Family members of Alexander Drueke, one of two veterans captured while fighting in eastern Ukraine earlier this month who is being held by Russian-backed separatists, contacted his family via phone on Saturday, directly addressing his mother, Bunny Drueke, in the first alleged contact since videos and pictures of the two surfaced on Russian media over a week ago.
"It was basically the same message as in the short video where he addressed his mother - saying he is OK, he is receiving food and water and has shelter and bedding," said Dianna Shaw, Alex's aunt and family spokesperson, in a statement received by Military.com late Monday night.
The family of Andy Huynh's fiance, Joy Black, told Military.com over text message that they were hoping to speak with him as well "but unfortunately that did not happen." Huyhn was captured with Drueke, according to the families.
"We're going to be positive and assume it is a delay and not a denial," Darla Black, Joy's mother, said.
Shaw said that the Drueke family receives daily briefings from the State Department on the status of the two veterans. The families of both captured veterans relayed that Dreuke had said he and Huynh were being held in separate cells.
"The State Department confirmed that the men are being held in the Donetsk region, a troublesome area from a diplomatic standpoint," the Drueke family statement said. "Russia and the so-called Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) currently control the majority of Donetsk, having captured the southern and northern parts, including the city of Mariupol."
The State Department did not respond by publication to Military.com's inquiry asking if it could confirm the information in the family's statement.
Over the weekend, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the two veterans heroes, risking their lives for Ukrainian "sovereignty and independence."
"I'm sure we'll fight for them and get them back, and of course they will come back to their families," he said in the interview with the Aspen Ideas Festival last week as reported by NBC, though what Ukraine might do to help rescue the two men is unclear.
"Alex and Andy are Ukrainian Army volunteers with U.S. citizenship," Shaw said. "Since the U.S. is 'on the sidelines' of the war, it's up to the Ukrainian government to take the lead on any potential negotiations or prisoner exchanges."
"It's very encouraging to hear the Ukrainian government is committed to securing Alex's and Andy's release," said Drueke's mother, Bunny. "I want to thank President Zelenskyy for taking their situation seriously."
Shaw said that a staff member at the State Department took the call on Saturday and relayed it directly to Bunny Drueke.
"I'm just glad to know Alex is alive and to know for sure where he is," Bunny Drueke added. "Every 'unknown' that becomes a 'known' is one step closer to his release."
Before their capture, Drueke and Huynh last spoke to their families on June 8, with Alex, a 12-year Army veteran who left for Ukraine in mid-April, telling his mother he was "going dark" for a day or two. Five days later, a member of their unit contacted Bunny Drueke saying the two were missing, according to the family statement.
"I am encouraged that Russia appears to be treating them closely to Geneva Convention protocols," a fighter who says he is in Drueke and Huynh's volunteer unit in Ukraine told Military.com. "They are legitimate soldiers for Ukraine and should be accorded such status."
In an interview with NBC last week, Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov called Drueke and Huynh "soldiers of fortune" and claimed the two vets are not entitled to Geneva Conventions protections that would prevent prosecution and the death penalty, echoing claims made by Russian officials in March. At the time, one expert called that claim "a gross distortion of international humanitarian law."
"They should be held responsible for those crimes that they have committed; those crimes have to be investigated," Peskov told NBC, saying the men had attacked Russian forces. How they came to be in the custody of Donetsk authorities is unclear.
"We want to believe all these things, and it is Russia's responsibility to make sure it's all true," said Shaw, referring to Drueke saying he is receiving food, water, shelter and bedding. "Having Alex call and say these things tells me that Russia knows the world is watching how they treat the two men," adding later that she suspected that the veteran was reading from a script.
-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.
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