Famous Ukrainian medic describes ‘hell’ of Russian captivity


By LORI HINNANT and VASILISA STEPANENKO

July 11, 2022 GMT

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) – The imprisoned Ukrainian medic’s glasses had long since been removed and the face of the Russian man who passed her was a blur.

Yuliia Paievska knew only that her life was being traded for his, leaving 21 women behind in a tiny ten-by-six-foot prison cell that they’d shared for what felt like an eternity. Her joy and relief were tempered by the feeling that she was leaving them to an uncertain fate.

Before she was captured, Paievska, better known throughout Ukraine as Taira, had recorded more than 256 gigabytes of harrowing bodycam footage showing her team’s efforts to rescue the wounded in the besieged city of Mariupol. She delivered the images on a small data card to Associated Press journalists, the last international team in Mariupol.

The journalists fled the city on March 15 with the card embedded in a tampon, which carries him through 15 Russian checkpoints. The next day Taira was taken by pro-Russian forces.

Three months passed before she appeared on June 17th, thin and haggard, her athlete’s body more than 10 kilograms (22 pounds) lighter due to lack of diet and activity. She said the AP report showing her concern for both Russian and Ukrainian soldiers, along with civilians from Mariupol, was crucial to her release.

She chooses her words carefully when discussing the day she was imprisoned, and is even more careful when it comes to prison, for fear of endangering the Ukrainians who remain.† But she is unequivocal about the impact of the video released by the AP.

“You pulled out this flash drive and thank you,” she told an AP team that included the journalists in Mariupol in Kiev. ‘Thanks to you I can leave this hell. Thanks to everyone involved in the exchange.”

She still feels guilty about those she left behind and said she will do her best to free them.

“They’re all I think about,” she said. “Every time I grab 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 captured by Russian forces. The mayor of Mariupol recently said that 10,000 people have disappeared from his town alone, either through imprisonment or fleeing. The Geneva Conventions recognize medics, both military and civilian, for protection “in all circumstances.

Taira is an outsized personality in Ukraine, famous for her field medicine work training and instantly recognizable by her blonde locks and the tattoos that circle both arms. Her release was announced by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Despite the weight loss and everything she’s been through, she’s still alive. She smokes constantly and lights one cigarette after another as if trying to catch up for the three months she hadn’t had one. She speaks calmly, without malice, and her frequent smiles illuminate her face deep in her brown eyes.

Taira, a demobilized military medic who sustained back and hip injuries long before the Russian invasion, is also a member of Ukraine’s Invictus Games team. She planned to participate in archery and swimming in April, and instead her 19-year-old daughter was allowed to participate in her stead.

Taira received the body camera in 2021 to film for a Netflix documentary series about inspirational figures produced by Britain’s Prince Harry, who founded the Invictus Games. But when Russian troops invaded in February, she turned the lens on war scenes.

The camera was on when she intervened to treat a wounded Russian soldier, whom she called “sunshine,” as she does to almost everyone who comes into her life. She told of the death of a boy and the successful attempt to save his sister, who is now one of Mariupol’s many orphans. That day she collapsed against a wall and cried.

When watching the video, she said it was a rare loss of control.

“If I cried all the time, I wouldn’t have time to deal with the wounded. So of course during the war I got a little tougher,” she said. “I shouldn’t have shown that I was collapsing. … We can grieve later.”

The kids weren’t the first or last to be treated, she said. But they were part of a bigger loss to Ukraine.

“My heart bleeds when I think about it, when I remember how the city died. It died as a person — it was painful,” she said. “It feels like someone is dying and there’s nothing you can do to help, the same way.”

Hours before Taira was captured, Russian air strikes hit the Mariupol Theater, the city’s main air raid shelter. Hundreds died. The Neptune Pool, another air raid shelter, was also hit that same day.

Taira gathered a group of 20 people hiding in the basement of her hospital, mostly children, in a small yellow bus to take them away from Mariupol. The city center was collapsing and Russian checkpoints blocked all roads leading out.

Then the Russians saw her.

“They recognized me. They left, called and came back,” she said. “As far as I know, they already had a plan.”

She thinks the children have come to safety. She avoids revealing details about that day for reasons she couldn’t fully explain.

But five days later, she appeared on a Russian news broadcast announcing her arrest and accusing her of fleeing the city in disguise.

