‘We were treated like slaves’

Ukrainian doctor Julia Bagivska was imprisoned for three months in inhumane conditions. She was released thanks to the prisoner exchange with the Russians.

Even the president made time for her cause. Volodymyr Zelensky announced in a video message in mid-June that “Taira” had returned home. I managed to get it out.

Julia Bagevska, better known as Tyra, is celebrated in Ukraine as a heroine. Since 2014, the year the war began in Donbass, you may have saved hundreds of lives as a doctor. She also represents her country in shooting and swimming at the Invictus Games and Warrior Games, sports competitions for veterans.

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Bzhevska was in the southern port city of Mariupol. You captured the horror of the city attack with your body camera. Pictures were later given to two journalists from the American news agency AP, who smuggled them out of town, hiding in a tampon. In mid-March, Bzhevska was captured by Russian troops in Mariupol. Three months later, she was released during a prisoner exchange.

How do you feel when you are free again?

Julia Bagevska: I’m thrilled, but I’m also worried about the boys and girls getting left behind. I am trying to do everything in my power to ensure that they can also be released through a prisoner exchange as quickly as possible.

I was in Mariupol when the war started. how do we get there?

Bagevska: I supplied the medical staff in the city with equipment and medicines. Normally I would have mailed him, but he was a volunteer friend on his way to Mariupol and I had a place in his car with medicines and materials. I wasn’t planning to stay in Mariupol, I wanted to come back right away because I was training for Invictus Games. I thought war was going to break out, but I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly and violently.

When did you decide to photograph the war?

Bagevska: Most frontline doctors use body cameras. You can then watch the videos later to analyze if you did everything right. But at some point I realized there were a lot of videos and a lot of injuries. I realized that it is a historical material, which is of value not only in the medical field.

One of the videos shows how a small child dies in hospital. How did you feel in that moment?

Bagevska: The death of a child is very painful. It’s a pointless war: children die in my arms and I can’t help it.

I also dealt with Russian soldiers. why?

Bagevska: The wounded are not my enemies – they are sick.

How were you arrested?

Bagevska: I cannot reveal many details as the investigation is still ongoing. On March 15, at one of the checkpoints of the DNR militia (DNR stands for the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, a pro-Russian separatist region in eastern Ukraine) they stopped our bus to Zaporizhia. I heard from volunteer aid workers that there was a lane, but the bus stopped anyway.

How were you treated during your imprisonment?

Bagevska: The other prisoners and I were treated like slaves. Except for the clothes we were wearing, they took all our personal belongings. We were subjected to physical and mental torture. We were put into cells in a basement. We were only able to shower once every three months. There was a doctor who helped me. Blinded by Russian propaganda, she still gave me the drugs to survive. I am grateful to her for that.

You are talking about physical and psychological torture: what does it consist of?

Bagevska: I can’t say anything about physical violence yet. I have been explicitly asked not to.

because of the investigation?

Bagevska: yes. Psychological violence consists of all kinds of humiliation: lies and constant demands to admit things I didn’t do. They wanted me to confess that I had killed someone, that I belonged to the Azov regiment, although I had never been in this regiment. They wanted me to condemn myself so they could use the video against me.

On June 17, you were released in a prisoner exchange. How did it go?

Bagevska: Without any explanation, I was put in a car and drove away from Donetsk. I asked where they are taking me. They replied that I swap. OK, I just said. Of course I felt relieved, but I tried not to show my feelings in front of these monsters.

You are currently in Great Britain. why?

Bagevska: I prepare for the Warrior Games, which are held in America once a year. In Ukraine, large parts of the sports infrastructure have been damaged by the war.

Will you come back as a doctor?

Bagevska: Only if my physical condition allows it.

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