Democracy Lab

They Were 'Gentle, Loving, and Tender, Like Girls'

A conversation with the mother of the Tsarnaevs.

MAKHACHKALA, Russia — Zubeidat Tsarnaeva sat down on the soft rug in her bedroom and grabbed my hand. She was shivering slightly under her long, conservative dress. An Islamic ring tone buzzed on her phone. I noticed the sharp, precise line drawn very carefully on her eye contour -- impressive, especially to somebody who has never been good with an eye-pencil. Her skinny face was framed by a tight black hijab. The ring tone went off again on her phone -- no doubt another Western journalist asking for an interview with the "mother of terrorists."

Contrasting emotions ran through Zubeidat like light shadows on a windy and cloudy day. One moment she shouted at a reporter who dared to use the word "Salafi" to describe her sons. The next moment she hugged her guests.  And a few minutes later, she seemed to enjoy praising her sons with a coquettish smile -- especially the older one, Tamerlan, who was clearly was the biggest, most passionate love of her life. The way he hugged her, the way he kissed her, the words of love her son used with his "little mommy," as he called her, were her fond memories.  Did she feel any affection for her husband Anzor? "No, I hated my husband! We drifted away from each other when we lived in America," she said with a smirk. But her sons? They were perfect for her: "gentle, loving, and tender, like girls." She blamed the FBI for setting up her "innocent children."

It was true that she hated America with all her heart. After all, it was the land that took her only sons from her. Did she say she felt sorry for the people in Boston, the injured bodies, ruined lives?  She did not mention it, at least not to the small group of journalists who interviewed her Thursday.

In the past week, the mother of the two young men accused of carrying out last week's bombing at the Boston Marathon has become a globally known figure. But here in Dagestan, being the mother of suspected terrorists hardly makes one unique. "There are over 1,000 of us," Zhanna Ismailova, 45, told me the other day. Last year, Ismailova's sons, Rashid, 27, and Ruslan, 32, were kidnapped, allegedly by Interior Ministry special services, soon after bombs blew up at a checkpoint called Aliaska outside Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, killing 13 people and injuring around 100 others. Zhanna found Ruslan in a prison hundreds of miles away, in Vladikavkaz, where he is still waiting for his trial. But her youngest boy, Rashid, is still missing. "Of course it was the FSB and the [Interior Ministry's] Center Against Extremism who hung all the blame on my son," Zhanna says. Today, Ismailova's once happy and full house feels quiet. But she is ready to feed her sons Dagestan's traditional dumpling dinner any moment should they walk in the door.

According to the regional news site Caucasian Knot, 1,089 people were killed by violence in Dagestan between January 2010 and March 2013. A senior officer from the local branch of the Interior Ministry told me that there are dozens of distinct insurgencies in Dagestan with differing goals and ideologies. Many young religious men yearn for the "forest," the euphemism for the guerrilla lifestyle in the forested hills, romanticizing the war as righteous resistance against the corrupt, unfair, and often violent authorities. Do mothers justify their sons' actions? "Not a single mother of a suspected terrorist would ever admit that her son had done something bad," Serazhudin Datsiyev, human rights activist with the NGO Memorial, says.

As for Zubeidat, before she converted to what she calls her "new beliefs" four years ago -- in the United States, not Dagestan -- and began wearing the hijab, she lived in a different world. She wore bright colored suits and open-collared shirts. Her hair was made up. She took English courses at a college. "She was always devoted to beauty, professionally. She had a job of a cosmetologist in America," Patimat Suleimanova, the wife of Zubeidat's brother, told me. The family enjoyed their life in Boston. They drove their comfortable Mercedes to shop in malls.

Shopping was something of a passion for her, one she shared with Tamerlan, who favored pointed crocodile leather shoes. When she moved back to Dagestan last year, escaping a shoplifting charge, her collection of her fashionable clothes, accessories, and jewelry traveled with her. Some velvet and silk designer skirts and shirts were hanging on the laundry dryer in the corner of her bedroom. To Dagestan's conservative Muslim women, Zubeidat still looks a secular Western lady. She wears silver ballet shoes and carries a most probably fake Louis Vuitton purse. "She never forgets that she is a woman," says Kheda Saratova, a human rights defender from Grozny who is representing the family.

To hear Zubeidat tell it, her life has been a series of persecutions by vindictive governments. "Anzor and I have been footballed around Chechnya, Kalmykia; we went everywhere together, as we were young enthusiastic Komsomols [Communist youth]. We even lived in cold Novosibirsk," she says. They were always right. It was the system that was wrong. The Russian state sent bombs and destroyed their family house in Chechnya; Kyrgyzstan did not give her daughters passports so now they cannot come to visit her in Dagestan; and Americans "set up" her sons and even blame her for encouraging terrorism. "I do not know what a terrorist operation is!" she shouted at a recent press conference, waving her hands in a theatrical manner.

