The Associated Press
KYIV, Ukraine -- The captive Ukrainian medic's eyeglasses had long since been taken away, and the face of the Russian man walking past her was a blur.
Yuliia Paievska knew only that her life was being traded for his, and that she was leaving behind 21 women in a tiny three- by six-meter (10- by 20-foot) prison cell they had shared for what felt like an eternity. Her joy and relief was tempered by the sense that she was abandoning them to an uncertain fate.
Before she was captured, Paievska, better known throughout Ukraine as Taira, had recorded more than 256 gigabytes of harrowing bodycam footage showing her team's efforts to save the wounded in the besieged city of Mariupol. She got the footage to Associated Press journalists, the last international team in Mariupol, on a tiny data card.
The journalists fled the city on March 15 with the card embedded inside a tampon, carrying it through 15 Russian checkpoints. The next day, Taira was taken by pro-Russia forces.
Three months passed before she emerged on June 17, thin and haggard, her athlete's body more than 22 pounds lighter from lack of nourishment and activity. She said the AP report that showed her caring for Russian and Ukrainian soldiers alike, along with civilians of Mariupol, was critical to her release.
She chooses her words carefully when discussing the day she was taken captive, and is even more cautious when discussing the prison for fear of endangering the Ukrainians still there. But she is unequivocal about the impact of the video released by the AP.
"You got this flash drive out and I thank you," she said in Kyiv to an AP team that included the journalists in Mariupol. "Because of you, I could leave this hell. Thanks to everyone involved in the exchange."
She still feels guilty about those she left behind and said she will try her best to help free them.
"They are all I think about," she said. "Every time I grab a cup of coffee or light a cigarette, my conscience pains me because they can't."
Taira, 53, is one of thousands of Ukrainians believed to have been taken prisoner by Russian forces. Mariupol's mayor said recently that 10,000 people from his city alone have disappeared either by capture or while trying to flee. The Geneva Conventions single out medics, both military and civilian, for protection "in all circumstance. "
Taira is an outsized personality in Ukraine, famed for her work training field medics and instantly recognizable by her shock of blond hair and the tattoos that circle both arms. Her release was announced by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
She smokes constantly, lighting one cigarette after another as if trying to make up for the three months she had none. She speaks quietly, without malice, and her frequent smiles light her face deep into her brown eyes.
A demobilized military medic who suffered back and hip injuries long before the Russian invasion, Taira is also a member of the Ukraine's Invictus Games team. She had planned to compete this April in archery and swimming, and her 19-year-old daughter was permitted to compete in her place instead.
Taira 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 in February, she trained the lens on scenes of war.