On the other side of the island, wooden poles had been washed out by the torrents of flood water, now rising menacingly ever higher, so we were sent to dig new holes and set up the poles again. It was now 24th December. We worked in icy, rapidly flowing water up to our waists to retrieve the floating poles and load them on to a raft.
Having loaded one raft I climbed aboard it and began to punt it back to the shore. I was in the middle of the flooded river, when suddenly the raft simply came apart beneath me and I was deposited in the freezing water. I was a half-mile from the shore, caught up in the swollen, raging river with a heavy coat and boots on and so frozen that I couldn’t move. I was dragged downstream by the current and went under several times, but somehow managed to come up again. I was frozen through by the icy water, the boots dragged me down, the swift current pulled me along.
There was no human way out of this. Death was as certain as it could be. My arms, my legs, my whole body were numb from the icy water. The swift current, the heavy boots and coat were dragging me under again and again. Still I fought my way back to the surface, only to go under again.. My strength was completely gone. I gave up struggling. death had its embrace around me.
With a final breath I cried out, “Lord, help me!” Suddenly a surge of strength shot through my frozen, exhausted body. I began swimming towards the shore with powerful strokes. Incredibly, I was able to pull myself along, heavy, sodden boots and all. It was truly God’s strength for I had none left. A strong swimmer would have had trouble making it, much less I in my condition. Yet, I could see I was making progress. I said over and over “Thank You, Lord.” Later, I remembered that beautiful hymn:
“Though sometimes He leads through water deep.
Trials fall across the way.
Though sometimes the path seems rough and steep.
See His footsteps all the way.”
Those watching from the shore had already written me off as dead and had turned away and gone about their work. After all, life was so cheap, one prisoner more or less meant nothing. We had seen so many die, death was commonplace.
I struggled closer and closer to the shore. Finally, I could see the shore and saw two figures in black. They were nuns. At that time a trial against Catholic priests and nuns had just concluded, and they, too, had been convicted of espionage. More than fifty priests and nuns were condemned to prison and two Bishops and two priests were executed. The two nuns before me were floundering in the mud on the river bank while a woman guard commanded them to keep going. The guard brutally kicked one of the nuns, causing her to fall flat where she sank into the soft, oozing mud. She pulled herself up with great effort.
The village of Belene was about a mile and a half from us. It was Christmas. The bells of the church began to ring out with the glad tidings of the Christian faith. At the moment the bells began pealing, the two nuns down at the river bank were floundering and sinking in the mud without anyone to help them and I, an evangelical pastor, had just used my last ounce of strength to swim ashore and lay exhausted. The bells seemed to be saying, “God is born in the form of a man. God is revealing Himself through His Child.”
I’ll never forget that Christmas. I was lying exhausted and the two nuns were sinking deeper into the mud. We stopped our struggling and listened. It was dark and freezing cold. I was almost a solid block of ice. The bells could be heard faintly far off in the distance ringing out the message of the Saviour’s birth.
Tears rolled down my cheeks as I lay there. They were tears of joy because I had not drowned and tears of sorrow because neither the nuns nor I were here for any crimes we had committed. We were here for His sake – He who was born in a stable on that night so long ago.
The author, Haralan Popov, a Protestant pastor in Bulgaria, spent 13 Christmases in prison. His book, Tortured for His Faith, was published in Great Britain by Lakeland in 1970. ‘Lakeland’ no longer exists and all efforts to trace the current copyright owners have failed.