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.