KYIV, Ukraine — During the siege of Mariupol, in southern Ukraine, Russians stormed the city with artillery and blocked escape routes for civilians, sparking one of the worst humanitarian crises of the war. While Ukrainian soldiers holed up in the Azovstal steel factory, doctor Yulia Paievska took on the dangerous work of evacuating families from a city under constant attack.
Ms. Paievska, 53, was already known in Ukraine as Taira, a nickname she first used in the video game World of Warcraft. Her all-female volunteer medical group, called Taira’s Angels, had become famous in Ukraine during the earlier war in the eastern Donbas region.
So when Russian soldiers captured her on March 16 while she was evacuating a group from Mariupol, they knew exactly who she was. Detained for three months, unable to communicate with her husband and daughter, she became a symbol of Ukrainian courage and self-sacrifice.
In an interview with DailyExpertNews, conducted on video from the hospital room in Kiev where she has been recovering since being released about three weeks ago in a prisoner swap, she accused her captors of torture, including brutal beatings.
“All three months I spent in a cell, in the basement — just looking at a little patch of sky and thistles in the window,” she said.
She soon learned that the Russian treatment would be harsh. After being captured along with her driver, she was taken to a prison in Russian-occupied Donetsk, where she asked if she could call. “You’ve seen too many American movies,” she was told. “There is no call.”
She was thrown into a freezer and interrogated repeatedly for hours. For the first five days, she said, she was given no food and about half a glass of water a day.
“They were trying to squeeze evidence out of me,” she said, convinced she had classified information about an attack on Russia. “They wanted me to admit that I was a Nazi, that I did bad things, killed someone. I have not accused myself. It cost me dearly.”
The Russians dragged her in front of cameras for a propaganda video, released 10 days after her arrest, in which she was compared to Hitler and accused of using children as shields.
But Ms. Paievska had made her own videos before capturing them, using a head-mounted camera. The day before she was detained, she hid a memory card in a tampon and gave it to two Associated Press reporters who were leaving Mariupol. A month after the release of the Russian video, The AP published its images.
It shows what she saw when she treated children and soldiers. In one clip, shot two days after Russia invaded in late February, she ordered colleagues to wrap a blanket around an icy Russian soldier.
“We treat everyone equally,” she told the soldier, who was amazed.
The kindness was not returned.
Understanding the war between Russia and Ukraine better
Ms. Paievska was thrown into solitary confinement and withheld from her thyroid medication and asthma inhaler for a month. She was eventually put in a 10-by-20-foot cell with 21 other women. Two or three each shared bunk, which made sleeping difficult.
Ms. Paievska was an aikido trainer and designed books and ceramics before Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution, the protests that led to the 2014 impeachment of a pro-Russian president. While thousands camped in Kiev’s main square for months, she was retrained as a medic to tend to injured protesters.
When Russian-backed separatists started a war in the Donbas that year, she volunteered to go to the front. She joined the army in 2018, chief of the evacuation department at a mobile hospital in Mariupol, but left military service in 2020 and resumed her volunteer work. She estimates that she has trained more than 8,000 people in tactical medicine.
During her detention, Ms Paievska said, few supplies were offered. She had underwear and a sturdy pair of Levi’s. She was saved from the bitter cold of the cell because she was wearing a fur coat when she was captured.
“They didn’t give us towels or anything,” she said. “No toothpaste, no toothbrush, nothing.” She said she was only allowed to shower once every three months and was never allowed to leave the building to walk through the yard.
Many of the women held with her had mental health issues, she said.
Inside the prison, officials hung portraits of Stalin and two chiefs of his secret police, Genrikh Yagoda and Lavrenti P. Beria. In Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia, the reputations are restored of the men who played an important role in the purges of Stalin’s opponents.
The prisoners had to chant and chant pro-Russian songs and slogans.
“Of course they forced us to sing the Russian national anthem,” she said, adding: “I learned it. ‘Glory to Putin! Glory to Russia!’ All those stupid chants.”
Ms Paievska’s treatment follows the torture and ill-treatment the United Nations has documented in prisons in the Donetsk region since 2014, when Russian-backed separatists took control there.
In a report released last summer, the United Nations said 4,300 to 4,700 prisoners had been tortured and ill-treated “systematically”.
Since February 24, when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of the country, “it would be fairly safe to assume that conditions have deteriorated further,” said Matilda Bogner, head of the UN’s human rights monitoring mission in Ukraine.
Ms. Paievska said she relied on her martial arts practice and her background in psychology to cope.
“I understood what techniques they were applying to me,” she said, “and what I had to do not to break, not to bend.”
After three months in custody, she said, one day a guard opened the cell door. He told her to turn her hair back.
“They put a bag over my head,” she said, led her carefully to a car, “took the bag off my head and took me out of Donetsk without saying a word.”
She didn’t know if she would be traded or shot. A woman who was later released told her that those arrested had been told she had been murdered.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky announced her release on June 17 in his overnight address. “We will continue to work to free everyone,” Mr Zelensky promised.
The number of Ukrainians still in Russian custody is not clear. Late last month – the day after a transfer of 144 Ukrainian soldiers, the largest prisoner swap since February – a press officer for Russia’s Defense Ministry said it was holding 6,000 Ukrainian POWs, a number that could not be independently verified.
In captivity, Ms Paievska said, she only heard propaganda about the situation in Ukraine.
“Now I’m soaking everything up like a sponge,” she said, though much of the news is painful — so many friends lost, so many injured.
And she faces the toll of the Mariupol siege and her captivity.
“When I was released, I was extremely physically exhausted,” she said. “I’m affected by this, and I probably will for the rest of my life.”
She has lost more than 20 pounds and sleeps badly. Her detention has also given her mental symptoms, she said.
“I already had shell shock in Mariupol, and then I had to go through so much, so my memory is not very good,” she said. “But I remember what to do.”
Memories of horrors you experienced can be difficult to shake off.
Footage smuggled from Mariupol shows Ms Paievska caring for two children whose parents were killed fighting at a checkpoint. The boy was also injured and in the video she begs him, “Stay with me, little one.” Moments later he dies. Her camera films her turning away, crying.
“I hate this,” she says closing his eyes.
Oleksandr Chubko reporting contributed.