TALLINN, Estonia — A famous Ukrainian doctor whose footage was smuggled out of the besieged city of Mariupol by an Associated Press team was freed by Russian forces on Friday, 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 World of Warcraft video game. Using a body camera, she recorded 256 gigabytes of her team’s two-week effort to save the wounded, including Russian and Ukrainian soldiers.
She transferred the clips to a team from the Associated Press, the last international journalists in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, one of whom got away with him embedded in a tampon on March 15. Taira and a colleague were taken prisoner by Russian forces on March 16, the same day a Russian airstrike hit a downtown theater, killing around 600 people, according to an Associated Press investigation.
“It was such a great feeling of relief. It sounds like such ordinary words, and I don’t even know what to say,” her husband, Vadim Puzanov, told The Associated Press Friday night, breathing deeply to contain his emotion. Puzanov said he spoke on the phone with Taira, who was on her way to a hospital in Kyiv, and feared for her health.
Initially, the family had remained silent, hoping that the negotiations would run their course. But the Associated Press spoke to him before posting the contraband videos, which eventually drew millions of viewers around the world, including on some of the biggest networks in Europe and the United States. Puzanov expressed his gratitude for the coverage, which showed Taira trying to rescue 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 the Ukrainians still held back by Russia, in a choked voice, she said: “I know everything will be fine and we will all be at home like I am now.”
Zelenskyy had announced Taira’s release in a national speech.
“I am grateful to everyone who worked for this result. Taira is already at home. We will continue to work to free everyone,” he said.
Hundreds of prominent Ukrainians have been abducted or captured, including local officials, journalists, activists and human rights defenders.
Russia has described Taira as working for the Nationalist Azov Regiment, in line with Moscow’s narrative that it is trying to “denazify” Ukraine. But the AP found no such evidence, and her friends and colleagues said she had no connection to Azov, who made one last stand at a steel mill in Mariupol before hundreds of his fighters not be captured or killed.
The images themselves are a visceral testament to his efforts to save the wounded on both sides.
A clip recorded on March 10 shows two Russian soldiers being dragged out of an ambulance by a Ukrainian soldier. One is in a wheelchair. The other is on his knees, his 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 insults one of them. “Calm down, calm down,” Taira told him.
A woman asks him: “Are you going to treat the Russians?”
“They won’t be so nice to us,” she replies. “But I couldn’t help it. They are prisoners of war.
Taira was a member of the Ukrainian Invictus Games for military veterans, where she had to compete in archery and swimming. Invictus said she served as a medical officer from 2018 to 2020, but has since been discharged.
She received the body camera in 2021 to film a Netflix documentary series about inspirational characters produced by Britain’s Prince Harry, who founded the Invictus Games. But when Russian forces invaded, she used it to shoot scenes of civilians and wounded soldiers instead.
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