But Tsarnaeva rarely cries -- she can turn her emotions on and off as if she had a remote control for her own feelings. Somewhere deeply inside her, the realization that her entire life is ruined is ticking like a slow bomb. A crash is coming. Her cancer-stricken husband, Anzor, feels worse and worse. On Thursday, he said he was going to America to bury their son and "investigate the truth" about the attack on the marathon, but today, Friday, he is in sick, as pale as paper, shaking under a blanket. The couple has decided to escape from journalists and stay with his family in Chechnya for a while. "She most probably has been always hysterical but the loss is a serious trauma that can drive her, like other Dagestan mothers, into serious neuroses," says Yan Goland, a Russian psychiatrist specializing on women's post-traumatic stress.

Even with one of her sons dead and the other severely wounded and facing a possible death sentence, Tsarnaeva denies that the conservative strain of Islam to which she and her sons recently converted had a bad influence on her family. She speaks fondly of a red-bearded Armenian man who came to their house and shared knowledge of what she describes as pure Islam. Misha was "a crystal-clear and intellectual man" who gave her family a positive example, she recalls. (Other members of the family have blamed Misha for "brainwashing" Tamerlan.)

Does she have anybody to guide or protect her now? It's difficult to know whom to trust. She believes that an American lawyer who has been on the phone with her ever day is unreliable -- "What if she lies to us?" - and that the crowds of journalists hunting her around Makhachkala "have their own interests." She admits that her moods constantly go up and down. "There are moments when I am completely out and moments when I take control of myself," she says.

"Yesterday I wanted to die but today I think I should live for my other children who are still alive," Zubeidat told me on the phone late at night after many hours of being questioned by Russian and U.S. officials. She is, after all, still a mother.

EPA/SERGEY RASULOV/NEWS TEAM

Democracy Lab

The Invisible War

Russians weren't paying much attention to their own war on terror. But that was before the attacks in Boston.

MOSCOW — The page on the Russian social networking site VKontakte features two images of a 19-year-old man, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who's suspected of involvement in the Boston bomb attacks. One is a self-portrait, in black and white, that casts him as proud and ambitious. The other shows the young man hugging a male friend at a kitchen table, looking for all the world like two happy, ordinary teenagers.

The biographical information is sparse: Born on July, 22. Not married. Languages: Russian, English, and Noxçiyn mott (Chechen). Education: School Number One in the city of Makhachkala, 1999-2001, Cambridge and Latin School 2011, Boston. Religion: Islam. The most important goal in life: career and money.

The young man was a resident of Boston, but he inhabited an entirely different world online. On his page he links to several Russian-language sites frequented by radical young Muslims. His interests: "Everything about Chechnya," "Chechens," Mosques," and "Islam" -- as well as something called "the Corporation of Evil," which describes itself as "a magazine of sarcasm to mock your friends." The participants in the groups, who seem to consist primarily of ultraconservative Salafis from around Russia, discuss the issues that Muslims face there on an everyday basis, ranging from the lack of mosques in cities in Siberia or European Russia to the human rights abuses that have taken place in regions of the country where Islam is prominent. Even though he had lived in Boston for more than a decade, the younger Tsarnaev was still an active participant in the Russian Muslim community. But does that really explain why Dzhokhar and his older brother Tamerlan (who was killed during a police shootout on Friday) would want to destroy the lives of people in Boston?

"There could be several reasons for Muslims to hold a grudge against America," Gulnara Rustamova, a human rights advocate for Salafi Muslims in Dagestan, told me. "Americans kill Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq. That could be the motive for these young men."

The family of the two Tsarnaev brothers appears to have lived for a while in the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan (a place that became home to many Chechens after Stalin deported them from their home republic in 1944). Later the family moved back to the North Caucasus, settling in Dagestan, a republic with a population of about three million that borders on Chechnya. The family emigrated from there to the United States in 2002.

Not long ago Dagestan was still a relatively peaceful place. But that began to change after Chechen guerrillas fought two disastrous wars for their independence from Russia -- the first from 1994 to 1996, the second starting in 1999. In the end, Russia used its military might to tamp down the rebellion, above all by persuading some powerful Chechen clans to switch to their side. But the Kremlin's indiscriminate use of artillery, airpower, and punitive raids ensured that the appearance of stability remained superficial. In reality the insurgency in Chechnya not only continued, but soon spread to other parts of the North Caucasus that are home to large Muslim populations. The number of attacks, bombings, and counterinsurgency operations in Dagestan in particular has steadily risen over the years.

