CMU student, film crew targeted by mob in Ukraine

'I thought they were going to jump out, stop our car and shoot us ...'

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Filipp Velgach was 4 years old when he fled the war-ravaged Russian region of North Ossetia in 1994 with his parents, immigrating to the United States as refugees.

When the 24-year-old Carnegie Mellon University graduate student told his parents he planned to go to the Ukrainian city of Mariupol to serve as a translator for a Pittsburgh-based documentary film crew, they advised him against it. Though Mariupol is far from Crimea, its large Russian-speaking population has been outspoken in its support for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"You don't know what you're getting into," he recalled his father telling him. "They don't like Americans there."

That's one of the thoughts that raced through his head as he crouched on the floor of a battered van, gunshots ringing over his head, as it sped toward a police station.

"It was the hardest part knowing that I was going to die in this fashion without making peace with my parents," he said.

Mr. Velgach was one of six Pittsburghers who had traveled to Ukraine two weeks ago to work on the documentary "Gennadiy," about an activist who runs an orphanage for drug-addicted street children, when they were attacked by a mob while filming a pro-Russia rally at Mariupol's city hall last Saturday. Mr. Velgach said they became targets simply because they were American among pro-Russian Ukrainians in a tense environment where propaganda is fueling strong anti-American sentiments.

The crew was led by producer Danny Yourd and director Steve Hoover, two Art Institute of Pittsburgh graduates who work at the Downtown-based Animal production company. Mr. Yourd declined comment Friday and Mr. Hoover was not available. (They are the team behind the recent documentary "Blood Brother," which has received awards at Sundance Film Festival and national attention.)

Mr. Velgach described coming upon a protest that seemed to be winding down around 2 p.m. at city hall, riding in a van from the orphanage with Gennadiy Mokhnenko, the subject of the film. The crowd appeared to be mostly older people waving Russian and Soviet flags, he said.

But as soon as the crew waded into the crowd, "I personally sensed tension right away because I heard a lot of people noticing that we were American journalists."

From there, tempers quickly flared. People in the crowd harassed them, asked them why they were there and blamed the overthrow of the pro-Russian government in Kiev on the United States. Mr. Mokhnenko, who is well known in Mariupol, attempted to defend the film crew. But it quickly became clear that they needed to escape, Mr. Velgach said.

As he headed back to the van, a man approached him with a fist raised and grabbed his shirt. By the time he and most of the members of the crew reached the van, it was surrounded. They could not close the door, Mr. Velgach said, and someone attempted to pull him -- and then Mr. Mokhnenko's female assistant -- out of the van. Mr. Velgach screamed at them in Russian that he was from "Vladik," the short name of his Russian hometown, Vladikavkaz.

But neither that -- nor the fact the van bore a Russian flag and the word "kids" -- stopped the angry mobsters. They shook the van and broke the windows, grabbing at another crew member through a jagged hole made in the glass.

"I'm certainly getting more and more panicked. I'm already starting to think that we're going to be killed," he said.

They finally got away -- leaving behind a cameraman, another assistant and Vitalik, a local DJ who was performing at the women's prison where they had collected footage earlier that day. A video taken by a Ukrainian bystander shows the mobsters running through traffic to chase after the van.

Mr. Velgach feared the worse for the cameraman they had abandoned, but they were relieved to finally be safe. Then, a red car began tailing them and honking wildly. Mr. Velgach looked back to see people in the car with black bandanas drawn across their faces. They flew a black flag out of the car, the sign of neo-Nazis, he said. A man in the backseat stuck a gun out of the window and shot out the tires of the van, he said.

"We heard a pop, and it was just duh-duh, duh-duh, because we were driving on the back axle," he said.

Then the bullets started flying through the van's windows. He crouched down, and for the second time that day, prepared himself to die.

"I thought they were going to jump out, stop our car and shoot us, kill us, whatever," he said. "That's the point when I started to break down."

The van drove on, now losing speed because of its flattened tires. They made their way to the police station, where the red car peeled off onto a side street. There, they made statements to the police. Their cameraman arrived at the police station in a taxi unharmed. The crew made arrangements for the first flight out of Ukraine.

Police escorted them back to their hotel, where they hurriedly packed their things, and then to the airport two hours away in Donetsk. It took them another day and a half to get back to Pittsburgh.

Mr. Vergach is a doctoral candidate studying the history of the Soviet Union. Speaking in a phone interview from his Shadyside apartment, he said the experience was a powerful out-of-the-classroom lesson on the power of propaganda.

"Since I study Soviet history, I should have paid closer attention to the propaganda," he said, because he might have detected the escalating antipathy toward the United States and might have warned the crew to stay away.

"But hindsight is 20/20," he said.

Moriah Balingit:, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee.

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