A celebrated Ukrainian doctor recorded her time in Mariupol on a data card the size of a thumbnail, which she smuggled into the world in a tampon. She is now in Russian hands, at a time when Mariupol is about to fall.
Yuliia Paievska is known in Ukraine as Taira, a nickname from the nickname she chose in the video game World of Warcraft.
Using a body camera, he recorded 256 gigabytes of his team’s frantic efforts over two weeks to save people from the brink of death.
He handed the harrowing clips to an Associated Press team, the last international journalists in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, as they set out on a rare humanitarian convoy.
Russian soldiers captured Taira and her driver the next day, March 16, one of many enforced disappearances in areas of Ukraine now in Russian hands. Russia has portrayed Taira as working for the nationalist Azov battalion, in line with Moscow’s narrative that he is trying to “de-Nazify” Ukraine. But AP found no such evidence, and friends and colleagues said she had no links to Azov.
The military hospital where he led evacuations of the wounded is not affiliated with the battalion, whose members have spent weeks defending a sprawling steel plant in Mariupol. The footage that Taira recorded attests to the fact that he tried to save wounded Russian soldiers and Ukrainian civilians.
A clip recorded on March 10 shows two Russian soldiers being roughly pulled out of an ambulance by a Ukrainian soldier. One is in a wheelchair. The other is on his knees, his hands tied behind his back, with an obvious wound on his leg. His eyes are covered by winter hats and he wears white armbands.
A Ukrainian soldier curses one of them. “Calm down, calm down,” Taira tells him.
A woman asks him: “Are you going to treat the Russians?”
“They won’t be so nice to us,” she replies. “But I couldn’t do anything else. They are prisoners of war.”
Hundreds kidnapped or captured
Taira is now a prisoner of the Russians, one of hundreds of prominent Ukrainians who have been kidnapped or captured, including local officials, journalists, activists and human rights defenders.
The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine has registered 204 cases of enforced disappearances. He said some victims may have been tortured, and five were later found dead. Ukraine’s ombudsman’s office said it had received reports of thousands of people missing by the end of April, 528 of whom had likely been captured.
The Russians are also attacking doctors and hospitals even though the Geneva Conventions single out both military and civilian doctors for protection “in all circumstances.” The World Health Organization has verified more than 100 attacks on health care since the war began, a number that is likely to rise.
More recently, Russian soldiers removed a woman from a Mariupol convoy on May 8, accused her of being a military medic, and forced her to choose between letting her 4-year-old daughter accompany her to an unknown destination or continuing on to Ukraine. controlled territory. The mother and child ended up separated, with the girl making it to the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, UN officials said.
“This is not about saving one particular woman,” said Oleksandra Chudna, who volunteered as a doctor with Taira in 2014. “Taira will represent those doctors and women who went to the front lines.”
The Taira situation takes on new meaning as the last defenders of Mariupol are evacuated to Russian territory, in what Russia calls a mass surrender and Ukraine calls mission accomplished. Russia says more than 1,700 Ukrainian fighters have surrendered this week in Mariupol, drawing new attention to the treatment of prisoners. Ukraine has expressed hope that the fighters could be exchanged for Russian prisoners of war, but a Russian official has said without evidence that they should not be exchanged but put on trial.
Ukraine’s government has said it tried to add Taira’s name to a prisoner swap weeks ago. However, Russia denies holding her, despite appearances on television in Ukraine’s breakaway Donetsk region and on Russian network NTV, handcuffed and with a bruised face. The Ukrainian government declined to comment on the case when asked by the AP.
Taira, 53, is known in Ukraine as a star athlete and the person who trained the country’s volunteer medical force. What she appears in the video of her and in the descriptions of her friends is a big exuberant personality with a telegenic presence, the kind of person who delights in swimming with dolphins.
The video is an intimate record from February 6 to March 10 of a besieged city that has now become a global symbol of Russian invasion and Ukrainian resistance. In it, Taira is a whirlwind of energy and pain, recording the death of a child and the treatment of wounded soldiers on both sides.
On February 24, the first day of the war, Taira recounted efforts to bandage the open wound on the head of a Ukrainian soldier.
