Yulia Paievska, 53, widely known in Ukraine by her nickname Taira, has reached folk hero notoriety. She said the abuse started immediately after she was recognized at a checkpoint near Mariupol and taken prisoner, along with her driver, on March 16.
“For five days I had no food and practically did not drink,” Paievska told CNN on Tuesday, almost three weeks after she was released in a prisoner exchange on June 17. The abuse, including beatings, she said, was “extreme” and “did not stop for a minute all these three months.”
From mid-March until mid-June, the pair were held in occupied territory in the Donetsk pre-trial detention center by a combination of forces from Russia and the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, she said.
“Constantly you are told that you are a fascist, a Nazi,” she said, comparing the conditions to a gulag. She said she was told it “would be better if you were dead than see what will happen next.”
Frustrated that Paievska wouldn’t give her Russian and pro-Russian separatist captors an on-camera confession of supposed neo-Nazi connections, she said, they “threw me into solitary confinement, into a dungeon without a mattress, on a metal bunk.”
Paievska’s notoriety in Ukraine has grown since she first came to prominence during the 2014 Maidan uprising, where she supported those protesting against the then pro-Russian president as a volunteer medic. From there she went east to the frontline as Ukrainian troops battled separatist forces in the Donbas region, eventually officially joining Ukraine’s armed forces.
When Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February this year, Paievska was in the southern city of Mariupol equipped with a body camera, filming hours of dramatic scenes of the injured arriving at the emergency room and the efforts to save them.
With Russian forces closing in, Paievska managed to get one of her memory cards to journalists from the Associated Press who were among the last to escape the city. The card was hidden in a tampon, Paievska said. She told CNN that she destroyed another card with her teeth and threw it out as she approached the checkpoint where she and her driver were taken.
The forces at the checkpoint soon recognized her, Paievska said, and within days of her abduction she was forced over several days to sit for Russian TV cameras for what would become a slickly produced 47-minute propaganda video that accuses her of using children as human shields and of harvesting organs and compares her to Hitler.
In the film, Paievska is marched into an interrogation room, handcuffed and hooded, and made to sit down under a harsh, bright light as the narrator plays up the supposed danger she poses.
The video, broadcast by state-run channel NTV, was released 12 days after Paievska was taken. In that time, and throughout her detention, Paievska wasn’t allowed to contact her husband, Vadim Puzanov.
“You watch too many American films,” she says she was told. “There will be no call.”
Instead, Paievska says, she was fed a steady stream of lies that boasted of non-existent Russian military successes in eastern Ukraine. Eventually she and other detainees were able to piece together some of the reality of what was happening with various tidbits of information they gathered.
When Paievska was arrested she was told she could face the death penalty. But one day she was brought out of her cell and the possibility of a prisoner exchange was mentioned, raising her hopes.
On June 17, the exchange happened and Paievska managed to call her husband for the first time in more than three months.
“I didn’t recognize her [voice] because I didn’t expect her to call me,” Puzanov said. Along with their daughter, the family reunited in the hospital to which Paievska was taken by Ukrainian forces, a moment Puzanov described as “the most joyous event.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced the news in his nightly video address, saying: “Taira is already at home. And we will continue to work to release everyone else.”
Paievska declined to say where the exchange took place or for whom she was traded. Since her abduction, the already slight, heavily tattooed Paievska says she has lost 10 kilograms (over 20 pounds) and is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
She will not be returning to the frontlines anytime soon, she said, afraid of being a burden on the forces.
Instead, she is focusing on qualifying for the 2023 Invictus Games for wounded veterans in swimming and archery. She suffered a hip injury exacerbated by work at the front and had both her hip joints replaced.
Paievska blames the Kremlin’s powerful propaganda machine for fueling the Russian war effort and, like Ukraine’s leaders, says Ukraine needs more help from the west to defeat Russia.
“This is an absolutely ruthless regime that wants to dominate the world,” she said. “They told me that the whole world only has to submit to Greater Russia and: ‘This is your destiny. You have to accept, just stop resisting.'”