KHARKIV, Ukraine (AP) — A famous Ukrainian doctor has recorded her stay in Mariupol on a data card no bigger than a thumbnail, smuggled into the world in a tampon. Now it is in Russian hands, at a time when Mariupol itself is about to fall.
Yuliia Paievska is known in Ukraine as Taira, a nickname from the nickname she chose in the World of Warcraft video game. Using a body camera, she recorded 256 gigabytes of her team’s frantic two-week effort to bring people back from the brink of death. She handed the harrowing clips to a team from the Associated Press, the last international journalists in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, as they departed in 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 held by Russia. Russia has portrayed Taira as working for the nationalist Azov Battalion, in line with Moscow’s narrative that it is trying to “denazify” Ukraine. But the AP found no such evidence, and friends and colleagues said she had no connection to Azov.
The military hospital where she led casualty evacuations is not affiliated with the battalion, whose members have spent weeks defending a sprawling steel plant in Mariupol. The footage that Taira recorded herself testifies to the fact that she tried to save wounded Russian soldiers as well as Ukrainian civilians.
A clip recorded on March 10 shows two Russian soldiers being dragged 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 leg injury. Their eyes are covered with winter hats and they wear white armbands.
A Ukrainian soldier insults one of them. “Calm down, calm down,” Taira told 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 help it. They are prisoners of war.
Taira is now a prisoner of the Russians, one of hundreds of prominent Ukrainians who have been abducted or captured, including local officials, journalists, activists and human rights defenders.
The United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine recorded 204 cases of enforced disappearances. He said some of the victims may have been tortured and five of them were later found dead. Ukraine’s ombudsman’s office said it received reports of thousands of missing people in late April, 528 of whom were likely captured.
The Russians also target doctors and hospitals, even though the Geneva Conventions designate both military and civilian doctors for their protection “under all circumstances”. The World Health Organization has verified more than 100 attacks on health care since the start of the war, a number likely to rise.
More recently, Russian soldiers removed a woman from a Mariupol convoy on May 8, accused her of being a military doctor and forced her to choose between letting her 4-year-old daughter accompany her to a destiny unknown or continue to Ukraine. controlled territory. The mother and child became separated and the baby girl arrived in the Ukrainian town of Zaporizhzhia, UN officials said.
“It’s not about saving any particular woman,” said Oleksandra Chudna, who volunteered as a doctor with Taira in 2014. “Taira will represent doctors and women who have gone to the front lines.”
Taira’s situation takes on new meaning as Mariupol’s last defenders are evacuated to Russian territories, in what Russia calls a massive surrender and Ukraine calls a mission accomplished. Russia says more than 1,700 Ukrainian fighters have surrendered in Mariupol this week, bringing new attention to the treatment of prisoners. Ukraine has expressed hope that the fighters could be exchanged for Russian POWs, but a Russian official said without evidence that they should not be exchanged but put on trial.
The Ukrainian government says it tried to add Taira’s name to a prisoner exchange a few weeks ago. However, Russia denies holding her, despite her appearing on TV channels in Ukraine’s breakaway Donetsk region and on Russia’s NTV network, handcuffed and with a bruised face. The Ukrainian government declined to speak about the case at the request of the AP.
Taira, 53, is known in Ukraine as a star athlete and the person who trained the country’s volunteer medical force. What stands out in his video and in his friends’ descriptions is a big, rambunctious personality with a telegenic presence, the kind of person who relishes swimming with dolphins.
The video is an intimate recording 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 grief, 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 chronicled efforts to bandage the open head wound of a Ukrainian soldier.
Two days later, she ordered her colleagues to wrap a wounded Russian soldier in a blanket. “Cover it because it’s shaking,” she says in the video. She calls the young man “Sunshine” – a favorite nickname for the many soldiers who have passed through his hands – and asks why he came to Ukraine.
“You take care of me,” he told her, almost amazed. His response: “We treat everyone the same.”
