Chechens in U.S. Fear Reprisals
Until a few days ago, most Chechens in the United States lived largely anonymous lives. Few Americans even knew what and where Chechnya was. Now, two Chechen brothers are at the center of one of the most serious terrorist attacks on the United States since Sept. 11, 2001. While the motivations behind the bombings are still unknown, the attack has made Chechnya a focus of American scrutiny, and it has thrust Chechens living here into an unwanted spotlight.
Several Chechens in the Boston area and elsewhere said the attack had left them feeling exposed — and embarrassed. Some worry about being branded terrorists in a country that they credit with offering them sanctuary.
For most of them, the attacks raised fears that their past was somehow catching up with them. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in two vicious wars between Russian troops and Chechens in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Many Chechens fled, taking their traumas and battle scars with them. Most stayed in Europe. But a handful, perhaps no more than a thousand, came to the United States, where few expected to see the kind of the indiscriminate slaughter that had engulfed their homeland, particularly an attack committed by fellow Chechens.
Mr. Tepsurkaev, who has a wife and 3-year-old daughter, said seeing two Chechens held responsible for the Boston attack had left him feeling irrational guilt. Four days after the Boston Marathon bombings, Ali Tepsurkaev was at work on a construction site on Nantucket when his boss approached him to deliver the news: the two prime suspects had been identified as ethnic Chechens.
For Mr. Tepsurkaev, 33, who fled the wars in Chechnya more than a decade ago, immediate disbelief turned quickly to fear and despair. The violence that had once consumed his homeland had found him again, this time shattering the quiet refuge he had found here in New England.
“I was so upset, I couldn’t work,” said Mr. Tepsurkaev, who soon left his Nantucket home to be with his extended family here in Needham, a Boston suburb. “I left my guys. I couldn’t finish. It felt so horrible.”
“Most of us would be dead right now if it wasn’t for the United States giving us a home and saving us from all the violence,” he said. “It feels embarrassing for us. After all this hospitality we’re getting from Americans, to hear that some Chechen….” he said, breaking off. “It’s hard. It’s difficult to explain.”
He spoke with a reporter over tea at his uncle’s house across from a playground here in Needham, about 10 miles from the bombing suspects’ home in Cambridge.
He was surrounded by cousins close to the age of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, the younger of the two suspects, who was taken into custody on Friday. Two of the cousins, Islam and Maryam Baiev, are planning to go to college in the fall to pursue careers in medicine. They speak English with no accent, but can still banter easily in both Chechen and Russian.
“I remember them in the dungeon just hiding from the bombs,” Mr. Tepsurkaev said of his cousins. “They’ve seen the screaming, they’ve seen the blood, but as you see they’re getting educated here, trying to get into college and living their lives. No hate, no violence. They’ve seen it, that’s why they appreciate it even more.”
“But these guys who haven’t seen anything,” he said about the bombing suspects. “I have no idea what kind of crazy ideas they have going on in their head.”
The two suspects, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his older brother Tamerlan, 26, lived in Dagestan, a region in Russia that borders Chechnya, and in Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic that is now independent, before coming to the United States as children. But they had never lived in Chechnya itself.
However, Mr. Tepsurkaev was just as pessimistic. “Now when I meet someone, and they ask where I’m from, it will be difficult to say that I am Chechen,” he said. “I fear that it will affect my relationships with Americans.”
None of the Chechens interviewed said they had more than a passing knowledge of the Tsarnaev brothers, who are accused of killing three people and wounding more than 170 in the bombing at the marathon and then going on a rampage that left one police officer dead and another struggling to survive.
A 28-year-old Chechen immigrant, who refused to be named because he feared reprisals against his family in Chechnya, said that there were, at most, five or six Chechen families living in the Boston area, but they had little contact with one another. He said he visited the Tsarnaevs’ home two years ago, after Anzor Tsarnaev, the suspects’ father, returned from a hospital stay. He said Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed in a shootout with the police on Friday, was “a nice guy, physically strong and very funny.” Beyond that, he said, he knew little about the family.
Some Chechens say they have felt uneasy since the suspects’ background was revealed. And at least one senator has already evoked the Boston attack in a call for stricter immigration laws.
Albina Digaeva, 34, who fled in 1998 and now studies at a Los Angeles college, said she was afraid to take the subway after learning the suspects were Chechen.
“Maybe it was an overreaction, but it was my initial reaction,” said Ms. Digaeva, who is an observant Muslim and wears a head scarf. “It’s just that after living through the war and experiencing that in Russia, it just brought back all these memories.”
Amrina Sugaipova, a linguist who moved to Portland, Ore., from Chechnya in 2001 said she was distressed by some portrayals of Chechens in the news media since the bombing suspects’ identities and backgrounds were released.
“I’ve read all kinds of stories with people saying very negative things about the nation,” she said, referring to Chechnya. “I really hope Chechens won’t be profiled here, but I suspect they are going to be following every step we do.”
“Over the last decade, hundreds of thousands of Chechens have fled the violence and repression. The vast majority went to different parts of Russia and to Europe; many are in refugee camps. Only a few, such as the Tsarnaevs, have been able to come to the U.S. Their isolation, and lack of an ethnic community in the U.S., has made immigration extremely difficult. Those who live here, such as Ruslan Tsarni, the uncle of Dzhokar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, are ashamed of Chechen terrorism and eager to condemn the attacks in Boston. As we look for answers after last week’s atrocity, we must ensure that the Chechens who managed to escape the bloodshed of their homeland don’t suffer for the crimes of a few of their co-nationals, as they did for so long,” said Miriam Lanskoy, Director for Russia and Eurasia at the National Endowment for Democracy.
On the other hand, a resolute Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley told terror-weary parishioners and public officials yesterday at a crowded Mass inside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. “We must be a people of reconciliation, not revenge,” O’Malley urged the 1,800 Mass celebrants, a group that included U.S. Rep. Stephen F. Lynch, Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis and Boston police Superintendents William Evans and Kevin Buckley.
“The crimes of the two young men must not be the justification for prejudice against Muslims and against immigrants,” he said.