KHERSON, Ukraine (Reuters) – For eight months, American missionaries did their best to avoid Russian soldiers and police patrolling the Ukrainian city of Kherson, staying in the outskirts where they live and hiding when they thought they would be discovered.
“We were on the outskirts of town. There weren’t a lot of Russians there,” William Hunsucker, 46, of Charlotte, North Carolina, said Sunday as he, his wife and two children watched ecstatic Ukrainians in the main square of Kherson celebrate Moscow. retreat on the Dnipro river.
“They didn’t patrol much.”
The worst part of the occupation for the family, his wife, Phyllis, 46, recalled, was the clashes that raged as the Russians drove out Ukrainian forces and overran the only provincial capital they had seized in the full-scale invasion launched in February.
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“The scariest thing was the first few days when they were actively fighting each other,” she said. “We had a root cellar and we had electricity. So we hung out there for a few days.”
The Hunsuckers are Christian missionaries who moved to Kherson in 2013 to work with a Ukrainian religious organization helping local orphanages.
They had lived in Russia for seven years and were fluent in Russian. But in 2008 they were forced to return to the United States after the Russian government ordered Phyllis out after accusing her of being a foreign agent, the family said.
The Hunsuckers considered joining the evacuations of Kherson residents after the occupation. But they decided against it because they would have had to pass through Russian checkpoints where they could be identified and their deportation from Russia possibly discovered, they said.
“We couldn’t risk being evacuated,” William said, adding that he believed the FSB, the Russian internal security service that sent officers to areas of Ukraine invaded by Moscow, still had the family. in his records.
The couple said they know two other Americans who lived in the town when Russian forces took over, one of whom was discovered and held captive by the Russians for 40 days.
As the family did their best to avoid detection, Russian military police once stopped their son who was riding two bicycles down a street because they believed he had stolen one, William said.
“They asked, ‘What are you doing? Where are you going?'” he said, adding that the Russians let his son go after he gave them the address of the family, an act that could have brought the Russians to their front door.
“As soon as he got an internet signal, he called us and we met at a church. A friend found an empty house, where we lived for a month,” William said. “We were super-paranoid. It was our closest call.”
“Russian soldiers were standing behind me in the shops. You just grab your stuff, put your head down and leave… It happened a couple of times,” he added. “Keeping your head down worked. And lots of praying, I guess.”
Her 15-year-old daughter, Asya, said she was happy the occupation was over. “I hope I can see my friends because all my friends have been evacuated.”
William said the family intended to stay in Kherson.
(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Daniel Wallis)
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