To make matters worse, the region's Muslims are not only fighting against Moscow. In many cases they've also begun to fight each other. The rise of ultraconservative, Saudi Arabia-style Salafism in the region has increasingly pitted its adherents against the more moderate Sufis who traditionally make up a big part of the local Muslim population. (In this context, it's noteworthy that Tamerlan Tsarnaev used his YouTube page to denounce a video that showed Caucasian Sufis burying one of their own, alleging that their rituals make them "idolaters.")

In fact, the dirty war in the region is accelerating. Special operations by Russian security forces and terror attacks by Islamic fundamentalists take dozens of lives. In the first four months of this year alone, 67 people have fallen victim to terror attacks in Dagestan, but the news media hardly mention the casualties. Russians only pay attention to the insurgency when suicide bombers attack the Moscow subway or the airport. Whenever this happens, experts invariably urge the Kremlin to analyze why the jihad by Salafi community in North Caucasus keeps on simmering.

"We do report on victims, disappearances, extrajudicial executions, kidnappings, and torture happening all over North Caucasus, but people are tired of hearing about it," said Tatyana Lokshina, director of the Human Rights Watch office in Moscow. "A terror attack on Boston that is so far away from Russia concerns Russians much more than what is happening in the south of the own country," she added.

It was a remark that struck home. I've been covering the turmoil in the North Caucasus for 13 years now -- ever since the Second Chechen War convulsed the region yet again. I tracked the radicalization of young Muslims in the republics adjoining Chechnya as they began to talk of creating an independent state based on sharia, to be called the "Caucasus Emirate."

Some of them took up arms, committing guerrilla attacks against Russian institutions. The Russians responded by unleashing their special forces, regular army, and police against anyone who sympathized with the movement. But with wars going on in Afghanistan and Iraq, my editors' interest in stories from this seemingly obscure area waned. Why would anyone pay attention to places like Dagestan or Chechnya when there were conflicts aflame all over the Middle East?

I remember how much effort it took to persuade my editors to allow me to cover the murder of my colleague and friend Natalia Estemirova, the prominent human rights activist. She was shot dead in Chechnya -- by whom, precisely, remains obscure. A few journalists traveled to Grozny to say goodbye at her funeral. It was sad to see how small the group was. But it wasn't only the West that had lost interest in Russia's local wars. Just a few years ago I remember how some editors at a Russian radio station asked me why I'd gone to the trouble to interview Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, the most powerful leader in North Caucasus. "Why do you keep going to the North Caucasus?" they asked me. Their marketing research had showed that only 13 percent of their listeners showed any interest in news from the region.

Last weekend, as reported by monitors from the human rights organization Memorial, tanks and artillery bombarded an area outside the Dagestani town of Gimry (pop. 4,000). Hundreds of people with small children left their homes and fled to a neighboring community called Temroary, where they filled apartments and houses to overflowing. Men had to sleep in their cars or in mosques.

For weeks, Russian police and security service forces have been fighting what they describe as a "special operation" against a guerrilla group in the Gimry area. The fighting has left more than two thousand displaced people without their clothes, valuables, or food. And yet even the local newspapers (much less the media in Moscow) provided little coverage of the crisis. "We Muslims of Dagestan are treated as if we are not citizens of Russia and all newspapers talk about is the terror attack on Boston," one refugee, Napisat Magomedova, told me.

"Gimry? Is that in Armenia?" Aleksei Venediktov, the editor of Ekho Moskvy radio station, asked me in an interview today. When it happens on a daily basis, he explained, even terrorism can make people tired and indifferent: "Dagestan is just like Ireland during The Troubles there, when an explosion at a gas station didn't make much news." He noted that many Russian nationalists tend to refer to Dagestan and Chechnya as if they're foreign states. They've been known to demand that the Kremlin build a wall and separate the region from the rest of Russia.

But today the news that two Boston terrorists might be Chechens lit up the Internet. "How can it be?" another wrote, referring to the younger Tsarnaev's self-professed interest in a lucrative career. "Are they some sort of bourgeois neo-Islamists? Interesting combination! So they believe in Allah and Mammon? Real believers don't value career and money most." "Americans are paying for supporting the ‘Chechen freedom fighters,'" commented another. "This is all fake! Americans take somebody from a ‘risk group' -- refugees, Muslims -- and create the conditions for an arrest." Few seemed to accept the more obvious conclusion: That the traumas caused by the lingering war in the North Caucasus have now reached all the way to the United States.