A Mariupol medic held by Russians in a brutal three-month captivity has revealed how a phone call from the Duke of Sussex inspired her to keep defending Ukraine.
Yulia Paievska had been serving as a volunteer paramedic on the front line in Mariupol when she was kidnapped by Russian soldiers as she rushed to save victims of the city’s theatre bombing in March.
For three months, the 53-year-old was tortured and made to believe by the Russians that not only had Ukraine ceased to exist, but that she would also be killed.
But in an interview with The Telegraph, Ms Paievska – a member of Team Ukraine for the Invictus Games – said that receiving a phone call from the Duke around a week after her release had convinced her not to give up.
“He simply inspired me to continue to fight,” said Ms Paievska, who founded Tayra’s Angels, the volunteer ambulance corps, explaining that it was the way the Duke had spoken so “strongly and sincerely” about Ukraine that compelled her to get back to work.
“He said that he supports Ukraine and all of us,” she said, and that “the Invictus Games family always takes care of its members”.
Despite admitting that “of course, I am afraid” to return to the front line, she said “there are more important things than our fear and our emotions”.
Ms Paievska began working on the front line in 2014, when she retrained as a medic to help in the Donbas. She rose to fame for her work helping injured servicemen.
Reportedly having saved 500 Ukrainian soldiers in the Donbas and having trained 8,000 people in tactical medicine – even treating wounded separatists and Russians – she was made a Hero of Ukraine, the country’s highest civilian honour.
However, she was injured during one evacuation operation and had to have titanium hip replacements, leaving her with chronic pain.
When Ms Paievska was ambushed by the Russians on March 16 – as she and a colleague drove an ambulance through a humanitarian corridor to help a wounded civilian – she was considered a prize by Moscow.
She was initially put into solitary confinement, refused medication for her thyroid and asthma and given just half a glass of water to drink each day.
Eventually, she was moved into a 10ft x 20ft cell with more than 20 women and experienced “beatings and torture with electricity”.
‘Russians told me it was best to commit suicide’
On top of the physical abuse, she also suffered mental torment.
“The Russians told me it was best to commit suicide because they would kill me anyway, but I tried to believe I would survive,” she said.
They also withheld information and tried to convince Ms Paievska and the other detainees that Ukraine was doomed.
“I had absolutely no information about what was happening in the world,” she said.
“I didn’t even know if my family was alive or if my house had survived because the Russians were almost already in Kyiv when we left.
“They said that no one supports us, that other countries only give us old, rusty weapons. They said that no one needed us and that everyone had long forgotten about Ukraine.”
To keep as fit as she could in the torrid conditions, she exercised daily: “Ab crunches, yoga and meditation. I tried to keep fit in jail. I think if you can convince yourself to survive, you will.”
She added: “I had no reason to think that I would get out because they were determined to shoot me, kill me. But for some reason I knew, I believed that I would survive.”
Before the invasion on Feb 24, Ms Paievska had been training to compete at the Invictus Games in swimming, archery and powerlifting. After her capture, Anna-Sofia Puzanova, her 19-year-old daughter, competed in her place in archery, where she won a bronze medal.
Ms Puzanova used the opportunity to raise her mother’s detention with the Duke, who founded the Invictus Games in 2014 for injured servicemen and women. He hailed the presence of the Ukrainian team at the event as “extraordinary”.
Ms Paievska was led to believe by her Russian captors that no one “cares about the fate of Ukraine”.
So “I just cried from emotions” when the call came in, she said.
“I am very grateful to Prince Harry, because it was after... the Invictus Games that the Russians stopped interrogating and torturing me. I think that spreading the word to the whole world influenced their decision to trade me in a prisoner exchange,” she said.
Volodymyr Zelensky confirmed in a statement on June 17 that Ms Paievska had been liberated: “I am grateful to everyone who worked for this result,” the Ukrainian president said in a statement.
It is understood that the Duke was not involved in her release.
Although Ms Paievska would like to return to the front line “to be as useful to my country as much as possible”, she lost 10kg (22lbs) during her imprisonment and has accepted that her body will need to steadily recover before she can resume the fight.
She said she is “recovering through sports” and that she plans to participate in next year’s Invictus Games, where she plans to reconnect with the Duke, as well as the US-hosted Warrior Games in a couple of weeks.
“I still get tired very quickly and sometimes break down,” she said. “I think the motivation to get to the Invictus Games next year will pull me together finally.”
However, while she may be free, she cannot forget the plight of her colleagues still fighting for Ukraine’s freedom.
“The Russians are keeping a lot of soldiers and doctors, in particular doctors of the Mariupol hospital, as well as civilians, in inhumane conditions, which contradicts all the laws of war,” she stressed.
“The international community must help free the prisoners to avoid their murders.”