Later that night, two children – a brother and a sister – arrive seriously injured in a shooting at a checkpoint. Their parents are dead. By the end of the night, despite Taira’s pleas to “stay with me, little one”, so is the little boy.
Taira turns away from her lifeless body and cries. “I hate (it),” she says. She closes her eyes.
Talking to someone in the dark outside as she smokes, she says, “The boy is gone. The boy is dead. They’re still giving the girl CPR. Maybe she will survive.
At one point, she stares into a bathroom mirror, a tuft of blonde hair falling across her forehead in stark contrast to the shaved sides of her head. She cuts off the camera.
Throughout the video, she complains of chronic pain from back and hip injuries that left her partially disabled. She kisses the doctors. She cracks jokes to cheer up discouraged paramedics and patients. And always, she carries a soft toy attached to her waistcoat to give to the children she could care for.
With a husband and a teenage daughter, she knew what war can do to a family. At one point, a wounded Ukrainian soldier asks him to call his mother. She tells him he can call her himself, “so don’t make her nervous.”
On March 15, a police officer gave the small data card to a team of Associated Press reporters who had documented atrocities in Mariupol, including a Russian airstrike on a maternity hospital. The office contacted Taira on a walkie-talkie, and she asked reporters to get the map out of town safely. The map was hidden in a buffer, and the team passed through 15 Russian checkpoints before reaching Ukrainian-held territory.
The next day, Taira disappeared with her driver Serhiy. On the same day, a Russian airstrike destroyed the Mariupol theater and killed nearly 600 people.
A video broadcast on a Russian newscast on March 21 announced his capture, accusing him of trying to flee the city in disguise. Taira looks groggy and haggard as she reads a statement placed on camera, calling for an end to the fighting. As she speaks, a voiceover taunts her colleagues as Nazis, using language echoed this week by Russia when describing Mariupol fighters.
The show was the last time she was seen.
The Russian and Ukrainian governments have made public interviews with prisoners of war, despite international humanitarian law which describes the practice as inhuman and degrading treatment.
Taira’s husband, Vadim Puzanov, said he had heard little from his wife since her disappearance. Choosing his words carefully, he described a constant concern as well as outrage at the way it was portrayed by Russia.
“To accuse a volunteer doctor of all mortal sins, including organ trafficking, is already outrageous propaganda – I don’t even know who this is aimed at,” he said.
Raed Saleh, the leader of the Syrian White Helmets, compared Taira’s situation to what his group’s volunteers have faced and continue to face in Syria. He said his group had also been accused of organ trafficking and dealing with terrorist groups.
“Tomorrow they might ask her to make statements and pressure her to say things,” Saleh said.
Taira has outsized importance in Ukraine due to her reputation. She taught aikido martial arts and worked as a doctor on the sidelines.
She took her name in 2013, when she joined volunteer relief workers during Euromaidan protests in Ukraine that ousted a Russian-backed government. In 2014, Russia took the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine.
Taira traveled to the eastern region of Donbass, where Moscow-backed separatists fought Ukrainian forces. There she taught tactical medicine and founded a group of doctors called Taira’s Angels. She also worked as a military-civilian liaison in frontline cities where few doctors and hospitals dared to operate. In 2019, she left for the Mariupol region, and her medical unit was based there.
Taira was a member of the Ukrainian Invictus Games for military veterans, where she had to compete in archery and swimming. Invictus said she served as a medical officer from 2018 to 2020, but has since been discharged.
She 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, she used it to shoot scenes of civilians and wounded soldiers instead.
This sequence is now particularly poignant, with Mariupol on the edge of the abyss. In one of Taira’s latest videos, she is seated next to the driver who would disappear with her. Today is March 9.
“Two weeks of war. Mariupol under siege,” she said quietly. Then she curses no one in particular and the screen goes blank.
Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb contributed from Beirut, Mstyslav Chernov from Kharkiv, Inna Varenytsia from Kyiv; Elena Becatoros from Zaporizhzhia; and Erika Kinetz from Brussels. Lori Hinnant reported from Paris.
Vasilisa Stepanenko and Lori Hinnant, Associated Press