KYIV, Ukraine — The captive Ukrainian doctor’s glasses had long since been removed, and the face of the Russian man walking past her was blurred.
Yuliia Paievska only knew that her life was traded for hers and that she was leaving behind 21 women in a tiny 10 by 20 foot prison cell they had shared for what seemed like an eternity. Her joy and relief were tempered by the feeling that she was abandoning them to an uncertain fate.
Before being captured, Paievska, better known across Ukraine as Taira, had recorded more than 256 gigabytes of harrowing body camera footage showing her team’s efforts to save the wounded in the besieged city of Mariupol. She transmitted the images to reporters from the Associated Press, the last international team in Mariupol, on a tiny data card.
Journalists fled the city on March 15 with the card inserted in a tampon, carrying it through 15 Russian checkpoints. The next day, Taira was captured by pro-Russian forces.
Three months passed before she emerged on June 17, skinny and haggard, her athletic body weighing over 22 pounds due to a lack of food and activity. She said the PA report that showed she was dealing with Russian and Ukrainian soldiers, as well as Mariupol civilians, was key to her release.
She chooses her words carefully when talking about the day she was taken prisoner, and is even more careful when talking about the prison for fear of endangering the Ukrainians still there. But she is unequivocal about the impact of the video released by the AP.
“You took out this USB drive and thank you,” she told an AP team that included Mariupol reporters in Kyiv. “Thanks to you, I was able to leave this hell. Thank you to everyone who participated in the exchange.
She still feels guilty for those she left behind and said she would do her best to help free them.
“They’re all I think about,” she said. “Every time I have a cup of coffee or light a cigarette, my conscience hurts because they can’t.”
Taira, 53, is one of thousands of Ukrainians believed to have been taken prisoner by Russian forces. The mayor of Mariupol said recently that 10,000 people from his city alone have disappeared either by capture or trying to flee. The Geneva Conventions designate physicians, both military and civilian, for their protection “in all circumstances. ”
Taira is an oversized personality in Ukraine, famous for her field medical training work and instantly recognizable by her mop of blonde hair and the tattoos that wrap around both arms. His release was announced by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Despite the weight loss and everything she’s been through, she’s still vibrant. She smokes constantly, lighting one cigarette after another as if trying to make up for the three months she had none. She speaks softly, without malice, and her frequent smiles light her face deep into her brown eyes.
A demobilized military doctor who suffered back and hip injuries long before the Russian invasion, Taira is also a member of the Ukrainian Invictus Games team. She had planned to compete in April in archery and swimming, and her 19-year-old daughter was allowed to compete in her place.
Taira received the body camera in 2021 to film a Netflix documentary series about inspirational characters produced by Britain’s Prince Harry, who founded the Invictus Games. But when Russian forces invaded in February, she turned her lens on scenes of war.
The camera was on as she stepped in to treat a wounded Russian soldier, whom she called “sunshine”, as she does almost everyone who comes into her life. She recounted the death of a boy and the successful effort to save his sister, who is now one of Mariupol’s many orphans. That day, she collapsed against a wall and cried.
Reviewing the video, she said it was a rare loss of control.
“If I cried all the time, I wouldn’t have time to take care of the injured. So during the war, of course, I got a little tougher,” she said. “I shouldn’t have shown that I was down. … We can cry later.
Children were not the first nor the last she treated, she said. But they were part of a bigger loss for Ukraine.
“My heart bleeds when I think about it, when I remember how the city died. He died as a person – it was nerve-wracking,” she said. “It’s like when a nobody is dying and you can’t do anything to help them, the same way.”
Hours before Taira was captured, Russian airstrikes hit the Mariupol Theater, the city’s main bomb shelter. Hundreds died. The same day, the Neptune Pool, another bomb shelter, was also hit.
Taira herded a group of 20 people hiding in her hospital basement, mostly children, into a small yellow bus to get them away from Mariupol. The city center was on the verge of collapse and Russian checkpoints were blocking all roads out of it.
That’s when the Russians saw her.
“They recognized me. They left, phoned, came back,” she says. “As far as I know, they already had a plan.”
She believes the children managed to get to safety. She avoids divulging details about that day for reasons she said she cannot fully explain.
But she appeared five days later on a Russian newscast announcing her capture, accusing her of trying to flee the city in disguise.
