Captive medic’s bodycam shows firsthand horror of Mariupol

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’s 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 has also 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 doctors 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 to 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 Taira shot videos, 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.

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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.

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