KHARKIV, Ukraine (AP) — A celebrated Ukrainian medic recorded her time in Mariupol on a data card no bigger than a thumbnail, smuggled out to the world in a tampon. Now she is in Russian hands, at a time when Mariupol itself is on the verge of falling.
Yuliia Paievska is known in Ukraine as Taira, a moniker from the nickname she chose in the World of Warcraft video game. Using a body camera, she recorded 256 gigabytes of her team’s frantic efforts over two weeks to bring people back from the brink of death. She got the harrowing clips to an Associated Press team, the last international journalists in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, as they left in a rare humanitarian convoy.
Russian soldiers captured Taira and her driver the next day, March 16, one of many forced disappearances in areas of Ukraine now held by Russia. Russia has portrayed Taira as working for the nationalist Azov Battalion, in line with Moscow’s narrative that it is attempting to “denazify” Ukraine. But the AP found no such evidence, and friends and colleagues said she had no links to Azov.
The military hospital where she led evacuations of the wounded is not affiliated with the battalion, whose members have spent weeks defending a sprawling steel plant in Mariupol. The footage Taira recorded itself testifies to the fact that she tried to save wounded Russian soldiers as well as Ukrainian civilians.
A clip recorded on March 10 shows two Russian soldiers taken roughly out of an ambulance by a Ukrainian soldier. One is in a wheelchair. The other is on his knees, hands bound behind his back, with an obvious leg injury. Their eyes are covered by 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 will not be as kind to us,” she replies. “But I couldn’t do otherwise. They are prisoners of war.”
Taira is now a prisoner of the Russians, one of hundreds of prominent Ukrainians who have been kidnapped or captured, including local officials, journalists, activists and human rights defenders.
The U.N. Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine has recorded 204 cases of enforced disappearances. It said some victims may have been tortured, and five were later found dead. The office of Ukraine’s ombudswoman said it had received reports of thousands of missing people by late April, 528 of whom had probably been captured.
The Russians also are targeting medics and hospitals even though the Geneva Conventions single out both military and civilian medics for protection “in all circumstance.” The World Health Organization has verified more than 100 attacks on health care since the war began, a number likely to rise.
More recently, Russian soldiers pulled a woman off a convoy from Mariupol on May 8, accused her of being a military medic and forced her to choose between letting her 4-year-old daughter accompany her to an unknown fate or continuing on to Ukrainian-controlled territory. The mother and child ended up separated, and the little girl made it to the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, U.N. officials said.
“This is not about saving one particular woman,” said Oleksandra Chudna, who volunteered as a medic with Taira in 2014. “Taira will represent those medics and women who went to the front.”
Taira’s situation takes on a new significance as the last defenders in Mariupol are evacuated into Russian territories, in what Russia calls a mass surrender and Ukraine calls a mission accomplished. Russia says more than 1,700 Ukrainian fighters have surrendered this week in Mariupol, bringing new attention to the treatment of prisoners. Ukraine has expressed hope that the fighters can be exchanged for Russian prisoners of war, but a Russian official has said without evidence that they should be not exchanged but put on trial.
Ukraine’s government has said it tried to add Taira’s name to a prisoner exchange weeks ago. However, Russia denies holding her, despite her appearance on television networks in the separatist Donetsk region of Ukraine and on the Russian NTV network, handcuffed and with her face bruised. The Ukrainian government declined to speak about the case when asked by the AP.
Taira, 53, is known in Ukraine as a star athlete and the person who trained the country’s volunteer medic force. What comes across in her video and in descriptions from her friends is a big, exuberant personality with a telegenic presence, the kind of person to revel in swimming with dolphins.
The video is an intimate record from Feb. 6 to March 10 of a city under siege that has now become a worldwide symbol of the Russian invasion and Ukrainian resistance. In it, Taira is a whirlwind of energy and grief, recording the death of a child and the treatment of wounded soldiers from both sides.
On Feb. 24, the first day of the war, Taira chronicled efforts to bandage a Ukrainian soldier’s open head wound.
Two days later, she ordered colleagues to wrap an injured Russian soldier in a blanket. “Cover him because he is shaking,” she says in the video. She calls the young man “Sunshine” — a favorite nickname for the many soldiers who passed through her hands — and asks why he came to Ukraine.
