Yulia "Taira" Paevska, a well-known Ukrainian volunteer and founder of the volunteer ambulance corps "Taira's Angels," spent three months in Russian captivity.
Paevska was captured by the Russian invaders on March 16 while evacuating civilians from the port city of Mariupol. The invaders treated Paevska with particular cruelty in prisons and even threatened to shoot her.
Meanwhile, dozens of people both in Ukraine and around the world fought for the release of the well-known volunteer who has been saving the lives of civilians and wounded servicemen since 2014.
Finally, three months later, on June 17, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced the release of Paevska from captivity. She is currently undergoing rehabilitation and dreams of returning to the front.
NV: Tell us about the conditions in which you were kept and how you were personally treated.
Paevska: I was kept in different places at different times. The first of them was more or less acceptable, and then everything went terrible. Everything was aimed at oppressing and humiliating.
During the first five days (of captivity), I didn't eat anything at all and in fact didn't drink. And after I was transferred to another place, there was already food there. I don't need much food at all, so in principle it was bearable.
But the conditions themselves were terrible. "Vertukhai" (prison guards) constantly mocked me, expressed their comments, and beat me. On top of that interrogations and everything else. It's about me personally.
The women who were there with me in the cell in recent times (the Ukrainian military usually does not use the word last, instead they use recent) – I hope that this was my last time in the cell, and I will never get there again – they were treated much better.
They were also humiliated, but nobody touched them.
NV: Do you know where, geographically, you were held captive? Was it the temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine or the territory of Russia?
Paevska: It was the city of Donetsk. They have several places of detention there and I was kept in different places. I can't tell you everything since the investigation is underway.
NV: According to your observations, who are the people who work in the prison torture chambers on the enemy's side – are they residents of the occupied territories, Russian military personnel or secret service employees? What are their moods?
Paevska: As far as I understood, the vast majority of them were residents of Donetsk. And it seems to me that these are special forces personnel. But I'm not sure about that and I can't comment in more detail.
NV: Who else was together with you in captivity? What were their moods?
Paevska: These were mostly former female military servicemen, let's say, clerks or cooks – representatives of such peaceful professions. I'm not even sure that they have ever seen a machine gun with their own eyes, but still (the invaders) are planning to sentence them to certain terms.
There were also women who had voluntarily come for the so-called filtration. They told where they had been and in what city they had been living, and therefore they wanted to stay in this area and continue to work. That is, those women came to tell (the invaders) that they were not hiding, but they were still detained and charged.
It was me who was so "lucky" (that the Russian invaders threatened to shoot me), but those women are also facing strict terms.
As for moods, some are maddened by (imprisonment), some are punishing themselves, and some are constantly crying because they have no contact with their relatives.
(Prisoners) are forbidden to make phone calls there. Some women have contacted relatives a couple of times, the rest do not have any information about their relatives or whether they are alive at all. Therefore, women are on the verge of breaking down. It's all very difficult.
And there you cannot look for law or truth. Even those who tried to somehow reassure the occupying so-called "authority" of their loyalty, still don't have any mitigation.
They didn't give me anything at all. They took absolutely everything I had, and nothing was returned when I was taken for an exchange. Although they promised to return the mobile phones, etc.
NV: Do you know anything about whether the invaders subject Ukrainian prisoners of war to torture or recruit them to their side?
Paevska: Of course, I know such cases. Once again, I can't voice the details. But this actually happens all the time, and depending on who they capture and what they learn about him, they try to recruit or intimidate someone. These are ruthless people who are confident in their rightness. Or they're just trying to justify their abuse by saying that we're enemies (for them).
NV: In your opinion, is there any chance to release all our prisoners of war from Russian captivity?
Paevska: I really want to believe it. I know that those responsible are working on it, doing everything they can. But everything, unfortunately, is decided not only by our side. And there are many questions on that side. The process is ongoing, and it's being done by people who don't care, and they're very concerned about this issue. I can tell you this responsibly. Therefore, we expect the best and hope that everything will be fine.
NV: What were you most worried about while you were in Russian captivity?
Paevska: Of course, about my daughter, my family and my motherland. Because they (the invaders) lied that they had already captured Kyiv and everything in the world. Therefore, of course, I was concerned about the fate of Ukraine, as well as our army. But I felt that everything was fine, because from time to time I heard the news of the so-called "DPR" ("Donetsk People's Republic") and our "bomb drops" in Donetsk. After all, it's impossible to reach Donetsk from somewhere near Lviv with (artillery of) 120 mm caliber.
NV: What did help you not to break down psychologically?
Paevska: For some reason, I knew that everything would be fine. That everything would end exactly the way it did. I felt that people knew that I had been captured, I felt that a large number of people supported me, and for some reason, I knew that not only Ukraine was concerned about this issue. Therefore, I really hoped that everything would be cool. And I also hope that every Ukrainian prisoner will be released. Because there are laws of war, and they must be observed by any side.
NV: Are you planning to go back to the front again? What will you do there?
Paevska: For now, my physical condition does not let me return as I will just become a burden to the unit. That's why I'm recovering now, I'm undergoing rehabilitation, and I've started to do sports again.
As soon as the body recovers and there is a need, of course, I will go back to the front in one way or another. That is, I will deal with medicine again. Or, if my condition is not satisfactory for such a task, I will be a "volunteer" and control which units require which medical assistance, and organize everything as best as possible. Because we have recently been having problems with medicine in some units, and it's not clear why this is happening.
NV: When do you think this war might end?
Paevska: I would really like it to end in one moment. It will also depend on who will lead the country that attacked us.
If everything remains as it is, we will get a situation over time when the war enters a protracted phase, as it was before, i.e. a positional war. And of course, a lot depends on the support of world society, on what weapons will be supplied to us. So far, new (Western) deliveries are showing just how effective this aid is.
And the international community must support us and provide us with the best because it just so happens that we're the defenders of the entire civilized world. After all, if we lose ground, our enemies will not stop. Therefore, we must persevere and need support.
If we are given weapons, the forecast is very cool. If we have enough weapons, especially those that would reach all those (enemy) depots at long range, because the enemy understands only the language of force and, unfortunately, no persuasion works on him, then, I think, everything can be decided by the spring (of 2023).
NV: What are you planning to do after the war ends?
Paevska: I will do sports and deal with sports rehabilitation of injured boys and girls. From my experience, I can say that sports are extremely effective. I will also directly take care of the rehabilitation of the wounded and the families of the fallen defenders.
And I'm also very interested in propaganda and counter-propaganda because it's a war we're losing so far. Therefore, we must unite.