The next day, March 16, Russian troops captured Tayra and her driver, one of the many forcible disappearances in Russian-occupied territory in Ukraine. Russia has portrayed Tyra as working for the nationalist Azov Battalion, in line with Moscow’s description that it is trying to “prove” Ukraine. But the AP found no such evidence, and friends and colleagues said it had nothing to do with Azov.
The military hospital where he led the evacuation of the wounded is not affiliated with the battalion, whose members spent weeks defending a sprawling steel plant in Mariupol. The footage they recorded testified to the fact that he had tried to rescue wounded Russian soldiers as well as Ukrainian civilians.
A clip recorded March 10 shows two Russian soldiers being almost picked up by an Ukrainian soldier from an ambulance. In a wheelchair. The other is on his knees, hands tied behind his back, legs clearly injured. Their eyes are covered by winter hats, and they wear white armbands.
A Ukrainian soldier curses one of them. “Calm down, calm down,” Taira tells him.
A woman asked him, “Are you going to treat the Russians?”
“They will not be kind to us,” he replies. “But I could not do otherwise. They are prisoners of war. “
Taira is now one of hundreds of prominent Ukrainians who have been abducted or detained, including Russian prisoners, local officials, journalists, activists and human rights defenders.
The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine has recorded 204 cases of enforced disappearances. It said some victims may have been tortured and five were later found dead. Ukraine’s ombudsman’s office said it had received reports of thousands of missing people in late April, with 528 possibly detained.
The Russians are also targeting physicians and hospitals, although the Geneva Conventions separate both military and civilian physicians for protection “in all circumstances.” The World Health Organization has verified more than 100 attacks on healthcare since the war began, a number that could rise.
Most recently, Russian troops pulled a woman from a convoy from Mariupol on May 8, accusing her of being a military doctor and forcing her to choose between letting her 4-year-old daughter go with her to an unknown fate or to continue in Ukraine-controlled territory. UN officials say the mother and baby are separated and the little girl has moved to the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhia.
“It’s not about saving a particular woman,” said Alexandra Chudna, who volunteered as a doctor with Tyra in 2014. “They will represent all the doctors and women who went to the front.”
The situation in Tyra takes on new significance as Mariupol’s last defenders are evacuated to Russian territory, which Russia calls a mass surrender and Ukraine a mission. Russia says more than 1,700 Ukrainian fighters have surrendered in Mariupol this week, drawing new attention to the treatment of prisoners. Ukraine has expressed hope that fighters could be exchanged for Russian prisoners of war, but a Russian official said without evidence that they should not be exchanged but tried.
The Ukrainian government says it tried to add Tyra’s name in exchange for a prisoner last week. Russia, however, has denied the allegations in a statement issued Friday stating “Similar, baseless allegations concerning Russia’s intelligence have been made more than once. The Ukrainian government declined to comment on the case when asked by the AP.
Taira, 53, is known in Ukraine as a star athlete and the person who trained the country’s volunteer medical forces. What he finds in the video and in the descriptions from his friends is a large, exuberant personality with a telegenic presence, a person who enjoys swimming with dolphins.
The video is an intimate record of a city besieged from February 6 to March 10 that has now become a global symbol of Russian aggression and Ukrainian resistance. In it, they record a whirlwind of strength and mourning, the death of a child and the treatment of wounded soldiers on both sides.
February 24, the first day of the war, is the chronicle of an attempt by a Ukrainian soldier to bandage an open head wound.
Two days later, he instructed his colleagues to wrap a wounded Russian soldier in a blanket. “Cover her because she’s shaking,” she says in the video. He calls the young man “Sunshine” – a favorite nickname for many soldiers who go through his arms – and asks why he came to Ukraine.
“You’re taking care of me,” he told her, almost to his surprise. Her response: “We treat everyone equally.”
Later that night, two children – a brother and a sister – were seriously injured in a gunfight at a checkpoint. Their parents have died. Towards the end of the night, “stay with me, little boy,” despite Tyra’s request.