“You’re taking care of me,” he tells her, almost in wonder. Her response: “We treat everyone equally.”
Later that night, two children — a brother and sister — arrive gravely wounded from a shootout at a checkpoint. Their parents are dead. By the end of the night, despite Taira’s entreaties to “stay with me, little one,” so is the little boy.
Taira turns away from his lifeless body and cries. “I hate (this),” she says. She closes his eyes.
Talking to someone in the dark outside as she smokes, she says, “The boy is gone. The boy has died. They are still giving CPR to the girl. Maybe she will survive.”
At one point, she stares into a bathroom mirror, a shock of blond hair falling over her forehead in stark contrast to the shaved sides of her head. She cuts the camera.
Throughout the video, she complains about chronic pain from back and hip injuries that left her partially disabled. She embraces doctors. She cracks jokes to cheer up discouraged ambulance drivers and patients alike. And always, she wears a stuffed animal attached to her vest to hand to any children she might treat.
With a husband and teenage daughter, she knew what war can do to a family. At one point, an injured Ukrainian soldier asks her to call his mother. She tells him he’ll be able to call her himself, “so don’t make her nervous.”
On March 15, a police officer handed over the small data card to a team of Associated Press journalists who had been documenting atrocities in Mariupol, including a Russian airstrike on a maternity hospital. The office contacted Taira on a walkie-talkie, and she asked the journalists to take the card safely out of the city. The card was hidden inside a tampon, and the team passed through 15 Russian checkpoints before reaching Ukrainian-controlled territory.
The next day, Taira disappeared with her driver Serhiy. On the same day, a Russian airstrike shattered the Mariupol theater and killed close to 600 people.
A video aired during a March 21 Russian news broadcast announced her capture, accusing her of trying to flee the city in disguise. Taira looks groggy and haggard as she reads a statement positioned below the camera, calling for an end to the fighting. As she talks, a voiceover derides her colleagues as Nazis, using language echoed this week by Russia as it described the fighters from Mariupol.
The broadcast was the last time she was seen.
Both the Russian and Ukrainian governments have publicized interviews with prisoners of war, despite international humanitarian law that describes the practice as inhumane and degrading treatment.
Taira’s husband, Vadim Puzanov, said he has received little news about his wife since her disappearance. Choosing his words carefully, he described a constant worry as well as outrage at how she has been portrayed by Russia.
“Accusing a volunteer medic of all mortal sins, including organ trafficking, is already outrageous propaganda — I don’t even know who it’s for,” he said.
Raed Saleh, the head of Syria’s White Helmets, compared Taira’s situation to what volunteers with his group faced and continue to face in Syria. He said his group also has been accused of organ trafficking and dealing with terrorist groups.
“Tomorrow, they may ask her to make statements and pressure her to say things,” Saleh said.
Taira has outsize importance in Ukraine because of her reputation. She taught aikido martial arts and worked as a medic as a sideline.
She took on her name in 2013, when she joined first aid volunteers at the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine that drove out a Russia-backed government. In 2014, Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.
Taira went to the eastern Donbas region, where Moscow-backed separatists fought Ukrainian forces. There, she taught tactical medicine and started a group of medics called Taira’s Angels. She also worked as a liaison between the military and civilians in front-line towns where few doctors and hospitals dared operate. In 2019, she left for the Mariupol region, and her medical unit was based there.
Taira was a member of the Ukraine Invictus Games for military veterans, where she was set to 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 on inspirational figures being produced by Britain’s Prince Harry, who founded the Invictus Games. But when Russian forces invaded, she used it to shoot scenes of injured civilians and soldiers instead.
That footage is now especially poignant, with Mariupol on the brink. In one of the last videos Taira shot, she is seated next to the driver who would disappear with her. It is March 9.
“Two weeks of war. Besieged Mariupol,” she says quietly. Then she curses at no one in particular, and the screen goes dark.
Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb contributed from Beirut, Mstyslav Chernov from Kharkiv, Inna Varenytsia from Kyiv; Elena Becatoros from Zaporizhzhia; and Erika Kinetz from Brussels. Lori Hinnant reported from Paris.
Vasilisa Stepanenko And Lori Hinnant, The Associated Press
What Happens When The West Runs Out Of Ukrainians?
