The search for what radicalised the Boston bombers may lead to a Muslim republic in Russia’s war-torn southern underbelly, reports Tom Parfitt
Tom Parfitt in Makhachkala, Dagestan
As US police in Boston hunted fugitive bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on Friday, the sound of grief and despair spilled from a doorway in this ramshackle town on Russia’s Caspian coast.
The desperate cries came from the home of the young man’s parents, Anzor and Zubeidat Tsarnaev. The couple had just learned of the death of their 26-year-old son, Tamerlan – and were facing up to the fact that Dzhokhar, 19, could soon meet the same fate.
“I feel so sorry for the boys’ parents,” said shopkeeper Larisa, who works in a tiny grocery store across from the parents’ home. “They are ordinary, law-abiding people. Anzor is sick: all he buys is bananas and kefir (a yoghurt drink). When they heard the news about what happened with their sons in America, they were weeping and wailing. Their door was open and I could hear it across the street.”
Here in the republic of Dagestan, the heart of Russia’s Islamist insurgency, violent death is never far away – hundreds perish every year in bombings and shoutouts. But that does nothing to lessen the anguish the moment it visits.
This time, the men concerned met their fate far from their North Caucasus roots, apparently fighting the same jihad which drives their compatriots here in southern Russia’s rebel belt, the string of Muslim republics where Islamist guerrillas are fighting Moscow’s rule.
Makhachkala, charmless and poor, is a hotspot in this grinding war.
Apartment block where Tamerlan lived in the summer of 2012 (Dmitry Beliakov for the Telegraph)
The parents of the Tsarnaev brothers inhabit a steel-doored flat on a dusty back street, between a dentist’s and a small, shuttered shop which Anzor Tsarnaev had renovated in order to lease it out.
Nobody answered the door on Saturday and neighbours said the couple had been seen leaving the premises the previous evening, bidding farewell to relatives or friends, and driving away in a car.
A local reporter said she had spoken briefly by telephone to Zubeidat, who told her she had left to stay with relatives in neighbouring Chechnya in order to escape media attention. Anzor Tsarnaev was seen briefly in a car near his home but refused to talk, although some reports suggested he had said he wanted to go to the United States to find out what was happening with his surviving son.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Julia Malakie)
On the other side of the street at the Makhachkala address, the grocery store was selling bread, confectionery, dried fish and beer. “I know the family well,” said Larisa, who was serving behind the counter.
“Tamerlan came here to Dagestan last summer to visit his parents and he was in my shop several times. He was a handsome, well-built man, very polite. I remember it was hot and he was wearing rubber galoshes because he was helping his father put down new paving in front of the shop.”
Larisa said Tamerlan Tsarnaev had travelled to Dagestan without his American wife and their child, or his younger brother, Dkhokhar, who was captured alive in the United States late on Friday. Tamerlan said prayers, Larisa added, but was not excessively religious.
Dagestan, a swath of steppe rising to a high mountain plateau criss-crossed by gorges, is today the most violent of Russia’s Caucasus republics. Islamist fighters live in camps in patches of forest or in safe houses, some of those safe houses in remote stone villages and some in large cities like Makhachkala. They clash frequently with police and state security forces.
“The family had nothing to do with the Wahhabis,” said Vyacheslav Kazakevich, 36, a neighbour, referring to the conservative Muslims who are linked to the insurgency. “Anzor is a hard worker who does favours for people. He owns a perfume shop and he wanted to open another one here.”
Schoolchildren at the School Number One of Makhachkala (Dmitry Beliakov for the Telegraph)
Across the city at its School Number One, director Magomed Davudov said that Dkhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, as well as their two sisters, had studied there from September 2001 to March 2002, after the family arrived in Dagestan from Kyrgyzstan, where there is a Chechen community left over after the mass deportation by Joseph Stalin of the Chechen nation to Central Asia in 1944. They then left for the United States.
“They were young children then and I have only positive memories of them and their mother,” he said. “We noticed nothing negative on those children’s faces. Now I don’t only condemn what they did, I think they do not have human faces. We are deeply sorry that this terror was wrought and we express our condolences to the whole of the United States.”
Magomed Davudov (Dmitry Beliakov for the Telegraph)
While even bright young students are known to end up joining Dagestan’s jihadis – and the age of guerrillas is getting younger and younger – Mr Davudov said he was unaware of any teenagers from his school “going to the forest” – a euphemism for joining the insurgency.
The brothers had, besides, “grown up in American conditions,” he said. The director gave The Sunday Telegraph a tour of the 1900 brick-faced original wing of school, where the Tsarnaev brothers spent several months of their young lives. First year pupils – as Dzhokhar was in 2001 when he joined the school a few weeks after the September 11 attacks – sat in well-scrubbed classrooms at low green desks, reading and – in one – singing a song to their teacher. Pot plants were spaced on the window sills and there was an air of peace.
Asked by the director what things they should never do, a six-year-old girl replied brightly: “You should never kill someone, and you should look after nature.”
Mr Davudov said: “We look at all children the same. But any parent, any teacher must be against what these brothers went on to do.”