by Vasilisa Stepanenko and Lori Hinnant
KHARKIV, Ukraine ( Associated Press) — A famous Ukrainian medic recorded his time in Mariupol on a data card no bigger than a thumbnail, smuggled to the world in a tampon. Now he is in Russian hands, at a time when Mariupol himself is on the verge of collapse.
Yulia Pyevska is known as Taira in Ukraine, a nickname she chose in the World of Warcraft video game. Using a body camera, he recorded 256 gigabytes of his team’s frantic efforts over two weeks to bring people back from the brink of death. He received the harsh clip of an Associated Press team, the last international journalist in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, as they drove away in a rare humanitarian convoy.
Russian troops captured Taira and her driver the next day, March 16, one of several forced disappearances in the territories of what is now Russian-occupied Ukraine. Russia portrays Taira as working for the nationalist Azov battalion, in line with Moscow’s statement that it is attempting to “condemn” Ukraine. But the Associated Press did not find any such evidence, and friends and colleagues said that he had no connection with Azov.
The military hospital where he led the evacuation of the wounded is not affiliated with the battalion, whose members have spent weeks guarding a massive steel plant in Mariupol. The footage recorded by Taira testifies that she tried to rescue wounded Russian soldiers as well as Ukrainian civilians.
A clip recorded on March 10 shows two Russian soldiers being roughly pulled out of an ambulance by a Ukrainian soldier. is in a wheelchair. The other is on his knees, hands tied behind his back, with a clear leg injury. Their eyes are covered with winter hats, and they wear white armlets.
A Ukrainian soldier curses one of them. “Calm down, calm down,” Tayra tells him.
A woman asked him, “Are you going to treat the Russians?”
“They won’t be kind to us,” she replies. “But I could not 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 registered 204 cases of forced disappearances. It 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 probably been apprehended.
Russians are also targeting medics and hospitals, even though the Geneva Convention excludes both military and civilian medics for protection “under all circumstances”. The World Health Organization has confirmed more than 100 attacks on health care since the war began, a number likely to rise.
More recently, Russian troops pulled a woman from a convoy from Mariupol on May 8, accusing her of being a military medic and asking her to leave their 4-year-old daughter with her to an unknown fate or continue the Ukrainian Forced to choose – controlled area. UN officials said the mother and child were separated, and the little girl made it to the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhya.
“It’s not about saving a special woman,” said Alexandra Chudna, who volunteered as a medic with Taira in 2014. “Taira will represent the medics and women who went to the front.”
The position of the Taira takes on a new significance as the last defenders at Mariupol are evacuated to Russian territories, which Russia calls a mass surrender and Ukraine completes a mission. Russia says more than 1,700 Ukrainian fighters have surrendered in Mariupol this week, drawing new attention to the treatment of prisoners. Ukraine has expressed hope that fighters could be exchanged for Russian prisoners of war, but a Russian official has said without evidence that they should not be exchanged but should be prosecuted.
Ukraine’s government has said it tried to add Taira’s name to a prisoner exchange weeks ago. However, despite her appearance on television networks in Ukraine’s separatist Donetsk region and on the Russian NTV network, Russia refused to apprehend her, handcuffed her and suffered injuries to her face. The Ukrainian government declined to speak about the matter when asked by the Associated Press.
The 53-year-old is known in Ukraine as a star athlete and a man who trains the country’s volunteer medical force. The description in her videos and of her friends features a large, exuberant personality with a telegenic presence, the kind of person who enjoys swimming with dolphins.
The video is an intimate record of the siege of a city from February 6 to March 10 that has now become a worldwide symbol of Russian aggression and Ukrainian resistance. In it, Taira is a whirlwind of energy and mourning, recording the death of a child and the healing of wounded soldiers from both sides.
On February 24, the first day of the war, Taira chronicled the efforts of a Ukrainian soldier to bandage an open head wound.