Having Joe Biden play the Jimmy Kimmel card may not be great politics— whose vote will it change?— but it was certainly great comedy. And as the West lurches toward a very uncertain fate in Ukraine, comedy (and a teleprompter) may be all Biden has got.
You remember Ukraine? Very hot story for a while till Johnny Depp and Amber Heard slimed it from the headlines. The Snowflakes embraced the gutsy-nation-with-a-heart that was being ravaged by Russia. Kind hearts and coronets. Put its flag in their window, on their Facebook avatar, on their car bumper.
Imagine Justin Trudeau’s infamous teddy-bear hug in the graveyard. Then multiply it by infinity on the empathy curve. That’s how the guilty liberal left saw Ukraine’s torment. They weren’t too fussy about the blood-soaked history of the region. Which is just as well. It’s not something to put on your fridge door.
In case you forgot, Russia dared the West to stop Putin going into Ukraine. Biden double-dog-dared him to try. Putin said, “Hold my vodka” and threw his army at its neighbour. Depending on whom you read this assault has either been a disaster for Russia or a disaster for Ukraine. We only know it’s continuing to chew up men and materiel at a prodigious rate.
One person it has been a boon for, however, is Ukrainian president Volodmyr Zelenskyy. While his countrymen die, the former comic actor has used the attack on his nation to become— in Western eyes— equal measures of George Patton/ Winston Churchill/ Tony Soprano. Sporting his fatigues and guilting Western governments into helping repulse the Russians, he’s become famous and very rich. So have his pals.
That’s because, while the war has been hell for everyday Ukrainians, anyone in on the money-laundering aspect of this conflict is doing swell. America— which refuses to spend on sealing its own border– has promised north of $50 B in aid/ weapons/ technical assistance to repel the Russian invasion of Zelenskyy’s border.
The rest of the West has ponied up sizeable chunks, too. During his various photo-op fly-ins, Canada’s PM Justin Trudeau promised $98 M. in ammo plus an extra $1 million to “help investigate sex crimes by Russian troops in Ukraine”.
Anyone believe this money will ever benefit an ordinary Ukrainian huddled in his collapsed apartment building? The money will pass through Ukraine’s corrupt oligarchy like consommé through a strainer, leaving only a faint whiff of its presence behind. The cash will make its way back to the U.S. in contracts while the weapons the U.S. supplies will likely wind up with Ukraine’s notorious Azov Brigade or being sold (along with U.S, military surplus from Afghanistan) in the black market to bad actors with evil intentions.
If this is news to you then you weren’t paying attention when the DC Swamp impeached Donald Trump for asking Zelenskyy how much money the Biden crime family was making in his country. “Calling Col. Vindman! Clean-up in aisle three!” It was panic.y
When the war didn’t end as soon as Putin or shell-shocked Ukrainians wanted, it morphed into something else. Biden’s “crippling” economic sanctions against Russia having failed as the the price of oil skyrocketed, a new strategy was called for. Because the Ukrainians said they were determined to fight to the last man, the U.S. decided to take them at their word: as a proxy force to unseat Putin at home.
Voilá. The New Biden Plan. Keep Putin’s army in the field, keep the payola pipeline flowing and pray that someone assassinates or deposes Putin before the U.S. mid-term elections. The entire fiasco is now as open-ended as the Stones Farewell Tour.
Which is fine if the Ukrainians are, as advertised, willing to fight till the last man. America and the West can keep their hands clean. The media can play Plucky Little Belgium stories for their gullible viewers/ readers. “Experts” can war-game till the cows come home.
The fly in this ointment is that, with American prestige and profit invested so deeply now, what happens if they run out of Ukrainian patriots to throw into the fire against a seemingly unrepentant Putin? If the proxies are pushing up daisies what is Plan B? No one in the Western elites is sending their boys to die in Kiev or the Donbas region.
Further, Putin has nuclear weapons, and he’s convinced everyone that he’s just crazy enough to use them. Having impertinent Ukrainians shoot Russians is one thing, Having American or NATO soldiers on the move near the border of the Russian Motherland is another. A desperate Putin could do what generations of Soviet leaders would not. Go full Doctor Strangelove.
To say nothing of what a mentally declining Joe Biden might try if it looked like Donald Trump could take back the White House in 2024. His cognitive decline is alarming. His sudden policy shifts are unsettling. No one knows what he’ll say next. Least of all Biden.
