PeoplePolitics

American Film Crew Escapes Death in Mariupol

by Filipp Velgach March 16, 2014

Photos by Filipp Velgach.

On Saturday afternoon, five American filmmakers, a German tourist, and three Ukrainian assistants were attacked in Mariupol while filming at a pro-Russian rally gathered at City Hall. They barely escaped with their lives. I am one of those extremely fortunate Americans.

We came to Mariupol on Wednesday as a group of six to wrap up filming a documentary “Gennadiy” about a local children’s orphanage and rehabilitation facility. On the way back to our hotel after shooting an interview in Mariupol’s suburb, we decided to film the rally, which took place just several blocks from where we were staying. Russian flags and Soviet banners lined the city steps and a megaphone boomed professing Mariupol’s support for the Russian President Vladimir Putin. Gennadiy Mokhnenko, a pastor and the orphanage’s director, accompanied the film crew to the rally. The group was composed at that time of two cameramen, the director, the sound mixer, the producer, two assistants, and myself—a Russian-speaking interpreter.

Attending the “meeting” was, admittedly, a terrible idea. We garnered immediate attention from the crowd, though the attention seemed positive at first. The driver, the tourist, and the local interpreter stayed in the van as we went to film. The crowd, as we estimated, was anywhere from 300-500 people deep. Of the many anecdotal comments we heard, the funniest came from two women who scolded us for arriving two hours late to the gathering, which they claimed to be much larger at the 11:00AM start time. “We are locals, and we support Russia!,” one woman told me, adding that she can show me her papers to prove she was Ukrainian in an attempt to curtail rumors that pro-Russian rallies are organized and led by Russians making their way across the border.

The atmosphere was tense, but relatively peaceful, and remained this way for about 5 minutes. The crew began to filter through the crowd to capture as much of the crowd as possible. Our crew likely looked to the rally-goers as journalists, given the fact that we were walking around with cameras and a boom microphone. Rumors of us as being American journalists circulated quickly through the crowd. Trouble began when two tall gentlemen—though they were anything but gentlemen—came up to the producer and myself and lectured us on America’s role in the growing conflict and then called us “scum” and “traitors.” The producer of course had no idea what they were saying. They proceeded to cite more accusations which I cannot quote directly due to the profanity that they added to every syllable. “Maybe we should rough up you Americans,” he said somewhat jokingly, though with a tangible hint of evil. Laughing and agreeing with the tall Russians with an uneasy grin to diffuse the situation at hand, I thought it was a good idea to locate Gennadiy and suggest (demand) leaving the rally. Gennadiy and myself found the director who was shooting video at the time, and started to pull back to the van, which was now parked on the opposite side of the plaza from where we got out.

Within a minute we gathered all but two members of the initial group. Cameraman Two and the assistant were on the top steps filming the rally top-down and were well out of reach. The situation escalated quickly at that point. A short elderly drunk Russian man swung at Cameraman One, who was equipped with a Canon C300 camera, though the man only clipped our cameraman. That was enough to get the entire group panicked and we picked up our pace. The producer led the charge back to the van as I trailed close behind. I informed Gennadiy that we left two people back in the crowd and he went back to look for them. Vitalik, a former street kid and a graduate of Gennadiy’s school for orphans, was with us at the time and acted as a body guard. We saw Vitalik throw himself at three men who were trailing us with fists clenched. That was the point at which things went totally downhill. Shouting and cussing increased and a portion of the crowd, mostly men, broke from the main rally and started to chase after us. A shout provoking the crowd rang out—“They’re Americans! Americans!” At this point we were sprinting to the van, but the crowd caught up to us quickly as crew members were carrying cumbersome and heavy equipment.

We were lucky to have all gotten in the van, but that was only the beginning of our troubles. We were surrounded almost instantaneously by about 50 people chanting “Russia! Russia!,” waving a flag in our direction. They grabbed my leg and tried to pull me out of the van as I held on to the door. At this time I was overcome with adrenaline and caution. I yelled back that “we’re all from Vladik,” short for Vladikavkaz, the name of the city I was born in, in the Russian republic of North Ossetia. The intent was to show that we were Russians to quell the angst of the anti-Americans. That move was surprisingly effective, though it only bought us a few seconds. But every second proved precious.

Us bearded Americans drew the ire of the crowd as more people surrounded the van. They demanded to see our documents, which we of course would never surrender as our passports were the most important documents we had. You could tell from the collective eyes of the mob that they had bad intentions. The mob turned extremely violent and a fury of punches fell into the van.

Our attackers were mostly men in their 30s through 50s. Just as the driver got the van moving, Natasha, the local interpreter, was nearly pulled out of the van. I was able to grab her hand at the last second and the crew behind me was keeping me from being pulled out along with her. The only thing holding the crowd back was Vitalik who was blocking the doorway from protestors. One rioter punched him in the back of the head and sprayed blue ink in his ear and all over his face. In a fateful moment, Vitalik helped close the door from the outside effectively leaving himself out and soon found himself consumed by the crowd—a true sacrifice that none of us will ever forget. The van finally moved. From there, the video does the story the more justice.

The van tried to make its initial escape, but it crashed into a truck as the mob steered the vehicle left. The gangs surrounded the van and started breaking out windows. Slava, the driver, was pulled out of the car, but somehow made his way back into the car, though not before an arm reached in to spray tear gas into the van. The van took off, clearing the mob out of the way with the bumper and hood. Several men chased the van and knocked out the back and side windows.

