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Yulia Payevska: “The army wins battles, but it’s the people who can win the war”

In her civilian life, she is a designer, president of the Mutokukai-Ukraine Aikido Federation, 5th dan aikido.

Since 2013, she has participated in the Revolution of Dignity and the war in eastern Ukraine as a paramedic. She is a commander of the volunteer medical evacuation unit “Taira’s Angels” and the evacuation unit of the 61st Military Mobile Hospital (2018-2020), junior sergeant of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. During one of her combat evacuations, she suffered a hip injury. Both hip joints had to be replaced. 

On March 16, 2022, during a full-scale war, Taira was detained at a checkpoint in the village of Mangush near Mariupol. She was taken prisoner of war by the russian occupiers when she was evacuating women and children from Mariupol through the so-called green corridor to Zaporizhzhia. On June 17, 2022, she was released from captivity.

In 2022, she participated in the Warrior Games in Florida and won 2 gold medals in swimming and a bronze in powerlifting. In 2020, she was the only woman in the national team of Ukraine at the Invictus Games 2020 in The Hague. Since the Invictus Games 2020 were postponed to 2022 due to COVID-19, Taira missed the competition because she was in russian captivity during the competition. In the Invictus Games 2023, she became the 25th member of the national team.


You once wrote in a post that you should always do what you want to do. What other rules does Taira have in life?

Full quote: “Do what you want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.” In life, I try to do everything according to my conscience and not to lie. Justice is very important to me. I think it is the most important thing. To maintain honour and dignity, you need to live in a way that you are not ashamed of yourself or your fallen comrades. 

Many soldiers say that their sense of justice becomes heightened after participating in combat…

Absolutely. This is one of the signs of such conditions as combat stress or PTSD. Almost all soldiers experience this. 

You are a recipient of the State Department’s “World’s Bravest Woman” award, one of the 100 most influential women in the world, and a Sakharov Prize winner. What do these titles mean to you?

It’s all very relative. For example, I am recognized in the world, but I have not received any awards from the state. I don’t give much importance to these awards. But I always dedicate them to women or martyrs of this war. I believe that all these awards are the merit of those who have been supporting us, who have been donating, praying, giving their love and doing everything in their power to win throughout the nine years of war.

I see this as a recognition of the heroism of our people in this war.

War is something that can only be won by the people. And the army wins battles. And sometimes battles decide who will win, but the final victory over the enemy in all aspects can be reached only with the cooperation of the front and rear. That’s why I’m disappointed by our ability to argue with each other.

Do you notice changes in our society? Have we grown up during the years of war?

If you trace the history of wars throughout human history, the picture is the same. A normal person strives for peace, development, balance, raising children, and creating conditions for life. Therefore, as soon as the immediate threat passes, many people try to establish their everyday lives and pay less attention to the threat that has receded from their homes.

Traumatized nations, like the majority of the population of the russian Federation, seek to destroy, conquer, prove to the world that they are stronger, and blame someone for the crimes they commit themselves, and this is a classic manifestation of an inferiority complex.

We all change over time. And it’s not about the war. The history of human development is about constant change.

Who influenced the formation of your personality? 

I think, first of all, my grandfather. He was a career military man, a pilot. He was at the front throughout the Second World War and finished it with the rank of colonel. He taught me a lot about society and what honor means for a person. He made me realize that everyone, regardless of gender, has to defend the country, children and those who cannot defend themselves. He taught me to defend justice and freedom. 

I have no specific life examples. It’s a mix of heroic epics from all nations – examples of honour and dignity.

In an interview, you said that you are not afraid of much. But still, what is Taira afraid of?

I’m not afraid of anything regarding myself. I am afraid that all the suffering and deaths of our people, soldiers, and prisoners of war will be in vain if we somehow lose the war. But we don’t have to lose, considering the the actions and events I’m seeing. We will win. But the price is very high. It depresses me very much.

What should society do to ensure that the deaths are not in vain?

Those sayings that were heard in 2015, that “the guys will come back from war and make things right,” will not work. We all come back very traumatized. And we need time.

The society may not like the way those who return from war implement changes, if the society does not understand their motives. Sometimes the injuries of the soldiers are so serious that some may not be able to recover completely. We will definitely not be able to return to the pre-war state. We are talking about those who took part in battles or survived encirclement, occupation, losses, and captivity. 

It is impossible to become the person you were before the war. But you can still live with these traumas. If you work hard on yourself, it can be of great benefit to society.

I’m talking about post-traumatic personal growth. And this should also be a joint effort between soldiers and civilians, because this task often requires the help of qualified specialists.

