Ukraine over the weekend hailed the release of a celebrated medic whose footage was smuggled out of the besieged city of Mariupol by a team of employees in a tampon in mid-March.
“I always believed that everything would be exactly this, and everyone who is now on the other side, they know everything will work out,” Yuliia Paievska said in a video address on Saturday in which she thanked the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, for her release.
Paievska, 53, is known in Ukraine as Taira, a nickname she chose from the World of Warcraft video game.
Using a body camera, Paievska recorded more than 200 gigabytes of her team’s dramatic efforts over two weeks to save wounded civilians as well as Russian and Ukrainian soldiers. She handed the footage over on March 15 to an Associated Press team, the last international in Mariupol, one of whom hid it in a tampon.
Paievska was detained by Russian soldiers the following day and spent more than three months in captivity.
During his nightly national address on Friday, Zelenskiy first announced the release of Paievska. “I’m grateful to everyone who worked for this result. Taira is already home. We will keep working to free everyone,” he said.
Paievska’s release was greeted across Ukraine due to her longstanding reputation as a veteran medic who has trained the country’s volunteer medic force.
She founded a group of medics called Taira’s angels and served as a contact point between the military and civilians in frontline towns. The body camera that she used to document her time in Mariupol was initially meant for a Netflix documentary about inspirational people produced by Prince Harry.
Russia has sought to portray Paievska as a far-right nationalist working for the Azov regiment, which has led the defense of the factory. Some pro-Kremlin media outlets claimed, without providing any evidence, that Paievska took part in the killing of civilians in Mariupol.
The Azov regiment was formed in 2014 as a volunteer militia to fight Russia-backed forces in eastern Ukraine, and many of its original members had far-right extremist views. Since then, the unit has been integrated into the Ukrainian national guard and the regiment now denies being fascist, racist or neo-Nazi. The Azov movement has been used as a key part of the Russian propaganda narrative to justify the war in Ukraine.
The military hospital where Paievska treated the wounded, however, is not affiliated with the Azov battalion, and the footage that she recorded attests to the fact that she tried to save both wounded Russian soldiers and Ukrainian civilians.
In one clip recorded on 10 March and cited by AP, Paievska is asked by another woman if she is going to treat two heavily wounded Russian soldiers. “They will not be as kind to us,” she replies. “But I couldn’t do otherwise. They are prisoners of war.”
It was not immediately clear whether Paievska’s release was part of a prisoner exchange with Russia.
In a rare public criticism by a Russian state media journalist, the Channel One war correspondent Irina Kuksenkova said it was a “murky scheme” involving the son of a Chechen official who she said was earlier kidnapped by Ukraine. “There was no trade. There was a murky scheme through which Taira ended up in Ukraine,” Kuksenkova wrote on her Telegram channel.
Neither Russia or Ukraine have commented on the details of Paievska’s release.
Meanwhile, the fate of the hundreds of captured fighters who defended the Azovstal steel plant remains uncertain after they were transferred to prisons in Russian-controlled territories in eastern Ukraine a month ago.
Citing an unnamed Russian law enforcement source, the Russian state news agency TASS said on Sunday that several commanders of the Azov regiment had been transferred to the Lefortovo prison in Moscow for investigation. “Other officers of various Ukrainian units were also transported to Russia,” TASS cited the source as saying.
Earlier this month, Ukraine’s intelligence services said they were in communication with fighters captured at the Azovstal plant and that Kyiv was doing all it could to ensure their return.
There are concerns that Moscow label the Azov fighters as terrorists – raising the possibility of a mass show trial meant to justify Russia’s invasion.