A volunteer Ukrainian medic detained in the besieged port city of Mariupol told the US Congress on Thursday of comforting fellow detainees as many died during her three months of captivity, cradling and consoling them as best she could, as prisoners succumbed to Russian torture and untreated wounds.
Yuliia Paievska, who was captured by pro-Russian forces in Mariupol in March and held at shifting locations in Russian-allied territory in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, spoke to members of Congress with the Commission on Security and Co-operation in Europe, better known as the Helsinki Commission, a US government agency created in part to promote international compliance with human rights.
Her accounts on Thursday were the most she has detailed publicly about her treatment in captivity in what Ukrainians and international rights groups say are widespread detentions of both civilians and soldiers by Russian forces.
Ms Paievska and her care of Mariupol’s wounded received global attention after her bodycam footage was provided to The Associated Press.
“Do you know why we do this to you?” a Russian asked Ms Paievska as he tortured her, she told the commission.
“Because you can," she had answered.
Searing descriptions of the suffering of detainees poured out during her testimony. A 7-year-old boy died in her lap because she had none of the medical gear she needed to treat him, she said.
Torture sessions usually began with their captors forcing the Ukrainian prisoners to remove their clothes before the Russians set to torturing them she said.
The result was some “prisoners in cells screaming for weeks, and then dying from the torture without any medical help”, she said.
“Then in this torment of hell, the only things they feel before death is abuse and additional beating.”
She continued, recounting the toll among the imprisoned Ukrainians.
“My friend whose eyes I closed before his body cooled down. Another friend. And another. Another.”
Ms Paievska said she was taken into custody after being stopped in a routine document check. She was one of thousands of Ukrainians believed to have been taken prisoner by Russian forces.
Mariupol’s mayor said that 10,000 people from his city alone disappeared during what was the months-long Russian siege of that city.
The Geneva Conventions single out medics, both military and civilian, for protection “in all circumstance”. Benjamin L Cardin, a Maryland Democratic senator and co-chairman of the Helsinki Commission, underscored that the conditions she described for civilian and military detainees violated international law.
Joe Wilson, a Republican representative from South Carolina, called Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal.
“It is critical that the world hear the stories of those who endured the worst under captivity,” Mr Wilson said. “Evidence is essential to prosecution of war crimes.”
Before she was captured, Ms Paievska had recorded more than 256 gigabytes of harrowing bodycam footage showing her team’s efforts to save the wounded in the cut-off city. She got the footage to AP journalists, the last international team in Mariupol, on a tiny data card.
The journalists fled the city on March 15 with the card embedded inside a tampon, carrying it through 15 Russian checkpoints. The next day, Ms Paievska was taken by pro-Russia forces.
Members of Congress played the AP video of her footage on Thursday.
She said the AP report that showed her caring for Russian and Ukrainian soldiers alike, along with civilians of Mariupol, was critical to her release in a prisoner exchange.
Ms Paievska previously had declined to speak in detail to journalists about conditions in detention, only describing it, broadly, as hell. She swallowed heavily at times on Thursday while testifying.
Ukraine’s government says it has documented about 34,000 Russian war crimes since the conflict began in February. The International Criminal Court and 14 European Union member nations have also launched investigations.
The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine says it has documented that prisoners of war in Russian custody have suffered torture and ill-treatment, as well as insufficient food, water, health care and sanitation.
Russia has not responded to the allegations. Both the UN and the International Red Cross say they have been denied access to prisoners.
Ms Paievska, who said she suffered headaches during her detention as the result of a concussion from an earlier explosion, told Congress she had asked her captors to let her call her husband, to let him know what had happened to her.
“They said, ‘You have seen too many American movies. There will be no phone call,’” she recounted.
Her tormentors during her detention would sometimes urge her to kill herself, she said.
“I said, ‘No. I will see what happens tomorrow.'”