The photo taken in Odessa's trade union building. FRANCE 24 blurred the woman's face. 
A photo showing the dead body of a woman who appears to be pregnant, sprawled atop a desk, has sparked numerous rumours on social media networks. Many Internet users have claimed that, contrary to the official version, this Ukrainian woman was strangled when pro-Kiev ultranationalists attacked a building in Odessa. The photo is now sharpening propaganda on both sides of the Ukrainian crisis. The FRANCE 24 Observers team decided to investigate.
On May 2, clashes broke out between Ukrainian ultranationalists and pro-Russian separatists in Odessa, a largely Russian-speaking city in the country’s south. Pro-Russians had taken refuge in a trade union building, which was then attacked by the ultranationalists. Live bullets were fired, and Molotov cocktails were thrown on both sides, causing the building to catch fire. At least 40 people were killed, mainly pro-Russian separatists who were asphyxiated, according to the Ukrainian authorities.
Following this tragedy, several photos of bodies inside the building were published on social media networks. Most of these bodies are charred, but not all. The day after the fire, a photo of a lifeless woman (see below) was shared widely, notably by pro-Russians.
In France, websites close to the radical left as well as to the far-right have been reposting the photo. They present it as proof that, among the May 2 victims, some were killed in cold blood, not from asphyxiation. Some writers even claim that this woman was strangled with an electric cord that can be seen on the desk. All of them are outraged over the fact that the woman was pregnant.
A photo taken the day after the tragedy
The photo was taken by a woman who goes by the name “Alena”. Alena says she went to the scene the day after the fire to search for a relative who had disappeared. She first published the photo on May 3 in a Facebook album retracing her visit through the building. She then reposted it in on her Facebook wall on May 7, along with a short explanation. She wrote that, following numerous reactions to this photo, she wanted to clarify the context in which it was taken. She says she took it on the building’s fourth floor, and that she regrets not photographing more angles of the body in order to help understand the reasons for her death.
The victim was not pregnant
In the same post, Alena says that the dead woman was rather old and that she doubts she could have been pregnant, contrary to the rumours circulating online. In the photo, the woman indeed appears to be at least 50 years old.
Meanwhile, journalists in Odessa asked both the local hospital and the morgue that dealt with the victims whether they had heard of this mysterious woman. Both establishments said that there were no pregnant women among the victims. The Ukrainian authorities confirmed this.
One of our sources also told us he exchanged emails with a relative of the woman. This source claims the victim had “nothing do to do with the separatists” and was simply an employee of the trade union house.
Death by asphyxiation? “Unlikely”
Medical reports conclude that most of the victims died due to the fire, and some from gunshot wounds, which the authorities say could be stray bullets. However, as many Internet users have pointed out, the woman’s position on the desk seems rather strange. We showed the photo to a coroner. This was his reaction:
“We cannot exclude the possibility of asphyxiation. However, the body’s position does not correspond with what you would expect would happen when someone suddenly loses consciousness. You would expect to find them on the ground. This position, with her bottom on the desk, makes me think that someone placed her there. The absence of any trace of the fire in the room also makes asphyxiation seem unlikely, though of course we cannot completely rule out the emission of toxic gases, since we don’t know when the window was opened.” The doctor added that strangulation, or a strike on the head, are both possibilities that could explain her death.
Cold-blooded executions?
It is difficult to make out what really happened when the trade union building was attacked. According to several witnesses, who were cited by Russian media outlets, people were “strangled and beaten with bats” inside the building. They accuse pro-Kiev nationalist radicals. These testimonies are unverifiable, since none of the videos that have emerged up until now show this. However, this version of events has been relayed by Internet users who claim the video below supports their theory. At 0’23 minutes, you can hear a woman scream; later, at 2’10, someone waves a Ukrainian flag out of one of the building’s windows. Some believe this proves the pro-Kiev ultranationalists committed violence acts; others say the flag could have been waved by pro-Russians seeking to discredit their enemies.
Ukrainian police have launched an inquiry into the Odessa tragedy. However, much of the evidence has already disappeared, since the building wasn’t closed off to the public right after the fire. The police explain that closing it would have provoked riots.
Meanwhile, at the political level, Ukraine and Russia are pointing fingers at each other. The Ukrainian authorities believe this violence was provoked by paramilitaries from Transnistria, supported by Moscow. The Russian authorities, meanwhile, accuse the “junta” in Kiev and its Western allies of being responsible for these deaths.
Though more than 40 people died in the incidents of May 2, the Ukrainian authorities still don’t seem to know exactly what happened. This scarcity of information explains why so many rumours have emerged around the “strangled woman of Odessa”, who for pro-Russians has become a symbol of the West’s partiality in the Ukrainian crisis.
This photo was originally posted here.