Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gluck Tells of His Days in Captivity

Confined to a dark, chilly basement room, offered a nighttime trip to the latrine only every few days, forced to endure the nearby sounds of artillery with no hope of fleeing, American humanitarian worker Kenneth Gluck never was certain he would emerge alive.

The official of M?decins sans Fronti?res, or Doctors Without Borders, said he discovered something about himself during his 27 days as a captive in January and February: "You learn how scared you can actually get."

But he vowed during an interview with the Los Angeles Times on Monday that the experience of being kidnapped at gunpoint would not deter him or his Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization from helping endangered people in Chechnya and other ignored corners of the globe.

"I think it is important for people to know what humanitarian action is," said Gluck, 39, speaking from New York in one of the first interviews he has granted to a newspaper since his Feb. 5 release.

"The idea of independent humanitarian action is something that needs support in the world."

Thousands of kidnapping cases have been reported in Chechnya in the past decade.

Gluck was the first prominent American to be taken since Frederick Cuny, a well-known disaster relief specialist who is believed to have been killed after being abducted in March 1995. His body has never been found.

Still struggling to understand who kidnapped him and why, Gluck has been in New York, catching up on his sleep, spending time with his parents and brother and preparing to assume a new post in Amsterdam with MSF.

He declined to add to the speculation over whether his mysterious abductors were Russian agents, Chechen rebels or free-lance criminals.

He said his main concern now is for assistance suspended since his abduction to be resumed as quickly as possible.

Gluck had just completed a visit to a hospital in the Grozny suburb of Stariye Atagi on the afternoon of Jan. 9, traveling as part of a four-vehicle convoy heading back to his office in Nazran, Ingushetia, when the road was blocked by an unmarked car filled with gunmen.

They seized him, firing shots into the air and at the wheels of the vehicles.

"I was certainly scared, I was certainly in fear of my life. But they seemed to try not to hurt anybody," Gluck recalled.

The kidnappers seemed to be going straight for him, Gluck said, but on the other hand, one of the first things they did after covering his head and speeding away was to ask him who he was. They also confiscated his documents.

Gluck spent most of the next 27 days in a house on a street where he could hear traffic moving outside and occasionally people shouting. At night he was kept awake by his own anxiety and by the sounds of artillery nearby. He thought of trying to escape, but never acted.

His one diversion was a 700-page tome on the history of the Arab peoples that he'd had with him when he was seized. "That book was a lifesaver … more important than medicines," he said.

His cell was a small, locked basement room, kept perpetually dark, and his keeper was a man who fed him a diet consisting mostly of bread and soup, brought him a pitcher of water with which Gluck could wet his scalp every day or so and heard Gluck's repeated pleas to be let go.

The captor, who conversed with Gluck in Russian but never said his name, was not gruff. "He was generally fairly helpful — concerned about my health, concerned that I had enough to eat and so on," Gluck said.

"Once every couple of days I was walked out to a latrine in the middle of the night. … Other than that, there was just a bucket in the house," he said.

"When it was cold outside I was cold, when it was warm outside I was OK. But nothing terrible. Compared to hostages that have been in the region, I was lucky," said Gluck, alluding to the beatings, rapes, tortures, mutilations and murders that have been the reported fate of other kidnap victims in Chechnya over recent years.

Gluck said he felt his situation began to improve after the first or second week.

"They began to be reassuring. They'd say, 'Look, we swear you are going home, don't worry, you're definitely going home, unhurt.' … I think they were getting the message by then from somewhere."

The "somewhere," Gluck likes to think, was from his friends in the medical community in Chechnya — putting out the word as widely and broadly as possible that Gluck should not be harmed because of who he was and what his abduction could mean for the continuance of humanitarian aid.

But still he did not really believe he was safe one night when he was put in a car, again blindfolded, and during the ride handed back his documents.

"I had been asking the kidnappers all along, I just said, 'Return me to any hospital and they will make sure I get back safely.' … I said any hospital or any head doctor — they all know me. … So they did — pushing me through the gate in the middle of the night of a surgeon whom we knew."