The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Air Force veteran detained by pro-Russian separatists, brother says

Suedi Murekezi, 35, has been detained by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, his brother said. (Sele Murekezi)
4 min

A U.S. Air Force veteran living in Ukraine has been detained by pro-Russian separatists, his brother said — making him at least the third American to be captured in Ukraine since the war began.

Troops supporting Russia took custody of Suedi Murekezi, 35, in the southern city of Kherson in early June and falsely accused him of participating in pro-Ukrainian protests, Sele Murekezi said Saturday.

Sele Murekezi said his brother called him last week and said he was being held in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, a separatist region in eastern Ukraine, with two other captured Americans, Alexander Drueke and Andy Tai Huynh.

A spokesman for the State Department said the agency was aware of “unconfirmed reports” that Suedi Murekezi had been captured, but he declined to comment further, citing “privacy considerations.”

A native of Rwanda, Suedi Murekezi moved to the United States as a teenager and served in the Air Force for eight years, his brother said.

Suedi Murekezi relocated to Ukraine in 2018 for its dynamic technology sector and later settled in Kherson, the administrative center of a region in southern Ukraine with the same name. Kherson was the first major Ukrainian city to fall to Russian troops after the invasion began.

Sele Murekezi, who lives in Minnesota, said he had urged his brother to leave Ukraine before Russia invaded, but Suedi Murekezi resisted on principle and refused to abandon his close friends there.

On July 7, Sele Murekezi received a phone call from an unknown number. The caller passed the phone to Suedi Murekezi, who said he was being detained and wrongly accused of participating in pro-Ukrainian protests. He said he was not injured or being tortured.

“To the best that we can tell, his only crime is that he’s an American and that he’s Black,” said Bryan Stern, the co-founder of Project Dynamo, a nonprofit initiative that conducts rescue operations for those captured, detained or otherwise needing evacuation in Afghanistan and Ukraine.

Stern said it’s notable that Suedi was not charged as a mercenary, which he interprets as a sign that authorities are not accusing him of being part of the legion of international volunteers fighting for Ukraine.

Ukraine war volunteers are coming home, reckoning with difficult fight

But the definition of “protesting” is expansive in Russian separatist territory, Stern said. Actions likely to be considered innocuous in many places around the world could be seen in the DPR as “defiance.” As one example, Stern said he worked on a case in Ukraine where a foreigner was arrested for using the Ukrainian version of “thank you” instead of the Russian one.

Sele Murekezi is unsure whether to believe that his brother is unharmed. When he spoke to his brother in their native language on the call, Suedi Murekezi responded in English — causing Sele Murekezi to worry that someone was monitoring the conversation.

To Sele Murekezi, the brief exchange offered evidence that his brother at least is alive. He said he has been in regular contact with the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv and hopes his brother will be freed.

“He has done his part for America,” Sele Murekezi said, “and maybe America can do something for him, as well.”

Stern told The Washington Post that in his experience, there are roughly three possible paths from here.

The best-case scenario, Stern says, is “some sort of negotiated release — a negotiation between the different parties, usually through middlemen.”

A second — and less likely — scenario is “some sort of rescue” operation. Given Suedi Murekezi’s location in the Donetsk People’s Republic, an area under the control of pro-Russian separatists that essentially functions autonomously even from Moscow authorities, “that is going to be very, very, very difficult” in this case, Stern said.

A third scenario is that Suedi Murekezi will face trial — where conviction and sentencing in the DPR would be on the table, with possibly grim outcomes. The death penalty is allowed in the breakaway territory, unlike in Russia.

“The problem ... is, he’s been arrested by a government that doesn’t really exist in the world,” says Stern.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.