Kherson, Ukraine, November 13 (Reuters) – For eight months, American missionaries did their best to stay away from Russian soldiers and police who patrolled the Ukrainian city of Kherson, staying on the outskirts where they live, and hid when they thought they would be discovered.
“We were on the outskirts of town. There weren’t many Russians there,” said William Hunsucker, 46, of Charlotte, North Carolina, on Sunday as he, his wife and two children watched ecstatic Ukrainians in Kherson’s main square celebrating Moscow’s retreat across 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 off Ukrainian forces and overran the only provincial capital they captured in the full-scale invasion that began in February.
“The scariest thing was the first few days when they were actively fighting,” 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 church organization that supports local orphanages.
They have lived in Russia for seven years and are fluent in Russian. But in 2008 they were forced to return to the United States after the Russian government ordered Phyllis to leave after accusing her of being a foreign agent, the family said.
The Hunsuckers considered joining the evacuation of residents from Kherson 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 potentially discovered, they said.
“We couldn’t risk being evacuated,” William said, adding that he believes the FSB, the Russian domestic security agency that dispatched officers to Moscow-overrun areas of Ukraine, still has the family on its files have.
The couple said they knew of two other Americans living in the city when Russian forces took control, one of whom was spotted by the Russians and held captive for 40 days.
One day, while the family was doing their best to avoid detection, Russian military police stopped their son, who was rolling two bicycles down a street, because they thought he had stolen one, William said.
“They asked, ‘What are you doing? Where are you going?'” he recounted, adding that the Russians let his son go after he gave them the family’s address, an act that would have the Russians on their doorstep being able to lead.
“As soon as he got an internet signal, he called us and we met at a church. A friend found an empty house that we lived in for a month,” William said. “We were super paranoid. That was our next call.”
“Russian soldiers stood behind me on business. You just grabbed your stuff, put your head down and left… It’s happened a couple of times,” he added. “Keeping my head down worked. And lots of prayers, I suppose.”
His 15-year-old daughter Asya said she was glad the occupation was over. “I hope I can see my friends because all my friends have been evacuated.”
William said the family intended to remain in Kherson.
“It’s our home.”
Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Edited by Daniel Wallis
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