Paevska: “All of Ukraine Supports Volunteers”
Medic who filmed the horrors of Mariupol speaks about helping others and the right of her country to choose its own path.
When Yuliia Paevska was freed after three months in Russian captivity on June 17, 2022, none other than Ukrainian President Volodymy Zelensky announced her release in a national video address.
“Taira is already home,” he said, using the code name of the volunteer paramedic who fell into Russian forces’ hands in Mariupol. Paevska had become a household name ever since her work amidst the Euromaidan revolution of early 2014. She went on to dedicate herself to training Ukraine’s volunteer medic force, and the full-scale invasion found her in the south-eastern port city of Mariupol.
“The war woke us up very early. The shelling has begun. I got up and headed to the hospital, offered my help and began to receive the wounded.”
For three weeks until her capture on March 16, the 54-year-old paramedic also recorded hours of footage about life and death in Mariupol. On March 15, she gave a data card to the last international journalists in the city who managed to hide it in a tampon and smuggle it through 15 Russian checkpoints. Mariupol fell in mid-May, Russian artillery having pounded it for 80 days, destroying a city where 425,000 people once lived.
Asked how she dealt with such challenges, she paused.
“It is in the blood. You just don't think it's a challenge. You do it as a necessary thing. It's just that everyone's business is different: for some, it's to take the child to school, for someone, it's to get the child out of the shelling. This is a task… [And] a lot of people help. In fact, all of Ukraine supports volunteers and the military.”
“You don't think of it as a challenge. You do it as a necessary thing.”
War was already part of Paevska’s life when Russians launched the full-scale invasion.
She had moved to Donbas in 2014 to develop a course in tactical medicine, establishing a volunteer medical evacuation unit, named Taira’s Angels, which has rescued hundreds of civilians and wounded defenders from the frontline.
She then went on to serve in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, leading the evacuation unit of a mobile hospital in Mariupol; she was demobilised in 2020.
Having suffered back and hip injuries, Paevska became a member of Ukraine’s team at the Invictus Games, the international sport event for injured veterans, winning a gold medal in swimming and a bronze medal in archery in 2018. Still in captivity when the games were held in April 2022, her 19-year-old daughter was allowed to compete in her place.
Paevska has now founded Mriya, hope in Ukrainian, a charity aimed at supporting the families of prisoners of war, including with legal aid and education grants.
“This is for soldiers who know that, should the worst happen to them, their family will not be abandoned. Someone will take care of them, help them get back on their feet,” she explained.
Reflecting on her life since the full-scale invasion began, Paevska said, “I don't think I've changed too much in the past year. I have become more focused. I began to think less about myself [to] make sure I continue doing everything right to achieve our goal, that is, victory and the return of our territories.”
She continued, “[Our] country should live as it wants, and not as our ‘brothers’ impose on us. This desire for freedom, for the realisation of the nation as a full-fledged member of the world community - this is our goal.”