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
Afghan rights leader heartbroken after year of Taliban rule
UNITED NATIONS (AP) — A year after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, prominent Afghan rights activist Sima Samar is still heartbroken over what happened to her country.
Samar, a former minister of women’s affairs and the first chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, left Kabul in July 2021 for the United States on her first trip after the COVID-19 pandemic, never expecting Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to flee the country and the Taliban to take power for the second time soon after on Aug. 15.
“I think it’s a sad anniversary for the majority of people of my country,” Samar said, particularly for the women “who don’t have enough food, who do not know what is the tomorrow for them.”
A visiting scholar at the Carr Center for Human Rights at the Kennedy School at Harvard, she has written the first draft of an autobiography and is working on a policy paper on customary law relating to Afghan women. She is also trying to get a Green Card, but she said, “I honestly cannot orient myself, where I am, and what I’m doing.”
She wishes she could go home — but she can’t.
In an interview Friday with The Associated Press, she recalled a Taliban news conference a few days after they took power when they said if people apologized for past actions they would be forgiven.
“And I said, I should be apologizing because I started schools for the people?” said Samar, a member of Afghanistan’s long persecuted Hazara minority. “I should apologize because I started hospitals and clinics in Afghanistan? I should apologize because I tried to stop torture of the Taliban? I should apologize to advocate against the death penalty, including (for) the Taliban leadership?”
“All my life I fought for life as a doctor,” she said. “So I cannot change and support the death penalty. I shouldn’t apologize for those principles of human rights and be punished.”
Samar became an activist as a 23-year-old medical student with an infant son. In 1984, the then-communist government arrested her activist husband, and she never saw him again. She fled to Pakistan with her young son and worked as a doctor for Afghan refugees and started several clinics to care for Afghan women and girls.
Samar remembered the Taliban’s previous rule in the late 1990s, when they largely confined women to their homes, banned television and music, and held public executions. A U.S.-led invasion drove the Taliban from power months after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, which al-Qaida orchestrated from Afghanistan while being sheltered by the Taliban.
After the Taliban’s ouster, Samar returned to Afghanistan, moving into the top women’s rights and human rights positions, and over the next 20 years schools and universities were opened for girls, women entered the workforce and politics and became judges.
But Samar said in an AP interview in April 2021 — four months before the Taliban’s second takeover of the country — that the gains were fragile and human rights activists had many enemies in Afghanistan, from militants and warlords to those who wanted to stifle criticism or challenge their power.
Samar said the Afghan government and leadership, especially Ghani, were mainly responsible for the Taliban sweeping into Kabul and taking power. But she also put blame on Afghans “because we were very divided.”
In every speech and interview she gave nationally and internationally over the years, she said Afghans had to be united and inclusive, and “we have to have the people’s support. Otherwise, we will lose.”
As chair of the Human Rights Commission, she said she repeatedly faced criticism that she was trying to impose Western values on Afghanistan.
“And I kept saying, human rights is not Western values. As a human being, everyone needs to have a shelter … access to education and health services, to security,” she said.
Since their takeover, the Taliban have limited girls’ public education to just six years, restricted women’s work, encouraged them to stay at home, and issued dress codes requiring them to cover their faces.
Samar urged international pressure not only to allow all girls to attend secondary school and university, but to ensure all human rights which are interlinked. And she stressed the importance of education for young boys, who without any schooling, job or skill could be at risk to get involved in opium production, weapons smuggling or in violence.
She also urged the international community to continue humanitarian programs which are critical to save lives, but said they should focus on food-for-work or cash-for-work to end peoples’ total dependency and give them “self-confidence and dignity.”
Samar said Afghan society has changed over the past two decades, with more access to technology, rising education levels among the young and some experience with elections, t even if they weren’t free and fair.
She said such achievements leave the possibility of positive change in the future. “Those are the issues that they (the Taliban) cannot control,” she said. “They would like to, but they cannot do it.”
Samar said she hoped for eventual accountability and justice for war crimes and crimes against humanity. “Otherwise, we feel the culture of impunity everywhere, everywhere — and the invasion of Russia to Ukraine is a repetition of Afghanistan’s case,” she said.
Her hope for Afghan women is that they can “live with dignity rather than being a slave of people.”
Edith M. Lederer, The Associated Press
Ship carrying grain for hungry Ethiopia leaves Ukraine
By Derek Gatopoulous in Kyiv
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — A United Nations-chartered ship loaded with 23,000 metric tons of Ukrainian grain destined for Ethiopia set sail Sunday from a Black Sea port, the first shipment of its kind in a program to assist countries facing famine.
The Liberia-flagged Brave Commander departed from the Ukrainian port of Yuzhne, east of Odesa, according to regional governor Maksym Marchenko. It plans to sail to Djibouti, where the grain will be unloaded and transferred to Ethiopia under the World Food Program initiative.
Ukraine and Russia reached a deal with Turkey on July 22 to restart Black Sea grain deliveries, addressing the major export disruption that has occurred since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
Ethiopia is one of five countries that the UN considers at risk of starvation.
“The capacity is there. The grain is there. The demand is there across the world and in particular, these countries,” WFP Ukraine coordinator Denise Brown told The Associated Press. “So if the stars are aligned, we are very, very hopeful that all the actors around this agreement will come together on what is really an issue for humanity. So today was very positive.”
On the front line, Russian forces on Sunday fired rockets on the Mykolaiv region in southern Ukraine, killing at least one person. That region is just north of the Russian-occupied city of Kherson, which Ukrainian forces have vowed to retake. The Ukrainian emergency service said one person was killed in shelling early Sunday settlement of Bereznehuvate in Mykolaiv.
A Russian diplomat, meanwhile, called on Ukraine to offer security assurances so that international inspectors could visit a nuclear power station that has come under fire.
As fighting steps up in southern Ukraine as Russia’s war closes in on six months, concern has grown sharply about the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which is held by Russian forces and has been hit by sporadic shelling. Both Ukraine and Russia blame each other for the shelling, which officials say has damaged monitoring equipment and could lead to a nuclear catastrophe.
The Zaporizhzhia facility is Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.
Russia’s envoy to international organizations based in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, called on Ukraine to stop attacking the plant in order to allow an inspection mission from the International Atomic Energy Agency.
“It is important that the Ukrainians stop their shelling of the station and provide security guarantees to members of the mission. An international team cannot be sent to work under continuous artillery shelling,” he was quoted as saying Sunday by Russian state news agency Tass.
Ukraine says Russia is shelling nearby regions from the plant and storing weapons there.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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