Tyra turns her face away from her lifeless body and cries. “I hate (it),” he says. She closes her eyes.
Talking to someone outside in the dark while smoking, he says, “The boy is gone. The boy is dead. They are still giving CPR to the girl. Maybe he’ll survive. “
At one point, she looks in the bathroom mirror, a jolt of blonde hair lying on her forehead in stark contrast to the shaved sides of her head. He cuts off the camera.
Throughout the video, he complained of chronic pain from back and hip injuries that left him partially disabled. She hugs the doctors. He jokes to discourage ambulance drivers and patients alike. And as always, she wears a stuffed animal with her vest to hand over to any child she can treat.
With a husband and a teenage daughter, she knew what war could do to a family. At one point, a wounded Ukrainian soldier tells him to call his mother. She tells him she can call him on her own, “so don’t make him nervous.”
On March 15, a police officer handed out small data cards to a group of Associated Press reporters who were documenting atrocities in Mariupol, including a Russian airstrike on a maternity hospital. The office contacted Tyra on a walkie-talkie, and she told reporters to get the card out of town safely. The card was hidden inside a tampon and the team went through 15 Russian checkpoints before reaching the Ukrainian-controlled territory.
The next day, Taira disappeared with her driver Serhi. On the same day, a Russian airstrike ripped through the Mariupol theater, killing at least 600 people.
A video released during a Russian news broadcast on March 21 announced his capture, accusing him of trying to flee the city in disguise. Tyra looks hungry and uncomfortable while reading a statement placed under the camera, urging him to stop fighting. As he speaks, a voiceover mocks his colleagues as Nazis, using language echoed by Russia this week as it describes Mariupol’s fighters.
The last time he was seen on the broadcast.
Both the Russian and Ukrainian governments have promoted interviews with prisoners of war, despite international humanitarian law describing the practice as inhumane and degrading.
Tyra’s husband, Vadim Pujanov, said he had received little information about her since his wife went missing. By carefully choosing his words, he describes a constant concern as well as annoyance at how he has been portrayed by Russia.
“Allegations of all pernicious sins, including organ transplants, against a volunteer doctor, are already hateful propaganda – I don’t even know who it is for,” he said.
Raed Saleh, head of the Syrian White Helmets, compared the situation in Tyra to that of his group of volunteers in Syria. He said there were also allegations against his group of organ trafficking and working with terrorist groups.
“Tomorrow, they can pressure him to make a statement and say something,” Saleh said.
They are important in Ukraine because of their reputation. He taught Aikido martial arts and worked as a sideline as a doctor.
He took his name in 2013, when he joined first aid volunteers in a Euromaidan protest in Ukraine that ousted the Russian-backed government. In 2014, Russia occupied the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine.
They went to the eastern Donbass region, where Moscow-backed separatists fought Ukrainian forces. There, he taught tactical medicine and started a team of physicians called Tyra’s Angels. He also acted as a liaison between the military and civilians in the front row cities where few doctors and hospitals dared to operate. In 2019, he moved to the Mariupol area and his medical unit was there.
Taira was a member of the Ukraine Invictus Games for military veterans, where she was ready to compete in archery and swimming. Invictus said he was a military physician from 2018 to 2020 but has been inactive ever since.
He received a body camera in 2021 to film for a Netflix documentary series on the inspirational personality of Britain’s Prince Harry, who founded Invictus Games. But when Russian forces attacked, he instead used to shoot scenes of wounded civilians and soldiers.
That footage is now particularly touching, on the edge of Mariupol. In one of the last videos Tyre shot, he is sitting next to the driver who will disappear with him. It’s March 9th.
“Two weeks of fighting. Mariupol is under siege,” he says calmly. Then he curses someone in particular and the curtain goes dark.
Associated Press writers Sarah El Dib contributed from Beirut, Mistislav Chernov from Kharkiv, Inna Varenitsia from Kiev; Elena Bekataros from Zaporizhia; And Erica Kinetz from Brussels. Lori Hinant reports from Paris.