They were excited for me but a little discouraged about their own situation. That very day Clecius was also informed that he was being expell.

Later that day I was called back to the warden’s office where I was met by two men for the USA consulate. This was the first time in 299 days that I was allowed any visit from an American official. They informed me that they had heard I was being expelled and that they were aggressively seeking to get us tickets so that we could return home.

The next day Clecius and I found out that our respective governments had secured tickets for us and we would be flown to the airport that very day. We spent time with Salu given him all of our prison belongings and trying to encourage him. After lunch we were picked up and taken to the airport in similar jeeps that had brought us to prison. The American ambassador met us at the airport gave us our tickets and one hundred dollars each. As I sat in my seat on the plane I knew that I would not fully be at peace until we landed in Johannesburg where we would change planes for our final journey home. Arriving at JFK in New York we knew that our journey had ended. We were home, free at last. Thank God, free at last.

I shook off the fear that had been my companion for 300 days and was ready to begin a new life. Unfortunately, Salu would not be released until the following year but thankfully all of us had survived and gave thanks to God who had been our constant companion.

Sometime later, Salu was released, and he wrote a book called “Guerrilla for Christ,” about his own experiences in that prison, with ANS founder, Dan Wooding, which is still available at: www.amazon.com/Dan-Wooding/e/B0028AQBVC .  Sadly, Salu has since passed away.

Since that time my life has taken a few twists and turns. For 10 years I was a pastor in eastern Pennsylvania and then for the last 18 years I served as head of author development at Destiny Image Publishers. The lessons I learned in those dark days in prison have strengthened me throughout my life. My story continues to be a source of great encouragement for many helping them to understand that there is no situation to dark that cannot be overpowered by God’s amazing grace.

Mozambique is no longer what it was in those days. It is no longer a Marxist country and is now totally open to the gospel and there are many missionaries serving there. One of those missionaries is Roland and Heidi Baker who founded Iris Ministries. Their work in Pemba, in the northern part of Mozambique, has had a huge impact on the people of that wonderful country. A few years ago I was with Heidi and she told me that the work we had done in Mozambique in the 70s planted a seed that they are now reaping.


About the author: Don and his wife, Micki, graduated from Prairie Bible College in Alberta, Canada, in 1968. Right after our marriage they joined the staff of Philadelphia Teen Challenge working in the inner city with drug addicts. After two years, they exchanged the streets of Philadelphia for the streets of Maputo, Mozambique, in East Africa where we opened a drug rehabilitation center at the request of the Portuguese Department of Health. When the communists took control of the country in 1975, Don was arrested and spent ten months in prison. Following his release, he was a pastor for ten years in Pennsylvania. He has worked for Destiny Image Publishers for 18 years and is the head of Author Development and the author of “The Lost Passions of Jesus” and “The Ancient Language of Eden.” The couple has three children and eight grandchildren.–ASSIST News