Sat. Aug 13th, 2022

A celebrated Ukrainian medic recorded her time in Mariupol on a data card no bigger than a thumbnail and smuggled it out to the world in a tampon. Now she is in Russian hands, at a time when Mariupol 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 team, the last international journalists in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, one of whom fled with it in a tampon.

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.

Video shows Russian soldiers being taken from ambulance

Russia has portrayed Taira as working for the nationalist Azov battalion, in line with Moscow’s narrative that it is attempting to “de-nazify” Ukraine.

However, 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.

Yuliia Paievska, known as Taira, assists as a serviceman is brought in on a stretcher in Mariupol.
Yuliia Paievska, known as Taira, assists as a fighter brought in on a stretcher in Mariupol.(AP)

The footage 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 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 could not do otherwise. They are prisoners of war.”

‘This is not about saving one particular woman’

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 so far recorded 204 cases of enforced disappearances.

A Ukrainian medical evacuation helicopter lands in front of Yuliia Paievska, known as Taira, in Mariupol.
A Ukrainian medical evacuation helicopter lands in front of Yuliia Paievska, known as Taira, in Mariupol.(AP)

It said some victims may have been tortured, and five were later found dead.

The office of Lyudmila Denisova – Ukraine’s Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights (or ombudsman) – said it had received reports of thousands of missing people by late April, 528 of whom have probably been captured.

Her office also said Russian troops were also targeting medics and hospitals, even though the Geneva Convention singles out both military and civilian medics for protection “in all circumstances”.

The World Health Organization has verified more than 100 attacks on health care facilities 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 4-year-old daughter accompany her to an unknown fate or continuing on to Ukrainian- controlled territory.

Ukrainian servicemen carry a wounded comrade after they left the besieged Azovstal steel plant.
Ukrainian servicemen carry a wounded comrade after they left the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, Ukraine.(AP: Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)

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.”

Russia denies holding medic

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 not be exchanged but put on trial.

Volodymyr Zelensky’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.


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