In the days before Yulia Pajevska, 53, was abducted by Russian-backed separatists, the decorated Ukrainian volunteer medic had been evacuating Ukrainians from the besieged city of Mariupol.
Her husband, Vadym Puzanov, had only had brief contact with Pajevska through messages and short videos when the patchy internet and her hectic schedule allowed for updates about the dramatic evacuations and airlifts she had been organising in the southeast of the country.
Puzanov found out about his wife’s abduction when his friend rang him to say he had come across a video uploaded onto Facebook by a former Ukrainian politician which claimed that Pajevska and her driver Serhii were illegally detained at a checkpoint near the town of Manhush in the Donetsk region on March 16. “At first I was shocked and couldn’t believe it,” Puzanov recalls.
According to Puzanov, who is currently in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, Pajevska and Serhii had been evacuating women and children along a so-called humanitarian corridor between the southeastern cities of Mariupol and Zaporizhzhia when they were stopped and detained.
On March 17, a friend sent him a link to a video released by the interior ministry of the Russian-backed self-proclaimed Donetsk people’s republic, which appeared to show Pajevska in a lineup at a police station.
Then at 2pm on March 18, Puzanov received a chilling text message sent from his wife’s phone offering to exchange Pajevska for Russian prisoners of war kept by Ukrainian forces in Mariupol.
He immediately contacted Ukrainian government officials. “After the initial state of stupor had worn off, I felt an urge to act immediately and do everything possible to free my wife,” he says.
On March 24, a trailer was released by Russia’s Gazprom-Media’s NTV, which appeared to advertise an interview with Pajevska. Three days later, the full programme, filmed at an undisclosed location, was aired.
The opening segment, broadcast for a Russian audience, claims that supposed Ukrainian neo-Nazis are killing fellow Ukrainians. About seven minutes in, Pajevska is seen being led into a darkened room with a bag over her head. A member of the television crew lifts it off, and a bright light is aimed at her face, briefly startling her before a series of degrading comparisons are made about her appearance, including showing an image of her next to one of Adolf Hitler.
A voiceover added in post-production continually interjects after Pajevska’s answers, countering her comments with unfounded claims, including that many of the soldiers and volunteers she was acquainted with were Nazis, and often referring to Pajevska in explicitly derogatory language including comments comparing her eyes to that of the devil.
Puzanov saw that his wife looked exhausted throughout the interview. “I even noticed a big bruise around her right eye, her reactions were a bit slow. Sometimes she made unnaturally long pauses as if she was choosing her words very carefully,” he says.
Puzanov is disgusted at the contents of the broadcast. “I just can’t comment on these filthy lies,” he says speaking over the phone from Kyiv. “It’s enough to say that Russian propaganda accuses Yulia of all possible sins and crimes and makes an absolute evil out of her. The level of cynicism of the authors is just unimaginable”.
“To accuse her of professing nazism is pure madness,” he says. “For the last eight years, all her life has been dedicated to saving people’s lives,” Puzanov says. “As for her worldview, I would say she is kind of a Buddhist.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has framed the full-scale invasion of Ukraine as a campaign to “denazify” Ukraine. Portraying any display of Ukrainian national identity as fascism is a longstanding narrative espoused by the Kremlin.
Ukrainian human rights group ZMINA, which has been monitoring human rights abuses since 2014, has been collecting and verifying reports of abductions by the Russian side and documenting war crimes. Tetiana Pechonchyk, head of ZMINA, says Pajevska’s abduction and subsequent appearance on Russian television remind her of numerous cases she has witnessed since 2014 in Crimea and the “occupied territories of the Donbas”.
“People were taken by Russians and usually tortured, and then they would appear on camera and say they were saboteurs or planned some form of terrorist attack, so the Russians could continue this narrative about Ukrainian nazis,” she says.
According to Pechonchyk, the formula the interview follows is in line with “fake propaganda” produced by Russia where statements made by a captive are twisted by the production team. Pechonchyk says Pajevska was taken on March 16. “We are told that when Pajevska was taken by the representatives of the so-called Donetsk people’s republic that she was with two kids that she says she was driving to Zaporizhzhia but the video is formulated to make it out like she is using these kids as a [human] shield,” Pechonchyk says. “They even accuse her of selling organs.”
Pechonchyk says Pajevska – whose whereabouts are unknown – is one of more than 150 cases of abductions or disappearances of civilians, including activists and politicians, that they have tracked from different regions around Ukraine since Russia launched an invasion on February 24.
She says these abductions could be the result of the person being on a so-called capture list issued by the Russian security service and that about half of those abducted are still in captivity while others have been released and at least five people have been killed.
“The Russians focus on active members of the community, because they feel in order to break the opposition, they must take the most active members of the local communities to terrify others,” she says.
Representatives of the municipal and regional administrations in Ukraine have been routinely targeted since the invasion. On March 11, Ivan Fedorov, mayor of Melitopol in southeastern Ukraine, was kidnapped from a government office building by 10 Russian soldiers who put a bag over his head and escorted him out in broad daylight. After five days of interrogation, he was released in exchange for nine captured Russian conscripts. On March 13, Russian security forces abducted Serhiy Pryima, the chairman of the Melitopol district council, after storming his home. His whereabouts are still unknown, according to ZMINA.
The Maidan protests
Pajevska was born in Kyiv and is a graphic designer by trade. She has more than 20 years of experience as an instructor of Aikido, a modern Japanese martial art, and founded the Ukrainian chapter of the international Aikido network Mutokukai, which promotes traditional practices and Buddhist teachings. Pajevska is also known by the nickname “Taira”, an avatar she used when playing the video game World of Warcraft.
