An American missionary with North Texas ties and working in Ukraine is sharing his story after being released from custody by Russian authorities.
Dmitry Bodyu, 50, has been working in Ukraine as a missionary for about 30 years. He is a pastor at the Word of Life Church in Melitopol, which he said began assisting residents with shelter and other needs shortly after the Russian invasion in February. Bodyu has family and friends in North Texas, where he visits every year to attend conferences with Gateway Church.
On the morning of March 19, he recalled four SUVs arrived at his family’s home along with “14 or 15” armed Russian troops.
“It’s hard to say because they were keeping me in one room talking to me. It was four people in a room, and my family was in another room. There was two or three soldiers in the other room, and they were scattered around the house,” Bodyu told NBC 5 Friday.
“They came in and took me to the kitchen and asked me if I could get all of the phones and computers, everything we have. So, I brought it up there. They went through our stuff, the rooms. Our documents and rest of the things they think they needed for some reason.”
Bodyu said he was then taken to their church, where he handed over more paperwork along with other items like money and hard drives.
“Then they took me to where they’re holding people. It’s a police department, but they have the cells in the basement. So, they put a black sack over my head and just took me out there,” he said. “I was in a cell by myself and I don’t know how many people were there. I could say, maybe six or seven.”
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Bodyu said he spent a total of eight days in custody.
“For some reason, they were thinking that I was a spy. First interrogation, it was three persons and a military guy with a machine gun standing in the back of me. I think those guys was from the Secret Services, not exactly from the military. Their faces were covered. I never see any face. It was always in a mask, even the guys in the prison. They were in masks,” he recalled. “The way he said is like, they issue 'a one-way ticket.' I’m like, 'whoa…what does that mean? One-way ticket?' 'Well, they want to kill you.' I said, 'why? I’m just a pastor. I’m not doing anything. I have no connections with the military or anybody like that.'”
Bodyu said at first, he was told he could be in custody for at least one month. He was unable to communicate directly with his family.
“The conditions of the cell was real, real…bad. It smelled there. There was blood everywhere. It was just nasty, but it was okay. I was sitting there thinking, there are some people in Mariupol and Kharkiv in worse condition. I mean, I’m okay. I’m still alive,” he said. “Nobody harming me or anything because pretty much every day, I can hear they were interrogating people. They were beating them up pretty bad. Guys were screaming there. I don’t know what they were doing with them, but it was…a lot of craziness going on. But they never touch me.”
Eventually, Bodyu said he was released unharmed. He noted one of the men “was very kind,” bringing him coffee and offering food throughout the eight days. When he returned home, Bodyu said his family decided to leave Ukraine. It took them almost a full week to get to Poland, as they were initially advised to travel through Russia to avoid active battle zones.
“The issue with the military...if you’re going to go there, they know who you are. They can kill you there. We’re kind of afraid to go through Russia but finally, we decided and we went,” he said. “When we came to the border, I had the same thing. They stop us. They stop pretty much everyone. All of the men. They take their passports, cell phone. They undress them and look for tattoos, marks from machine guns. They look at their hands, stuff like that.”
His family is currently in Warsaw, Poland. As of this week, the country has welcomed nearly 2.6 million Ukrainian refugees. Bodyu said their family is working with the U.S. Embassy to leave. They have U.S. citizenship, but he said his son-in-law and daughter-in-law are Ukrainian.
In the meantime, he said his work with the church is not done. He is still assisting as many people as possible.
“We want to help our people here in west Ukraine. We’re still working. I’m on the phone every day,” he said. “People need medicine. People need food. A lot of people want to leave from there, and it’s quite expensive. So, I’m supporting a lot of stuff.”
Once his children and their spouses are safely in the U.S., Bodyu said he and his wife would like to return to Ukraine one day to continue their missionary work. However, those plans are uncertain at this point.