In the video, Taira looks groggy and her face is bruised. As she reads a prepared statement for her, a voiceover mocks her as a Nazi.
Inside the prison system, inmates are subjected to the same type of propaganda, she said. They learned that Ukraine had fallen, that Parliament and the Cabinet had been dissolved, that the city of Kyiv was under Russian control, that all members of the government had fled.
“And a lot of people started to believe it. Have you seen how it happens under the influence of propaganda? People are starting to despair,” Taira said. “I didn’t believe it, because I know it’s foolish to believe the enemy.”
Every day they were forced to sing the Russian national anthem – two, three times, sometimes 20 or 30 times if the guards didn’t like their behavior. She hates the anthem even more now, but speaks about it with a flash of humor and defiance.
“I found that to be a plus because I always wanted to learn to sing – then suddenly I had time and a reason to practice,” she said. “And it turns out I can sing.”
Her jailers in the Russian-controlled region of Donetsk pressured her to confess to killing men, women and children. Then they started on organ trafficking charges which she found insulting in their absurdity.
“Organs seized on the battlefield. Do you have any idea of the complexity of this operation? she asked, dismissing the allegation with a curt profanity. “It’s made up, a huge fabrication.”
“I am terribly stubborn by nature. And if I’m accused of something I didn’t do, I won’t confess. You can shoot me, but I won’t confess,” she said.
After endless, repetitive putrid weeks interrupted only by salt-free porridge with bacon, packets of reconstituted mashed potatoes, cabbage soup and tinned fish, Taira found herself in the three-meter cell. on six (10 by 20 feet) with 21 other women, 10 cradles and very little else. They were held in a maximum security prison without trial or conviction.
She won’t go into details about how they were treated, but said they had no information about their families, no toothbrushes, little chance to wash. His health began to decline.
“I’m not 20 anymore and this body can take less than it used to,” she said sadly. “The treatment was very hard, very brutal. … The women and I were all exhausted.
Taira’s experience is consistent with Russia’s repeated violations of international humanitarian law on how to treat detained civilians and prisoners of war, said Oleksandra Matviichuk, director of the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties.
“Before the full-scale invasion, Russia tried to hide this violation. They tried to pretend that they were not involved in this violation,” she said. cares.”
At one point, one of her jailers came to her and told her he had seen a video of her abusing a Russian soldier. She knew that was not possible and asked to see the video, but was denied.
Now, looking at the image of her tenderly wrapping a Russian soldier in a blanket, she knows that was yet another lie.
“That’s the video, here it is. I really treated everyone that way, brought them in, we stabilized them, did whatever it took,” she said.
At another point near the end of her captivity, someone brought her out for what she assumed was another pointless interrogation. Instead, there was a camera.
“I was asked to record a video saying I’m fine, the food is fine, the conditions are fine,” she said. It was a lie, she added, but she saw no harm in it. “After this video, they said to me, maybe you will be traded.”
Then she returned to her cell to wait. She had dreams of walking free that seemed true. But she tried not to feel too hopeful, so she wouldn’t be devastated if it didn’t happen.
More time passed until she was finally allowed out, blindly passing the Russian prisoner traded for her.
Recently, in the Ukrainian capital, Taira visited the Kyiv archery range, deep in an abandoned Soviet-era factory. She hugged her coach and other athletes there, then settled into training for the first time since before the war.
His shots aimed precisely at the paper target, hitting the center of the target. But she had to rely on support for her chronic injuries, and she tired quickly. She retreated to a cavernous workshop to chain the smoke, patting the ashes into a metal box and staring out the window.
Her husband, Vadim Puzanov, said Taira has remained basically the same despite three months in captivity and is open about what she has been through.
“Maybe there will be long-term consequences, but she’s full of plans,” he said. “She’s moving forward.”
Those plans are clear and prioritized: get healthy, compete in next year’s Invictus Games, and write a book, a kind of self-help for people she hopes will never need advice. She smiled calmly as she explained.
“I plan to gather information about life in captivity,” she said. “How should they behave? How to create the conditions so that it is easier to bear? What is Psychology?
When asked if she had feared death in captivity, Taira said it was a question her jailers often asked her and she had a ready answer.
“I said no because I’m right with God,” she told them. “But you are definitely going to hell.”
Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb contributed from Beirut.