A celebrated Ukrainian medic who recorded her time in Mariupol on a data card no bigger than a thumbnail, which was smuggled out to the world in a tampon, is now in Russian hands at a time when the city itself is on the verge of falling.
Yuliia Paievska is known in Ukraine as Taira, a moniker 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 efforts over two weeks to bring people back from the brink of death.
She got the harrowing clips to an Associated Press (AP) team, the last international journalists in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, as they left in a rare humanitarian convoy.
Russian soldiers captured Taira and her driver the next day, March 16, one of many forced 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 attempting to “denazify” Ukraine.
But the AP found no such evidence, and friends and colleagues said she had no links to Azov.
The military hospital where she 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 Taira recorded itself 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 taken roughly out of an ambulance by a Ukrainian soldier. One is in a wheelchair. The other is on his knees, hands bound behind his back, with an obvious leg injury. Their eyes are covered by winter hats, and they wear white armbands.
A Ukrainian soldier curses at one of them.
“Calm down, calm down,” Taira tells him.
A woman asks her: “Are you going to treat the Russians?”
“They will not be as kind to us,” she replies. “But I couldn’t do otherwise. They are prisoners of war.”
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 recorded 204 cases of enforced disappearances. It said some victims may have been tortured, and five were later found dead. The office of Ukraine’s ombudswoman said it had received reports of thousands of missing people by late April, 528 of whom had probably been captured.
The Russians are also targeting medics and hospitals even though the Geneva Conventions single out both military and civilian medics for protection “in all circumstance”. The World Health Organisation has verified more than 100 attacks on healthcare since the war began, a number likely to rise.
More recently, Russian soldiers pulled a woman off a convoy from Mariupol on May 8, accused her of being a military medic and forced her to choose between letting her four-year-old daughter accompany her to an unknown fate or continuing on to Ukrainian-controlled territory. The mother and child ended up separated, and the little girl made 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 medic with Taira in 2014. “Taira will represent those medics and women who went to the front.”
Taira’s situation takes on a new significance as the last defenders in Mariupol are evacuated into Russian territories, in what Russia calls a mass surrender and Ukraine calls a mission accomplished.
Russia says more than 1,700 Ukrainian fighters have surrendered this week in Mariupol, bringing new attention to the treatment of prisoners. Ukraine has expressed hope that the fighters can be exchanged for Russian prisoners of war, but a Russian official has said without evidence that they should be not exchanged but put on trial.
Ukraine’s government has said it tried to add Taira’s name to a prisoner exchange weeks ago. However, Russia denies holding her, despite her appearance on television networks in the separatist Donetsk region of Ukraine and on the Russian NTV network, handcuffed and with her face bruised. The Ukrainian government declined to speak about 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 medic force. What comes across in her video and in descriptions from her friends is a big, exuberant personality with a telegenic presence, the kind of person to revel in swimming with dolphins.
The video is an intimate record from February 6 to March 10 of a city under siege that has now become a worldwide symbol of the 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 from both sides.
On February 24, the first day of the war, Taira chronicled efforts to bandage a Ukrainian soldier’s open head wound.
Two days later, she ordered colleagues to wrap an injured Russian soldier in a blanket. “Cover him because he is shaking,” she says in the video. She calls the young man “Sunshine” – a favourite nickname for the many soldiers who passed through her hands – and asks why he came to Ukraine.
“You’re taking care of me,” he tells her, almost in wonder. Her response: “We treat everyone equally.”
Later that night, two children – a brother and sister – arrive gravely wounded from a shootout at a checkpoint. Their parents are dead. By the end of the night, despite Taira’s entreaties to “stay with me, little one”, so is the little boy.
Taira turns away from his lifeless body and cries. “I hate (this),” she says. She closes his eyes.
Talking to someone in the dark outside as she smokes, she says: “The boy is gone. The boy has died. They are still giving CPR to the girl. Maybe she will survive.”
At one point, she stares into a bathroom mirror, a shock of blonde hair falling over her forehead in stark contrast to the shaved sides of her head. She cuts the camera.
Throughout the video, she complains about chronic pain from back and hip injuries that left her partially disabled. She embraces doctors. She cracks jokes to cheer up discouraged ambulance drivers and patients alike. And always, she wears a stuffed animal attached to her vest to hand to any children she might treat.
With a husband and teenage daughter, she knew what war can do to a family. At one point, an injured Ukrainian soldier asks her to call his mother. She tells him he will be able to call her himself, “so don’t make her nervous”.
On March 15, a police officer handed over the small data card to a team of Associated Press journalists who had been documenting atrocities in Mariupol, including a Russian air strike on a maternity hospital. The office contacted Taira on a walkie-talkie, and she asked the journalists to take the card safely out of the city. The card was hidden inside a tampon, and the team passed through 15 Russian checkpoints before reaching Ukrainian-controlled territory.
The next day, Taira disappeared with her driver Serhiy. On the same day, a Russian air strike shattered the Mariupol theatre and killed close to 600 people.
A video aired during a March 21 Russian news broadcast announced her capture, accusing her of trying to flee the city in disguise. Taira looks groggy and haggard as she reads a statement positioned below the camera, calling for an end to the fighting. As she talks, a voiceover derides her colleagues as Nazis, using language echoed this week by Russia as it described the fighters from Mariupol.
The broadcast was the last time she was seen.
Both the Russian and Ukrainian governments have publicised interviews with prisoners of war, despite international humanitarian law that describes the practice as inhumane and degrading treatment.
Taira’s husband, Vadim Puzanov, said he has received little news about his wife since her disappearance. Choosing his words carefully, he described a constant worry as well as outrage at how she has been portrayed by Russia.
“Accusing a volunteer medic of all mortal sins, including organ trafficking, is already outrageous propaganda – I don’t even know who it’s for,” he said.
Raed Saleh, the head of Syria’s White Helmets, compared Taira’s situation to what volunteers with his group 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 may ask her to make statements and pressure her to say things,” Mr Saleh said.
Taira has outsize importance in Ukraine because of her reputation. She taught aikido martial arts and worked as a medic as a sideline.
She took on her name in 2013, when she joined first aid volunteers at the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine that drove out a Russia-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, she taught tactical medicine and started a group of medics called Taira’s Angels. She also worked as a liaison between the military and civilians in frontline towns where few doctors and hospitals dared operate. In 2019, she left for the Mariupol region, and her medical unit was based there.
Taira was a member of the Ukraine Invictus Games team for military veterans, where she was set to compete in archery and swimming. Invictus said she was a military medic from 2018 to 2020 but had since been demobilised.
She received the body camera in 2021 to film for a Netflix documentary series on inspirational figures being produced by Britain’s Duke of Sussex, who founded the Invictus Games. But when Russian forces invaded, she used it to shoot scenes of injured civilians and soldiers instead.
That footage is now especially poignant, with Mariupol on the brink. In one of the last videos Taira shot, she is seated next to the driver who would disappear with her. It is March 9.
“Two weeks of war. Besieged Mariupol,” she says quietly. Then she curses at no-one in particular, and the screen goes dark.