My dream is a completely new country. Not a rebuilding of the old one, but a new Ukraine, as a model for the whole world. Soldiers who have the strength and inspiration will undoubtedly be able to make a great contribution to the development of a new Ukraine. 

But civil society must reconsider its attitude towards the military. Society must realise whom it is dealing with. It is not necessary to hang around someone’s neck and shout: “Our heroes” is also too much. Just let everyone know that you respect this sacrifice. Anyone who has been in combat has made a sacrifice, and society has no right to judge or devalue that contribution. 

When people say: “They fought there and received 100 thousand UAH each,” I would like to remind you that everyone has the opportunity to join the army and earn those money and show us how to fight.

Just show us that you realize the sacrifice made by every veteran and soldier. And in return, you will receive respect and adequate treatment from the military. 

Do you even burnout?

I don’t know what it is. As a psychologist, I understand what it means, but I have never experienced it.

The wives of guys who are in captivity often say that they “feel” their husbands. After your release from captivity, you said that you felt the support of Ukrainians. How was it?

It’s like love, you can’t explain it.

But when you’re constantly under psychological pressure, how do you hold on to a thread of faith so as not to lose it?

We must remember that russians are constantly lying. They lie all the time. It was obvious to me that they were lying, because when they said that they were aomst dove with Ivano-Frankivsk, I heard the sounds of battle approximately from the area of Pisky. That is, I knew the approximate time of day and where the sun goes down. The sounds of battle were coming from there. I told them that our allies must have given us good weapons, that they are able to reach from Ivano-Frankivsk to Donetsk. 

What gave you the most strength in captivity?

Physical and breathing exercises. I have been practising yoga and martial arts for many years. These are practices that allow you to control your emotions and body. I walked around the cell a lot, measured how many meters it was in length and set a goal to walk at least four kilometers a day. I managed to do it. I don’t remember how many steps there were in four kilometers, but I remember how long the cells were. 

Stubbornness helped. I am very stubborn.

And faith in justice.

Can you explain the inhumanity of russians? Why are they like this?

It is their historical traditions and national peculiarities. In my opinion, russians are completely inadequate, because normal people won’t behave that way. Sometimes it seems to me that they are out of their minds. I don’t take offence to people with mental problems. Of course, forgiveness and sentiment are out of the question. 

I see the reasons for this in power of the well-organised propaganda, insufficient level of education, and historical traditions. For russians, mockery of their own kind is a common thing to do.

Travelers from Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries who described the life of russians same way as it is now. Only the clothes have changed a little. It’s a country that lives in the past and wants to put us there too.

What impressed you the most after your release from captivity, when you came out of the information vacuum?

I have a personal peculiarity – I recover morally quite quickly. I was in the hospital for two weeks, and all that time I was watching videos and finding out what was happening. The worst thing for me was to find out how many of my friends and comrades had died during my forced absence. It was terrible.

I was inspired by our people, who found the strength to postpone the next round of arguments and unite to fight back against the enemy. And now, when people cannot reach the enemy’s throat, they cling to each other. I really want us to reconsider our attitude to everything, because really, the war can only be won by the whole nation stands together. 

To what extent did the war change you and does it bother you that society divides the war into the first years and the full-scale war?

I don’t feel that I have changed, neither during the war nor during the captivity. My essence remained the same. Although the body has certainly changed.

I’m a paramedic, and I know better than anyone that death doesn’t care whether it’s ATO or war. You cannot tell death that this is some kind of wrong war. Death does not care how much money you have, and what kind of mistresses and cars you have. It doesn’t give a damn about all your whims and showing off. Death is death, and war is war, whether it’s the ATO or a full-scale war.

Do you see the war ending?

All wars end. I am very concerned about how the war will end.

Fallen soldiers and innocent civilians are craving for revenge. I am not inclined to demand that we kill everyone, but we cannot permit ourselves any sympathy for those criminals. If we forgive them or forget what they’ve done, they will come back again. Just like Baturin came back.

What do you see as your main mission?

According to my oath, I have to serve the Ukrainian people wherever I am and whatever I do. I am surprised that fate has prepared for me – with my current volunteer diplomatic mission – to tell the world what crimes the russians are committing on our lands and what is happening in captivity. I am glad that I can help the country in this way. But I hope, if my health allows, to return to the front as a paramedic to save boys and girls. I would like to end the war by saving the wounded. This is the best job in the world.

Why do you participate in the Invictus Games?

Now it’s just a duty – to put a “tick” in the list of things that were postponed “for later”. The time for the INVICTUS has come.


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