TUSCALOOSA, Ala. Even after three months of captivity, which included threats of ex*cution, physical torture, isolation and food deprivation, the road to freedom almost broke Alex Drueke, a US military veteran released last week with nine other prisoners who went to help Ukraine in the fight Russian invaders.
His hands were tied. His head was covered with a plastic bag, and the packing tape holding it was secured so tightly that there were stripes on his forehead. Drueke said he and American prisoner Andy Huynh reached their limit in this state during a transit that took place in a series of vehicles from eastern Ukraine to an airport in Russia that was surrounded by armed guards.
“After all we’ve been through and the number of times we thought we might die, we accepted that we might die, we were ready to die, when it came this ride was the only time each of us independently prayed for d*ath only to win it over, ”Drueke told The Associated Press in Friday’s interview.
“The mental and emotional torture of these last 24 hours of captivity was the worst,” he said.
Drueke, 40, is undergoing treatment: the swelling falls on his head and tries to regain some of the 13.6 kilograms he believes he has lost by eating a lean diet. However, terrible memories remain, and he is not sure what will happen next with the attempt to focus his attention on fellow prisoners who remain in Russian hands.
“The war is not over,” he said, speaking at a home he shares with his mother and other relatives in Tuscaloosa.
Drueke and HuynhThe 27-year-old military veteran from Alabama was one of hundreds of Americans who left for Ukraine early to help fight Russia.
On June 9, they were captured during what Drueke called a reconnaissance mission associated with the international legion of Ukraine, composed of foreign volunteers.
“Everyone else managed to get back to base safely,” he said.
Russian soldiers took the two men to their camp and then to Russia for “intense interrogation.” Refusing to go into details, Drueke said the treatment was brutal.
“Each of our human rights has been violated,” he said. “We were tortured.”
He said the men were taken back to Ukraine to a “black place” in Donetsk for almost a month of additional interrogation. Eventually, they were taken to solitary confinement in a former Ukrainian prison. There, Drueke and Huynh were forced to record propaganda statements for a Russian video camera with soldiers in the room.
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“On the positive side, there were times when they put us in the closet, tied up and blindfolded … when they waited for any reporter to show up, and that gave Andy and me only a few seconds to whisper things and check each other out,” he said. “It was the first time in weeks that we spoke at that point.”
Eventually, after weeks of solitary confinement, which involved many threats, it became clear that something – either release, transfer or ex*cution – was underway, said Drueke, who joined the US Army reserve after the 9/11 terror*st att*cks. 2001 and went on two tours in Iraq.
“We knew something was happening because our normal routine was warped and they were removing all our personal belongings from the cell,” he said.
But even then the mental torture continued, he said. “One of the guards said several times,” I’m pretty sure you will be executed, “he said.
Instead, they were part of a group of 10 men who were laid off on September 21 under a deal negotiated by Saudi Arabia. The others who were released with them came from Croatia, Morocco, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
No one relaxed until the plane was in the air and a Saudi official explained what was happening, he said. Landing in New York after flying from Saudi Arabia, Drueke said he and Huynh had met with a Homeland Security official from the war crimes investigation office.
Homeland Security press advisers did not immediately respond to the e-mail asking for comment, but UN human rights investigators said Ukrainian prisoners of war appeared to be at risk of “systematic” mistreatment by Russian torturers, including torture.
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