During the Maidan revolution in 2014, Pajevska witnessed first-hand the brutal suppression of protests by the security forces of the pro-Russian government led by then-president Viktor Yanukovych. Drawing on the medical training she had received during her sports studies, Pajevska began providing basic first aid to injured protesters.
Speaking to Al Jazeera in July 2021, Pajevska described this moment as the first time in her life that she had faced death. “I was absolutely terrified, but there were enormous amounts of people wounded, so I had no time to be scared.”
She tenderly recalled treating one man who had been beaten so badly by the security forces that they had broken his skull and holding him as the chaotic scenes enveloped them, surprising herself at her ability to remain calm under pressure. “The security forces were coming insanely close to us; there were shots, explosions. Everything was on fire; smoke was everywhere. People were yelling, but I felt no hysteria,” she recalled.
Her experiences at the Maidan protests would prove a turning point for Pajevska. “After [Maidan] she started to learn tactical medicine (emergency first aid) on her own. She even compiled a TactMed crash course for those who were setting off to the front line after Russia had started its aggression against Ukraine in the Donbas,” Puzanov says.
The Angels of Taira
Pajevska began to work as an emergency responder in the east of Ukraine, eventually gathering a team of about a dozen paramedics who became known as the Angels of Taira.
Members of the unit had to adhere to Pajevska’s rules which she had formed from years of high-level physical training. She also introduced a blanket ban on alcohol after witnessing the high levels of alcoholism among veterans. “We have strict discipline,” Pajevska told Al Jazeera. “Everything is quite simple – we require absolute sincerity and trust among our people.”
Pajevska’s interest in ancient philosophies and traditional knowledge systems is reflected in the tattoos that run down both of her arms. When she met Al Jazeera, she said she was saving space on one arm for a tattoo of the Hindu goddess Kali.
The Angels of Taira also place an emphasis on supporting the mental health of soldiers and veterans. “We have the job of a psychologist in those first 20 minutes after a soldier is wounded. It’s important to have someone to help when you’re going through this,” Pajevska said.
Pajevska, who has seen the horrors of war first hand, displayed a strong maternal protectiveness over her paramedics. Aloysha, the youngest volunteer in her late teens, also met Al Jazeera in July 2021 and spoke about being frustrated that Pajevska had decided to keep her away from the front line. “Everybody is at war, and I am just here sitting in the hospital,” she said.
But for Pajevska it was an easy decision. “She is too young, we teach absolute care in the process of healing and we need to know that the person is aware of what they are doing,” she said of her youngest team member. “And that only comes through experience. It doesn’t matter how many books you read.”
During the Donbas war, she trained thousands of people in basic medical aid and, by her own estimates, orchestrated the evacuations of some 600 injured soldiers from combat areas.
As news of these evacuations spread, Pajevska with her trademark taper haircut and tough-looking demeanour became a symbol of heroism and resistance to Russian aggression in the country on social media and in the news.
During evacuations, she sustained injuries to her hip joints as a result of carrying soldiers in full medical gear into emergency vehicles. One day, while lifting a particularly heavy soldier, her hips gave way, and she was eventually forced to replace them with titanium endoprostheses. In 2018, she participated in the Invictus Games, an international sporting event for wounded, injured and sick servicemen and women and represented Ukraine in disciplines such as archery and powerlifting.
She has also received several awards from the Ukrainian defence ministry for her work as a paramedic.
During the Invictus Games held between April 16 and 22 in the Netherlands, Pajevska’s daughter Anna-Sofia Puzanova was invited to compete and represent her mother. Puzanova received a bronze medal for archery. During the ceremony, she held up a plaque to honour her mother.
Speaking to the team ahead of the games, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy highlighted Pajevska’s situation as a captive and said the athletes’ victories would also bring her a “sip of freedom”.
‘Something was going to happen’
In the days leading up to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Puzanov recalls that Pajevska “knew something was going to happen”.
Pajevska, who was in Kyiv at the time, had called him home from abroad so that she could prepare the Angels of Taira who were based in Berdyans’ke, a village around half an hour from Mariupol, for a potential invasion.
Puzanov returned to look after their daughter, three cats and a dog. Since the invasion, he has been taking in pets left by their owners and continues to live in their apartment which he now likens to a “kind of zoo”.
During the first two weeks of the invasion, Pajevska worked in Mariupol, the Sea of Azov city that had seen some of the war’s heaviest fighting.
Russian shelling destroyed electricity, water, food supplies and the communication infrastructure in the city.
The exact movements of Pajevska before her capture are sketchy. “Our communication at the time was very limited,” Puzanov says. “Sometimes, she could not phone or send a message for many days in a row. The only thing I know is that she did a lot of work rescuing our wounded soldiers and injured civilians.”
By the time of publication, the Ukrainian government had not released any official statement related to the abduction of Pajevska.
The Security Service of Ukraine did not respond to a request for comment about Pajevska’s abduction.
Pechonchyk says it is difficult to know what will happen to Pajevska. “Maybe the Russians will start some criminal process,” she says. “But it’s a very dangerous situation and we know from other cases that people have been tortured and some of them have been found murdered.”
Since Puzanov notified the authorities, he has been contacted by the Ministry of Veterans Affairs and by a special committee established for such cases. Representatives assure him that professionals are handling her case.
Speaking at a meeting of the European People’s Party in Brussels on April 27, Puzanova said the Ukrainian government had included her mother’s name on prisoner exchange lists but, so far, the Russians have not agreed to requests for a prisoner swap.
Puzanov says he is both anxious and worried about Pajevska’s health but he also feels an enormous amount of anger towards her captors.
As time passes, he is also becoming increasingly frustrated at not being able to help. “I want to act and do everything possible to free my wife, but all I can do now is wait,” he says. “And this drives me mad.”