Russia releases jailed medic who filmed Mariupol’s horror

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TALLINN, Estonia – A celebrated Ukrainian medic whose images were smuggled from the besieged city of Mariupol by an Associated Press team was freed Friday by Russian troops, three months after she was captured on the city’s streets.

Yuliia Paievska is known in Ukraine as Taira, a nickname she chose in the video game World of Warcraft. Using a body camera, she recorded 256 gigabytes of her team’s efforts to rescue the wounded, including both Russian and Ukrainian soldiers, over two weeks.

She handed the clips over to an Associated Press team, the latest international journalists in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, one of whom fled with the tampon in a tampon on March 15. Taira and a colleague were captured by Russian forces on March 16, the same day a Russian airstrike struck a theater in the city center, killing about 600 people, according to an Associated Press investigation.

“It was such a great sense of relief. Those sound like such ordinary words, and I don’t even know what to say,” her husband, Vadim Puzanov, told The Associated Press late Friday, taking a deep breath to control his emotion. Puzanov said he spoke to Taira by phone, who was on his way to a hospital in Kiev, and feared for her health.

Initially, the family had kept quiet, hoping that the negotiations would go ahead. But The Associated Press spoke to him before the smuggled videos were released, which eventually had millions of viewers around the world, including on some of the largest networks in Europe and the United States. Puzanov expressed his gratitude for the coverage, which showed that Taira was trying to save Russian soldiers as well as Ukrainian civilians.

In a short video posted on Telegram on Saturday, Taira thanked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for his efforts to get her released. Addressing Ukrainians still detained by Russia, with a hiccup in her voice, she said: “I know everything will be fine and we will all be home as I am now.”

Zelenskyy had announced Taira’s release in a national speech.

“I am grateful to everyone who has worked for this result. Taira is already home. We will continue to work to free everyone,” he said.

Hundreds of prominent Ukrainians have been kidnapped or imprisoned, including local officials, journalists, activists and human rights defenders.

Russia portrayed Taira as working for the nationalist Azov regiment, in keeping with Moscow’s story of trying to “denazify” Ukraine. But the AP found no such evidence, and friends and colleagues said it had no ties to Azov, who last held out at a steel mill in Mariupol before hundreds of his fighters were captured or killed.

The images themselves are visceral evidence of her efforts to rescue the injured on both sides.

A clip shot on March 10 shows two Russian soldiers being roughly taken from an ambulance by a Ukrainian soldier. One is in a wheelchair. The other is on his knees, hands tied behind his back, with an obvious leg injury. Their eyes are covered with 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 won’t be so nice to us,” she replies. “But I had no choice. They are prisoners of war.”

Taira was a member of the Ukrainian Invictus Games for military veterans, where she would compete in archery and swimming. Invictus said she was a military medic from 2018 to 2020, but had since been demobilized.

She received the body camera in 2021 to film for a Netflix documentary series about inspirational figures produced by Britain’s Prince Harry, who founded the Invictus Games. But when Russian troops invaded, they instead used it to shoot scenes of wounded civilians and soldiers.