Two days later, he ordered the allies to wrap a wounded Russian soldier in a blanket. “Keep him covered because he’s trembling,” she says in the video. She calls the young man “Sunshine”—a favorite nickname for many soldiers passing by her hands—and asks why he came to Ukraine.
“You’re taking care of me,” he tells her almost in surprise. Her response: “We treat everyone equally.”
Later that night, two children – a brother and sister – were seriously injured by a shootout at a checkpoint. His parents are dead. By the end of the night, the little boy is there, despite Taira’s urging to “stay with me,” the little boy.
Taira turns away from her lifeless body and cries. “I hate[this],” she says. She closes her eyes.
She smokes while talking to someone in the dark outside, 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 looks into a bathroom mirror, a shock of blond hair falling on her forehead in contrast to the shaved sides of her head. She cuts 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 appease discouraged ambulance drivers and patients alike. And always, she wears a stuffed animal attached to her vest to treat any child.
With a husband and teenage daughter, she knew what war could do to a family. At one point, a wounded Ukrainian soldier tells him to call his mother. She tells him that he will be able to call her himself, “so don’t bother him.”
On March 15, a police officer handed over small data cards to a team of Associated Press reporters who were documenting atrocities in Mariupol, including a Russian airstrike on a maternity hospital. The office contacted Tera on a walkie-talkie, and she asked reporters to take the card safely out of town. The card was hidden inside a tampon, and the team went through 15 Russian checkpoints before reaching Ukrainian-controlled territory.
The next day, Taira disappeared along with her driver, Serhi. On the same day, a Russian air raid destroyed the Mariupol Theater and killed some 600 people.
A video broadcast during a March 21 Russian newscast announced his capture, accusing him of trying to flee the city in disguise. Taira looks bewildered and restless when she reads a statement under the camera calling for the fight to end. As she talks, a voiceover ridicules her allies as Nazis, using language echoed by Russia this week as it described Mariupol’s fighters.
The broadcast was the last time he was seen.
Both the Russian and Ukrainian governments have promoted interviews with prisoners of war despite international humanitarian law, which describes the practice as inhumane and degrading treatment.
Taira’s husband, Vadim Puzanov, said he had received little news about his wife since her disappearance. Choosing his words carefully, he described the constant concern as well as outrage at how he was portrayed by Russia.
“Alleging a volunteer medic of all mortal sins, including organ trafficking, is already outrageous propaganda – I don’t even know who it is for,” he said.
Raid Saleh, the head of Syria’s White Helmets, compared the situation in Taira to the situation his group’s volunteers are facing and continuing in Syria. He said his group has also been accused of organ trafficking and dealing with terrorist groups.
“Tomorrow, they may ask him to give a statement and force him to say something,” Saleh said.
Taira is of great importance in Ukraine because of its reputation. He taught aikido martial arts and worked as a medic as a sideline.
She took her name in 2013, when she joined first aid volunteers at the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine, which ousted the Russia-backed government. In 2014, Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine.
The Taira went to the eastern Donbass region, where Moscow-backed separatists fought Ukrainian forces. There, she taught tactical medicine and started a group of medicines called Taira’s Angels. He also served as a liaison between the military and civilians 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 Ukraine Invictus Games 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 has since been laid off.
He got the body camera for a 2021 Netflix documentary series on inspirational figures produced by Britain’s Prince Harry, who founded Invictus Games. But when the Russian army invaded, it used it to shoot scenes of wounded civilians and soldiers.
That footage is especially poignant now, Mariupol is on the verge. In the last video shot by Taira, she is seen sitting next to the driver who will disappear with her. It is March 9th.
“Two weeks of war. Surrounded Mariupol, ”she says quietly. Then she does not curse anyone in particular and the screen goes dark.
Associated Press writers Sarah L. Dieb contributed from Beirut, Mstislav Chernov from Kharkiv, Inna Verenitsia from Kyiv; Elena Becatoros from Zaporizhzhia; and Erica Kinetz from Brussels. Lori Hinnant reported from Paris.