The best outcome has always been a negotiated settlement. But Biden’s escalation— trading Ukrainian lives for destabilizing Putin— has made that a non-starter. Worse, the same public that bought government lockdown propaganda on Covid has’t figured out they’re being gamed again. They’re still sentimentalizing Ukrainians’ distress rather than demanding an endgame in Biden’s reckless foreign policy.
If all this eventually reminds them of Afghanistan they might be on to something. But at least they’ll always have Jimmy Kimmel.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the editor of Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com). The best-selling author was nominated for the BBN Business Book award of 2020 for Personal Account with Tony Comper. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s also a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. His new book with his son Evan Inexact Science: The Six Most Compelling Draft Years In NHL History is now available on http://brucedowbigginbooks.ca/book-personalaccount.aspx
Russia hits Kyiv with missiles; Putin warns West on supplies
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia took aim at Western military supplies for Ukraine’s government with early Sunday airstrikes in Kyiv that it said destroyed tanks donated from abroad, as President Vladimir Putin warned that any Western deliveries of long-range rocket systems to Ukraine would prompt Moscow to hit “objects that we haven’t yet struck.”
The cryptic threat of a military escalation from the Russian leader didn’t specify what the new targets might be, but it comes days after the United States announced plans to deliver $700 million of security assistance for Ukraine that includes four precision-guided, medium-range rocket systems, helicopters, Javelin anti-tank weapon systems, radars, tactical vehicles, spare parts and more.
Military analysts say Russia is hoping to overrun the embattled eastern Donbas region, where Russia-backed separatists have fought the Ukrainian government for years, before any weapons that might turn the tide arrive. The Pentagon said earlier this week it will take at least three weeks to get the precision U.S. weapons and trained troops onto the battlefield.
Russian forces pounded railway facilities and other infrastructure early Sunday in Kyiv, which had previously seen weeks of eerie calm. Ukraine’s nuclear plant operator, Energoatom, said one cruise missile buzzed the Pivdennoukrainsk nuclear plant, about 350 kilometers (220 miles) to the south, on its way to the capital — citing the dangers of such a near miss.
There was no immediate confirmation from Ukraine that the Russian airstrikes had destroyed tanks.
Kyiv hadn’t faced any such strikes since the April 28 visit of U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. The early morning attack triggered air raid alarms and showed that Russia still had the capability and willingness to hit at Ukraine’s heart since abandoning its wider offensive across the country to instead focus its efforts in the east.
In a posting on the Telegram app, the Russian Defense Ministry said high-precision, long-range air-launched missiles were used. It said the strikes destroyed on the outskirts of Kyiv destroyed T-72 tanks supplied by Eastern European countries and other armored vehicles located in buildings of a car-repair business.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 has led to untold tens of thousands of civilian and troop deaths, driven millions from their homes, sparked vast sanctions against Putin’s government and allies, and strangled exports of critical wheat and other grains from Ukraine through Black Sea ports — limiting access to bread and other products in Africa, the Middle East and beyond.
In a television interview on Sunday, Putin lashed out at Western deliveries of weapons to Ukraine, saying they aim to prolong the conflict.
“All this fuss around additional deliveries of weapons, in my opinion, has only one goal: To drag out the armed conflict as much as possible,” Putin said, alluding to U.S. plans to supply multiple launch rocket systems to Kyiv. He insisted such supplies were unlikely to change much for the Ukrainian government, which he said was merely making up for losses of rockets of similar range that they already had.
If Kyiv gets longer-range rockets, he added, Moscow will “draw appropriate conclusions and use our means of destruction, which we have plenty of, in order to strike at those objects that we haven’t yet struck.”
The missiles hit Kyiv’s Darnytski and Dniprovski districts, Mayor Vitali Klitschko said on the Telegram messaging app, punctuating the Kremlin’s recently reduced goal of seizing the entire Donbas. Moscow-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian forces for eight years in the Donbas and established self-proclaimed republics.
In recent days, Russian forces have focused on capturing the city of Sievierodonetsk.
A billowing pillar of smoke filled the air with an acrid odor in Kyiv’s eastern Darnystki district, and the charred, blackened wreckage of a warehouse-type structure was smoldering. Police near the site told an Associated Press reporter that military authorities had banned the taking of images. Soldiers also blocked off a road in a nearby area leading toward a large railway yard.