In the video, Taira looks dizzy and her face is bruised. As she reads a statement prepared for her, a voiceover mocks her as a Nazi.

Within the prison system, inmates were subjected to the same kind of propaganda, she said. They heard that Ukraine had fallen, that the parliament and cabinet had been dissolved, that the city of Kiev was under Russian control, that everyone in the government had fled.

“And a lot of people started to believe it. Have you seen how this 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 – twice, three times, sometimes 20 or 30 times if guards did not like their behavior. She hates the anthem even more now, but talks about it with a touch of humor and defiance.

“I thought it was a plus because I’ve always wanted to learn to sing – then suddenly I had the time and a reason to practice,” she said. “And it turns out I can sing.”

Her jailers in the Russian-controlled Donetsk region pressured her to confess to murdering men, women and children. Then they started accusations of organ trafficking which she found offensive in their absurdity.

“Organs seized on the battlefield. Do you have any idea how complicated this operation is?” she asked, dismissing the accusation with a brief blasphemy. “It was invented, a huge fabrication.”

She admitted nothing.

“I am very stubborn by nature. And if I’m accused of something I didn’t do, I’ll confess for nothing. You can shoot me, but I won’t confess,” she said.

After endless, repetitive spoiled weeks, punctuated only by salt-free porridge with bacon, packets of reconstituted mashed potatoes, cabbage soup and some canned fish, Taira found herself in the ten by 20 foot cell with 21 other women, 10 cots and very little else. They were held in a maximum security prison without trial and without conviction.

She won’t go into details about how they were treated, but said they had no information about their families, no toothbrushes, few opportunities to wash. Her health began to fail.

“I’m not 20 anymore and this body can take less than it used to,” she said remorsefully. “The treatment was very tough, very rough. … The women and I were all exhausted.”

Taira’s experience is consistent with Russia’s repeated violations of international humanitarian law regarding the treatment of detained civilians and prisoners of war, said Oleksandra Matviichuk, head of Ukraine’s Center for Civil Liberties.

“Before the large-scale invasion, Russia tried to hide this violation. They were trying to pretend they weren’t involved in this offense,” she said. “Now Russia doesn’t care.”

At one point, one of her jailers came up to her and said he had seen a video of her beating up a Russian soldier. She knew that wasn’t possible and demanded to see the video, but was refused.

Now, looking at the image of her tenderly wrapping a Russian soldier in a blanket, she knows it was another lie.

“This is the video, here it is. I really treated everyone like that, brought them in, we stabilized them, did whatever it took,” she said.

At another point, towards the end of her captivity, someone brought her out for what she believed to be another pointless interrogation. Instead, there was a camera.

“I was asked to record a video saying I’m fine, the food is okay, the conditions are okay,” she said. It was a lie, she added, but she saw no harm in it. “After this video they told me you might be exchanged.”

Then she went back to her cell to wait. She had dreams of roaming free that felt true. But she tried not to feel too much hope so she wouldn’t be crushed if it didn’t happen.

More time passed until she was finally allowed out, blindly past the Russian prisoner who had been exchanged for her.

On a recent day in the Ukrainian capital, Taira went to the Kiev shooting range, deep inside an abandoned Soviet-era factory. She hugged her coach and other athletes there, then went to train for the first time since before the war.

Her shots were aimed precisely at the paper target and hit the bull’s-eye. But her chronic injuries forced her to lean on a prop and tire quickly. She retreated to a cavernous workshop to chain smoke, tapped the ashes into a metal can and stared out the window.

Her husband, Vadim Puzanov, said Taira has remained essentially the same despite three months in captivity and is open about what she endured.

“Maybe there are long-term ramifications, but she’s full of plans,” he said. “She continues.”

Those plans are clear and are being prioritized: restoring her health, competing in next year’s Invictus Games, and writing a book, a sort of self-help for people she hopes will never need the advice. She smiled calmly as she explained.

“I plan to collect information about life in captivity,” she said. “How should they behave? How to create conditions to facilitate persistence? What is psychology?”

When asked if she had feared death in captivity, Taira said it was a question her guards often asked, and she had a ready answer.

“I said no because I’m with God,” she told them. “But you’re definitely going to hell.”

Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb contributed from Beirut.

Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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