Ukrainian Medic’s Months in Russian Cell: Cold, Dirty and Used as a Prop

Ukrainian Medic’s Months in Russian Cell: Cold, Dirty and Used as a Prop

KYIV, Ukraine — During the siege of Mariupol, in southern Ukraine, Russians pounded the city with artillery and blocked civilian escape routes, creating one of the worst humanitarian crises of the war. As Ukrainian soldiers holed up in the Azovstal steel plant, the medic Yulia Paievska took on the dangerous work of evacuating families from a city under constant assault.

Ms. Paievska, 53, was already well known in Ukraine as Taira, a nickname she first used in the video game World of Warcraft. Her all-female volunteer medic 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 as she was evacuating a group from Mariupol, they knew exactly who she was. Held for three months, unable to communicate with her husband and daughter, she became a symbol of Ukrainian bravery and self-sacrifice.

In an interview with The New York Times, conducted by video from the Kyiv hospital room where she has been recovering since her release around three weeks ago in a prisoner exchange, she accused her captors of torture, including relentless beatings.

“All three months I spent in a cell, in the basement — only looking at a small piece of sky and thistles in the window,” she said.

She quickly learned that Russian treatment would be harsh. After being captured with her driver, she was taken to a prison in Russian-occupied Donetsk, where she asked to make a phone call. “You have watched too many American films,” she was told. “There will be no calls.”

She was thrown into a freezing cell and repeatedly questioned for hours. Over the first five days, she said, she was given no food and about half a glass of water a day.

“They tried to squeeze evidence out of me,” she said, convinced she had secret information about an attack on Russia. “They wanted me to admit that I was a Nazi, that I did some nasty things, killed someone. I didn’t incriminate 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 shot her own videos before her capture, 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 journalists leaving Mariupol. A month after the release of the Russian video, The A.P. published her footage.

It shows what she saw as 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 a freezing Russian soldier.

“We treat everyone equally,” she told the soldier, who expressed surprise.

The kindness was not returned.

Ms. Paievska was thrown into solitary confinement and for a month deprived of her thyroid medication and asthma inhaler. She was eventually put into a 10-by-20-foot cell with 21 other women. Two or three shared each bunk, making sleep difficult.

Ms. Paievska was an aikido trainer and designed books and ceramics before Ukraine’s Maidan revolution, the protests that led to the ouster in 2014 of a pro-Russian president. As thousands camped out in Kyiv’s central square for months, she retrained as a medic to care for injured protesters.

When Russian-backed separatists started a war that year in the Donbas, she volunteered on the front. She joined the military in 2018, heading the evacuation department in a mobile hospital in Mariupol, but left military service in 2020 and resumed her volunteer work. She estimates she trained more than 8,000 people in tactical medicine.

During her detention, Ms. Paievska said, little was offered in the way of supplies. She had one pair of underwear and one sturdy pair of Levi’s. She was saved from the cell’s bitter cold because she had a fur coat on when she was captured.

“They didn’t give us towels or anything,” she said. “No toothpaste, no toothbrush, nothing.” She said she was allowed to shower only once in three months and never got to leave the building to walk in the yard.

Many of the women detained with her had psychological problems, she said. The group included both criminals and Ukrainians with military connections.

In 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 of the men, who played major roles in purges of Stalin’s opponents, are being rehabilitated.

The detainees were made to sing and chant pro-Russian songs and slogans.

“Of course, they forced us to sing the Russian anthem,” she said, adding, “I learned it. ‘Glory to Putin! Glory to Russia!’ All these stupid chants.”

Ms. Paievska’s treatment tracks with the torture and poor care that the United Nations has documented in prisons in the Donetsk region since 2014, when Russian-backed separatists took control there.

In a report issued last summer, the United Nations said 4,300 to 4,700 detainees had been “systematically” tortured and mistreated.

Since Feb. 24, when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of the country, “It would be fairly safe to assume conditions have further deteriorated,” said Matilda Bogner, the head of the U.N.’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 applied to me,” she said, “and what I needed 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 back.

“They put a bag over my head,” she said, led her carefully out to a car, then “took the bag off my head and took me away from Donetsk without saying anything.”

She didn’t know if she would be exchanged or shot. A woman who was released later told her that detainees were told that she had been killed.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine announced her release on June 17 in his nightly address. “We will keep working to liberate 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 the Russian Ministry of Defense said it held 6,000 Ukrainian prisoners of war, a number that could not verified independently.

In captivity, Ms. Paievska said, she heard only propaganda about the situation in Ukraine.

“Now I am soaking everything up like a sponge,” she said, though much of the news is painful — so many friends lost, so many wounded.

And she is contending with the toll of the Mariupol siege and her captivity.

“When I was released, I was physically exhausted to the extreme,” she said. “I have consequences from this, and I probably will for the rest of my life.”

She lost more than 20 pounds and has trouble sleeping. Her detention has left her with mental symptoms, too, she said.

“I already had shell shock in Mariupol, and then I had to endure so much, so my memory is not very good,” she said. “But I remember what I have to.”

Memories of horrors witnessed can be hard to shake.

Footage Ms. Paievska smuggled out of Mariupol shows her caring for two children whose parents had been killed during fighting at a checkpoint. The boy was hurt, too, and in the video she begs him, “Stay with me, little one.” Moments later, he dies. Her camera captures her turning away, crying.

“I hate this,” she says as she closes his eyes.

Oleksandr Chubko contributed reporting.

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