The sites struck included facilities for the state rail company, Ukrzaliznytsia, said Serhiy Leshchenko, an adviser in President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office, on Telegram. The cruise missiles appeared to have been launched from a Tu-95 bomber flying over the Caspian Sea, the Air Force Command said on Facebook. It said air defense units shot down one missile.
Energoatom said one cruise missile came dangerously close to the Pivdennoukrainsk nuclear power plant. It said the missile “flew critically low” and that Russian forces “still do not understand that even the smallest fragment of a missile that can hit a working power unit can cause a nuclear catastrophe and radiation leak.”
Elsewhere, Russian forces continued their push to take ground in eastern Ukraine, with missile and airstrikes carried out on cities and villages of the Luhansk region, with the war now past the 100-day mark.
Luhansk governor Serhiy Haidai said on Telegram that “airstrikes by Russian Ka-52 helicopters were carried out in the areas of Girske and Myrna Dolyna, by Su-25 aircraft – on Ustynivka,” while Lysychansk was hit by a missile from the Tochka-U complex.
A total of 13 houses were damaged in Girske, and five in Lysychansk. Another airstrike was reported in the eastern city of Kramatorsk by its mayor Oleksandr Goncharenko. No one was killed in the attack, he said, but two of the city’s enterprises sustained “significant damage.”
On Sunday morning, Ukraine’s General Staff accused Russian forces of using phosphorus munitions in the village of Cherkaski Tyshky in the Kharkiv region. The claim couldn’t be independently verified.
The update also confirmed strikes on Kyiv, which occurred in the early hours of Sunday. It wasn’t immediately clear from the statement which infrastructure facilities in Kyiv were hit.
The General Staff said Russian forces continue assault operations in Sievierodonetsk, one of two key cities left to be captured in the Luhansk region of the Donbas. The Russians control the eastern part of the city, the update said, and are focusing on trying to encircle Ukrainian forces in the area and “blocking off main logistical routes.”
The U.K. military said in its daily intelligence update that Ukrainian counterattacks in Sieverodonetsk were “likely blunting the operational momentum Russian forces previously gained through concentrating combat units and firepower.” Russian forces previously had been making a string of advances in the city, but Ukrainian fighters have pushed back in recent days.
The statement also said Russia’s military was partly relying on reserve forces of the separatists in the Luhansk region.
“These troops are poorly equipped and trained, and lack heavy equipment in comparison to regular Russian units,” the intelligence update said, adding that “this approach likely indicates a desire to limit casualties suffered by regular Russian forces.”
Far from the battlefield, Ukraine’s national soccer players are hoping to secure a World Cup spot when the team takes on Wales later Sunday in Cardiff.
On the diplomatic front, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was heading to Serbia for talks with President Aleksandar Vucic early this week, followed by a visit to Turkey on Tuesday, where the Russian envoy is expected to discuss Ukraine with his Turkish counterpart.
Turkey has been trying to work with U.N. and the warring countries to help clear the way for Ukrainian grain to be exported to Turkish ports, though no deal on the issue appeared imminent.
A Ukrainian presidential adviser urged European nations to respond with “more sanctions, more weapons” to Sunday’s missile attacks.
Mykhailo Podolyak referenced remarks Friday by French President Emmanuel Macron, who said Putin had made a “historic error” by invading Ukraine, but that world powers shouldn’t “humiliate Russia” so that a diplomatic exit could be found when the fighting stops.
Ukrainian authorities said Ukraine and Russia had exchanged bodies of killed troops this week, in the first officially confirmed swap. Ukraine’s Ministry for Reintegration of Occupied Territories said Saturday each side had exchanged 160 bodies Thursday on the front line in the southern Zaporizhzhia region, parts of which are under Russian control. Russian officials haven’t commented on the exchange.
At the Vatican, Pope Francis made one of his strongest appeals for a cease-fire and peace negotiations in Ukraine, urging leaders: “Don’t bring the world to ruins, please. Don’t bring the world to ruins.” He made the plea during his traditional Sunday blessing from a window overlooking St. Peter’s Square, asking leaders to hear “the desperate cries of the people who suffer” more than 100 days after the Russian invasion.
Follow AP’s coverage of the Ukraine war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
John Leicester, The Associated Press
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