A third American national is being held captive by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, according to his friends and family and a private volunteer group specializing in rescuing American citizens.
Suedi Murekezi, 35, was arrested last month in Kherson, a Russian-occupied port city in southern Ukraine where he had been living for more than two years, his brother Sele Murekezi said.
“We are all extremely worried for his wellbeing. He is obviously in danger, ”he said.
After having not heard from him for a month, Sele received a call from his brother in the early hours of 7 July, in which he said he was imprisoned in Donetsk, the biggest city in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic backed by Russia.
Murekezi also said he was in the same jail as Alexander Drueke and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, two American fighters captured by Russia last month.
Unlike Drueke and Huynh, Murekezi’s friends and family say he did not participate in any fighting in Ukraine and moved to the country about four years ago, settling in Kherson in 2020.
On the phone, Murekezi told his brother he had been falsely accused of participation in pro-Ukrainian protests, a charge that his brother and two close friends in Kherson denied.
“They are using him as a pawn for their own propaganda purposes,” said Sele Murekezi.
Kherson, the strategically important gateway to Crimea, was captured by Russian forces on 2 March. In the first weeks after the occupation, there were pro-Ukraine protests, which were soon quashed by the new military-civilian administration, with help from Russian troops.
A US state department spokesperson said the agency was “aware of reports” of Murekezi’s detention but declined further comment, citing “privacy considerations”. Murekezi’s family said they were in daily contact with the state department about his situation.
Murekezi was born in Rwanda in 1985 but fled the country with his family after the 1994 genocide, emigrating to Minnesota. He started visiting Ukraine for business reasons in 2017 and settled there permanently in 2020.
Murekezi’s friends in Kherson first noticed his disappearance on 8 June, when they saw that his car was no longer parked near his flat.
“He told us he was planning to use his car for the first time in a while in search of fuel,” said Vladimir, a Kherson native who befriended Murekezi three years ago when he first visited the city.
Vladimir has since left Kherson but asked for his last name to be withheld because his family still lives there.
“We all warned him that driving was a bad idea,” he said, adding that Murekezi drove an American Dodge Challenger with U.S. license plates. “Of course, such a car was going to attract attention from the Russian police.”
Two days after his disappearance, Leo de Lange, a Dutch friend of Murekezi in Kherson, spotted him in a video circulating on separatists’ Telegram channels. The clip showed a visibly distressed Murekezi in a dark room being ordered to repeat in Russian “glory to the Russian army”.
Both De Lange and Vladimir said Murekezi did not participate in the pro-Ukrainian rallies that swept the city in March.
“I know for a fact that he didn’t go out and protest,” said De Lang, who added that he used to see Murekezi weekly.
Russian prosecutors and pro-Russia separatists did not reply to requests for comment and have not spoken publicly about Murekezi.
The number of American civilians detained in occupied Ukrainian territory remains unknown.
In May, Kirillo Alexandrov, a US citizen living in Kherson, was freed by the Florida-based non-profit organization Project Dynamo after spending more than two months in captivity. At the time, the group said they were tracking a number of cases of Americans “trapped behind enemy lines”.
“Sweden is in peril, he is in a very dangerous situation. The Donetsk People’s Republic has the death penalty and doesn’t adhere to international norms, ”said Bryan Stern, a US veteran and Project Dynamo co-founder. “From what I understand, his only crime is that he is an American.”
Last month, two British men and a Moroccan national captured while fighting in the Ukrainian army were sentenced to death by separatists in Donetsk.
Drueke and Huynh, the two American fighters reportedly held with Murekezi, have not yet been sentenced. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said they would not be granted the protections afforded to prisoners of war by the Geneva conventions, claiming that they were mercenaries.
There is no evidence to suggest that Murekezi fought against Russian soldiers, and it is unlikely that he will be tried as a mercenary.
Still, his family worries that Russia will use trumped-up charges to hand him a lengthy prison sentence.
His brother Sele Murekezi also expressed fear that his skin color placed him in a particularly grave situation. “Him being a black man adds to our fears, of course. Racism can play a role, ”he said.
“When he called, he told me he wasn’t tortured, but it was hard to know for sure as he was being watched during our conversation.”
Before moving to Ukraine, Murekezi spent eight years in the US air force. He left the military in 2017 and started investing in shares and cryptocurrencies, according to his family.
His interest in crypto brought him to Ukraine, said De Lange, a fellow investor in digital currencies.
“We quickly bonded over our passion for cryptocurrencies. We were both very excited about all the ambitious plans Ukraine had with crypto before the war started, ”said De Lange, who spent four months in the Russian-occupied city before fleeing earlier this month to Georgia.
Prewar, Ukraine had emerged as a popular destination for cryptocurrency entrepreneurs after liberalizing its crypto regulations.
“Sweden was a bitcoin maximalist,” De Lange said, a term industry insiders use for someone with strong ideological convictions about cryptocurrency’s potential.
But those close to him said that Murekezi also developed a genuine fondness for Ukraine.
“He loved how welcoming Ukraine and Ukrainians were. He often said that Kherson was his favorite city, he really liked it here, ”said Vladimir.
Murekezi’s detainment gives a rare insight into life in Kherson, which has been occupied for more than four months. After Russia captured the city, Kherson was cut off from Ukrainian mobile phone and internet services, complicating contact with the outside world.
De Lange described the first weeks of the occupation as “intense” and “war-like”, with daily protests and long lines forming for food and other necessities.
Eventually, he said, life somewhat stabilized and shops reopened, with Ukrainian food products replaced by Russian ones and Russian passports handed to residents. Yet, a climate of fear persisted.
“You heard daily stories of people who organized the protests being kidnapped at night. Everyone was afraid to talk to each other. It was a very grim atmosphere, ”he said.
Vladimir similarly described how Kherson became dominated by uncertainty and dread.
He recalled how shortly after Murekezi disappeared, he went to the pro-Russia military-civilian administration in Kherson to ask for his friend’s release.
“I was severely threatened and shouted at, and my phone was searched,” Vladimir said. “They barked at me, asking why I cared about ‘some American’.”
The incident profoundly affected Vladimir, he said, and he soon decided to flee Kherson, fearing that his questions had raised suspicion among the pro-Russian authorities.
But despite the dangers that the Russian occupation entailed, friends say Murekezi had not wanted to leave the city and remained in an upbeat mood.
“He and I would play basketball and chess a few times a week, and he seemed to be doing well,” said De Lange, who remembered how his friend talked “a lot” about opening up a new cafe in Kherson that would accept cryptocurrencies .
“In the end, I think he was way too naive about the dangers that he was facing as a black American in Kherson.”