By JAY REEVES | Associated Press
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Even after three months in captivity, which included threats of execution, physical torture, solitary confinement and starvation, it was the ride to freedom that nearly broke Alex Drueke, a US military veteran who was released last week with nine other prisoners in Ukraine to help repel Russian invaders.
His hands were tied. His head was covered by a plastic bag, and the duct tape holding it in place was so tight it caused welts on his forehead. Drueke said he and his fellow American prisoner, Andy Huynh, were stretched to the limit during the transit, which took place in a number of vehicles from eastern Ukraine to an airport in Russia surrounded by armed guards.
“For everything we’ve been through and all the times we thought we might die, we accepted that we might die, we were ready to die if it came to that, that ride was the only time that everyone prayed for death independently of us just to get it over,” Drueke said in an interview with The Associated Press on Friday.
“The mental and emotional torture of those last 24 hours in detention was the worst,” he said.
Drueke, 40, is healing: The swelling is going down on his head and he’s trying to regain some of the 30 pounds (13.6 kilograms) he says he lost from a poor diet. But horrible memories remain, and he’s not sure what’s next, other than trying to draw attention to fellow prisoners who remain in Russian hands.
“The war is not over yet,” he said at the home he shares with his mother and other relatives in Tuscaloosa.
Drueke and Huynh, a 27-year-old military veteran from Alabama, were among hundreds of Americans who went early to Ukraine to help fight Russia.
On June 9, they were captured during a reconnaissance mission that Drueke described as having been with the International Legion of Ukraine, made up 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 interrogations.” Although Drueke declined to go into details, he said the treatment was brutal.
“Every one of our human rights has been violated,” he said. “We were tortured.”
The men were taken back to Ukraine to a “black site” in Donetsk for nearly a month of additional interrogations, he said. They were eventually taken to an isolation cellblock 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.
“On the plus side, there were times they put us in a closet tied up and blindfolded … while they waited for some reporter to show up, and it gave Andy and I just a few seconds to move things back and forth look at each other,” he said. “It was the first time we had spoken to each other at this point in weeks.”
Finally, after weeks of detention that included multiple threats, it became apparent that something — either a release, a transfer to prison or an execution — was in the works, said Drueke, who joined the US Army Reserve after the September 11 terrorist attacks . 2001 and completed two tours in Iraq.
“We knew something was happening because our normal routine was distorted and they let us move all our personal belongings out of the cell,” he said.
But even then, the mental torture continued, he said. “One of the guards said a couple of times, ‘I’m pretty sure you guys are going to be executed,'” he said.
Instead, they were part of a group of 10 men who were released on September 21 in a deal brokered by Saudi Arabia. The others released with them were from Croatia, Morocco, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
Nobody relaxed until the plane was airborne and an official from Saudi Arabia explained what was happening, he said. When Drueke landed in New York after a flight from Saudi Arabia, he said he and Huynh were met by a Homeland Security officer from a war crimes bureau.
Homeland Security press assistants did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment, but UN human rights investigators said Ukrainian prisoners of war appear to have been subjected to “systematic” ill-treatment by Russian kidnappers, including torture.
https://www.ocregister.com/2022/09/30/u-s-captives-prayed-for-death-on-brutal-ride-from-ukraine/ US prisoners ‘prayed for death’ on brutal ride from Ukraine – Orange County Register