Two days later, he ordered his colleagues to wrap a wounded Russian soldier in a blanket. “Cover him up because he’s shaking,” he says in the video. She calls the young man “Sunshine”, a favorite nickname of the many soldiers who passed through her hands, and asks why he came to the Ukraine.
“You’re taking care of me,” he tells her, almost in awe. His response: “We treat everyone the same.”
Later that night, two children, a brother and a sister, arrive critically injured from a shootout at a checkpoint. His parents are dead. By the end of the night, despite Taira’s pleas to “stay with me, little one”, so is the boy.
Taira turns away from her lifeless body and cries. “I hate (this),” she says. She closes her eyes.
Talking to someone in the dark outside while smoking, he says, “The boy is gone. The boy is dead. They’re still doing CPR on the girl. Maybe she’ll survive.”
At one point, he looks at himself in the bathroom mirror, a shock of blond hair falling across his forehead in stark contrast to the shaved sides of his head. She cuts off the camera.
Throughout the video, she complains of chronic pain from back and hip injuries that have left her partially disabled. She hugs the doctors. She cracks jokes to cheer up discouraged ambulance drivers and patients alike. And always, she carries a stuffed animal attached to her vest to give to any child she can handle.
With a husband and teenage daughter, she knew what war can do to a family. At one point, a wounded Ukrainian soldier asks him to call her mother. She tells him that he will be able to call her himself, “so don’t make her nervous.”
Video smuggled out before Taira disappeared
On March 15, a police officer handed the small data card to a team of Associated Press journalists who had been documenting atrocities in Mariupol, including a Russian airstrike on a maternity hospital. The bureau contacted Taira by walkie-talkie, and she asked reporters to safely get the card out of the city. The card was hidden inside a buffer and the team passed through 15 Russian checkpoints before reaching Ukrainian-controlled territory.
The next day, Taira disappeared with his driver Serhiy. On the same day, a Russian airstrike destroyed the Mariupol theater, killing nearly 600 people.
A video aired during a Russian news broadcast on March 21 announced her capture, accusing her of trying to flee the city in disguise. Taira looks dazed and haggard as she reads a statement posted below the camera, calling for an end to the fight. As she speaks, a voiceover mocks her colleagues as Nazis, using language repeated this week by Russia when describing the Mariupol fighters.
The broadcast was the last time she was seen.
Both the Russian and Ukrainian governments have made public interviews with prisoners of war, despite international humanitarian law describing the practice as inhuman and degrading treatment.
Taira’s husband, Vadim Puzanov, said he has received little news about his wife since her disappearance. Choosing her words carefully, he described a constant worry as well as outrage at the way Russia has portrayed her.
“Accusing a volunteer doctor of all mortal sins, including organ trafficking, is already outrageous propaganda, I don’t even know who it is for,” he said.
Raed Saleh, head of the Syrian White Helmets, compared the Taira situation to the one his group’s volunteers faced and continue to face in Syria. He said his group has also been accused of organ trafficking and dealing with terrorist groups.
“Tomorrow, they can ask her to make statements and pressure her to say things,” Saleh said.
Taira has great importance in Ukraine due to its reputation. She taught aikido martial arts and worked as a doctor as a sideline.
He took his name in 2013, when he joined first-aid volunteers at the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine that ousted the Russian-backed government. In 2014, Russia seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine.
Taira went to the eastern Donbas region, where Moscow-backed separatists fought Ukrainian forces. There, he taught tactical medicine and started a medical group called the Taira’s Angels. He also worked as a military-civilian liaison in frontline cities where few doctors and hospitals dared to operate. In 2019, he went to the Mariupol region and his medical unit was based there.
Taira was a member of the Ukraine Invictus Games for military veterans, where she would compete in archery and swimming. Invictus said that she was a military doctor from 2018 to 2020, but that she had since been demobilized.
He received the body camera in 2021 to film a Netflix documentary series on inspirational figures produced by Britain’s Prince Harry, who founded the Invictus Games. But when Russian forces invaded, he used it to film scenes of wounded civilians and soldiers.
Those images are now especially poignant, with Mariupol on the brink of the abyss. In one of the last videos that Taira recorded, she is sitting next to the driver who would disappear with her. It is March 9.
“Two weeks of war. Besieged Mariupol,” he says quietly. Then he curses no one in particular and the screen goes black.