KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — “I am dying,” Olesya Zhukovska, a 21-year-old volunteer medic, wrote on Twitter, minutes after she got shot in the neck by a sniper’s bullet as deadly clashes broke out in the center of the Ukrainian capital between protesters and police.
The tweet, accompanied by a photo of her clutching her bleeding neck and being led away under fire, went viral, as social media users around the world presumed she had died and shared their grief and anger.
But Zhukovska survived.
She has become a symbol of the three-month protest of President Viktor Yanukovych’s government and a movement for closer ties with the West and human rights.
“We stand for freedom, for our rights, for social independence, for democracy, for freedom of speech, for everything, for a normal life,” she told The Associated Press from her hospital bed in Kiev.
Zhukovska was injured Thursday morning, when government snipers began firing at protesters on Independence Square, known as Maidan, a bastion of the demonstrations that began in November to protest Yanukovych’s decision to freeze ties with the European Union and seek financial aid from Russia.
Scores were killed and hundreds injured in clashes this week in the deadliest violence Ukraine has seen in modern history. In the course of the protests, police have deliberately targeted journalists wearing press identification and medics labeled with white crosses, prompting an international outcry.
Zhukovska, from a small town in western Ukraine, is a jolly paramedic with wavy dark hair and a birth mark on her right cheek. She has been volunteering as a nurse in the opposition’s sprawling tent camp on the Maidan for nearly three months, sleeping in tents, in dormitories set up in several administrative buildings seized by protesters, and in the homes of sympathetic Kiev residents.
“I am apolitical, I am not member of any party. I am simply with the people,” a weak and pale-looking Zhukovska, her neck bandaged, told the AP. “I couldn’t watch this on TV. I had to be with the people.”
She said she was shot as she walked around the camp with several friends. She became disoriented and thought that a grenade had exploded near her.
“And then they told me: `Sweetheart, a sniper has shot you,'” Zhukovska recalled. “Then I looked at my hands and they were covered in blood, and I said, that’s it, I am dying.”
One photo making the rounds on social media shows Zhukovska looking shocked, her eyes closed, clutching her bleeding neck and being led away by activists. As soon as she was taken to an ambulance, she said, she grabbed her phone and with fingers covered with blood, she tapped out “I am dying,” on her Vkontakte account, the local equivalent of Facebook. It is also linked to her Twitter page. Then, a doctor in the ambulance took the phone away.
Soon, Twitter exploded with expressions of sorrow and rage, as many users feared she was dead. As of Friday night, Zhukovska’s post has generated more than 6,200 retweets. After hours of agonized waiting Thursday night, Oleh Musiy, a top medic for the protesters, told AP that Zhukovska had survived. Mykola Dyomin, head doctor at Hospital No. 17, where Zhukovska was admitted, said she has undergone surgery and should be discharged in about a week.
“I am alive! Thank you to all those who are praying and supporting me,” she tweeted Friday. “I am in the hospital; my condition is stable for now!”
Health Minister Raisa Bohatyryova, a top Yanukovych ally, visited the hospital where Zhukovska and scores of other injured activists were being treated Friday. She condemned violence against Zhukovska and said the government was not to blame.
“Everything should be investigated,” she told reporters. “But if today, we as society, start assigning grades to everyone or passing personal judgments, it would be wrong, it wouldn’t be safe.”
Bohatyryova’s words fell flat with one protester at the hospital, who shouted at her with his voice trembling with rage: “If only you knew, bitch, what I have lived through! I will never forgive you for what you did.”
Zhukovska’s spirit was unwavering.
“As soon as I get better, of course, I will go to the Maidan,” she said.