The great irony of the whole ordeal was that Gennadiy’s van had a logo with a Russian flag taped to it to promote his campaign for “Russia without Orphans.” The van had traveled the entirety of Russia in the last three years in the promotional campaign. The van was full of completely defenseless people, and the two ladies waiting in the van were innocent as they were not even at the scene of our “provocation.” Not to mention that one of the girls was a German national, and any attack on a foreigner always opens the door to international conflict, which the rioters could obviously care less about. They destroyed a van belonging to an orphanage, and they attacked three people that devote their lives to working at an orphanage who had absolutely no connection to the film crew. The mob was just out to riot. There was not an ounce of effort devoted to diplomacy. We were, however, pleased to see the condemnation of the mob’s actions by viewers and witnesses and the few people at the scene that tried to calm the mob. Nevertheless, the rioters’ attempts to inflict severe pain and destroy property is absolutely unacceptable behavior.

As the van made its way away from the plaza with its severely cracked windshield, we noticed that a red car started to follow us, honking the entire way. If things were bad then, they only got worse. A gun made its way out of the driver-side window and shot out our back tire. The van immediately lost speed as the axel smashed against the numerous potholes that line Ukrainian roads. Our driver called the police and informed them of our location. Anita, who was visiting the orphanage from Germany, had been in the van the entire time. She yelled as the red car pulled alongside trying to shoot out the windows. The producer ducked and we followed suit. Meanwhile the director covered his face with his hoody just in time to keep flying glass from tearing up his face. Lucky for us, the projectiles being shot were likely just metal pellets that could not pierce the body of the car. They were successful in knocking out a window, however, and also successful in making everyone consider the possibility of death. The chase continued for close to five minutes. We were driving toward the police station in another district of Mariupol, and the red car turned onto a side road and quit the pursuit one block from the police station likely sensing our aims to seek safety there.

We pulled into the police station and ran toward the doors where police were waiting—Slava’s call had apparently gone through. We spent the following hour in the lobby of the police station, though this hardly calmed us down as we were worried sick about our other crew member left at the scene along with Gennadiy, his assistant Tanya, and Vitalik. Interestingly enough, the guys we left behind at the rally escaped without incident as the crowd charged the larger group and forgot about the other three. They met us at the police station several hours later. Vitalik, too, arrived at the police station himself all beaten and bruised, but very much alive. In fact, he refused to stay at the station and insisted on going to work in the evening.

Our producer contacted the production company back in the U.S. and had them order us tickets for the earliest flight out of Ukraine that did not lay over in Russia. Only Turkish and German flights offered that option. We were in a hurry to get out and opted out of pressing any charges or to proceed with an investigation. It was difficult to convince the lieutenant, but the police eventually agreed to let us go. As the only Russian-speaking member of the film crew, I gave statements on behalf of the other Americans. We then signed written statements addressed to the police chief that we would not press charges—I feel like we performed that step at least four times. Though it was a great relief to see the police station working to help us get out of a very dicey situation with potential international implications. A police report filed on behalf of the van’s destruction served to open the investigation into the attack, but that will be dealt with locally. We were informed that there were five police cameras installed at the rally that would likely aid in catching some of the mob members. I cannot say that I care to find out about the results of the investigation. Though I do hope that protesters there come to their senses and exercise restraint over the next few weeks as tensions escalate further. We were simply filming the rally as interested documentary film makers. Some local media outlets labeled us everything ranging from Americans to Fascists to hired provocateurs.

It took about four hours to wrap everything up at the station. The police chief promised to escort us to our hotel and then to the airport. A taxi was also called to help us move. Checking out was quick—I threw away all my dirty clothes because we did not really have time to pack. Though that may have been a decision made in panic. We checked out in less than 10 minutes and headed toward the airport again with the police officer. The police station had arranged for us to meet with airport security once we arrived.

We spent the next 20 hours locked in a tiny security staff office waiting for our plane to Germany—a room much too small for 8 people. The security service provided us with protection, and even water. It certainly helped us feel safe.

All everyone could talk about was getting to Munich for safety. Another irony—finding safety in Germany in a time of war. The night spent at the airport was as good as it could be given the circumstances. We chose to stay there instead of a hotel because we felt like we should stay out of public’s view, given the rampant anti-American sentiment in Donetsk. We found that we didn’t lose or break a single piece of equipment during the chase, and aside from soreness and small wounds, we were all fine. Once at the airport, Gennadiy called several friends living in Donetsk to bring blankets. In a classic act of Ukrainian hospitality, his friends brought not only blankets, but pillows, kalbasa, bread, water, and a giant container of hot tea along with a jar of honey and Nutella. Gennadiy spent the night with us, promising to see us through security checkpoints on the way to our gate the following afternoon. The topic of death and war after such an event would seem inescapable, but the topic of staying alive prevailed. The movie nearly cost us our lives, and I think everyone will be relieved once the documentary is released.

Our near brush with death speaks volumes of the political and social unrest that prevails today in Ukraine, and will likely only escalate as the results of the Crimean referendum come in and as Russia continues to blatantly violate international law. Ukraine is facing the great potential of Civil War—a war that would be fought on the streets by the people in an environment where shameless lawlessness and mob mentalities run wild. Citizens in Ukraine do not just feel strongly about one side over the other, but some are ready to kill for their beliefs.

03-16-2014

Filipp Velgach

Donetsk International Airport, Donetsk, Ukraine.

Editorial note: Filipp Velgach and other members of the crew are now safe in Germany. They are traveling back to the U.S. on Monday.