A US national who was arrested by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine in the summer has been released and is residing without documents in the Russian-controlled city of Donetsk.
Suedi Murekezi, 35, was detained on 10 June by Russian proxy forces in the Ukrainian city of Kherson, where he had been living for more than three years.
After spending more than four months in different prisons and basements in Russian-occupied Ukraine, he told the Guardian on Monday that he had been released by the Moscow-backed Donetsk separatists on 28 October.
Murekezi said he had been unable to leave Donetsk because he did not have any identity papers.
“I am very happy to be free. But I don’t know what to do next. The Russians never gave me back my passport, and I feel trapped here,” Murekezi said in a phone interview from the city of Donetsk, the capital of the Russian-annexed Donetsk region.
Murekezi spent most of his time in two different jails with a group of mostly foreign fighters, including the British nationals Aiden Aslin, John Harding, Andrew Hill and the aid worker Dylan Healy, who returned to the UK after a prisoner swap in September.
Murekezi and his close friends and relatives said he did not participate in any fighting in Ukraine, to where he moved about four years ago, eventually settling in Kherson.
“It became clear early on to the Russian authorities that I had nothing to do with the fighting, but they just kept me in jail anyway,” he said.
Murekezi was born in Rwanda in 1985 but fled 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.
Before moving to Ukraine, Murekezi spent six years in the US air force. He left the military in 2017 and started investing in shares and cryptocurrencies. His interest in crypto eventually brought him to Kherson, a city he quickly started to call home.
When Russian forces captured the city on 2 March, Murekezi said he decided to stay and help Kherson and its people. “I did not want to run away. I loved Kherson,” he said.
He was arrested a few months into the Russian occupation when he tried to change the oil in his car, an American Dodge Challenger that he had shipped over from the US.
“Looking back on it, driving a sports car in the middle of a war zone with American licence plates was definitely a bit suspicious,” he said.
Once arrested, Murekezi was first placed in a prison in Kherson, where he said he was interrogated and tortured twice.
He said he also witnessed Russian prison guards beating Ukrainians from Kherson. “I saw worse things happening to Ukrainians there. It feels wrong to complain about my situation.”
After a week in Kherson, Murekezi was driven to Donetsk, where he was held in a basement before being moved to a larger prison where he shared a cell with Alex Drueke and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, two fellow Americans who were captured while fighting in Ukraine.
On 17 June, the local prosecutor charged him with “hate crimes” after the authorities found pictures of him at a pro-Ukrainian protest in Kherson at the start of the war.
“It was all a bit ridiculous. They knew I wasn’t an American spy or a foreign fighter, so they just used the pictures to jail me,” Murekezi said.
During his time in prison, Murekezi said he was kept in a cramped three-man cell with Drueke and Huynh, where he slept on the bed previously used by Paul Urey, a British aid volunteer who died in unclear circumstances after being captured by Russian fighters.
Because there was rarely any running water, Murekezi and his fellow inmates had to use empty bottles as a toilet.
He said they lived on bread, water and porridge mixed with meat, and were allowed to walk outside for just one hour a day.
“As a group, we had good moments, we had bad moments. But we were a team and knew we had to survive together,” Murekezi said.
In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Drueke and Huynh expressed hopes that Murekezi would soon be released.
Murekezi recalled how the morale among foreign fighters, some of whom had been sentenced to death, would often reach terrible lows. “They were preparing themselves for the possibility of never leaving the prison, of just dying there,” he said.
But on 20 September, Russia and Ukraine carried out an unexpected prisoner swap, which included 10 foreigners held with Murekezi. Murekezi was not involved in the swap but was told he would be released after Russia held its sham “referendum” on the occupied territories of Ukraine, leading to the annexation of the Donetsk region.
Shortly after the annexation, Murekezi was told that as the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic was now part of Russia, all previous charges against him were no longer applicable. “I think they were just looking for a way to let me go, and this was a convenient way out,” he said.
His Russian-appointed lawyer met him outside his prison on 28 October and took him to “DonMak”, a former McDonald’s that was renamed after the city was captured by Russia in 2014.
But worryingly for Murekezi, he was not given his passport or any other personal documents. “I would really like to leave and get back to the US, but I do not know how. I do not know what is safe,” he said.
He said US authorities had not been in touch since his release.
A US state department spokesperson said the agency was “aware of reports” of Murekezi’s detention but declined to comment further, citing “privacy considerations”.
The spokesperson added in a statement: “US citizens in Ukraine in need of assistance should contact the Department of State using the contact information available on our public website.”
But Murekezi, who has been staying at a friend’s place in Donetsk, said he did not have a grudge against his home country. “They warned all Americans to leave Ukraine when the war started, but I stayed. I can’t fault the US for this.”
At the same time, he said, he welcomed any help and advice he could get so that he could return home.
“I promised my family I would be home by Thanksgiving. I missed that deadline,” he said. “I hope I can be home by Christmas.”