Nick Sturdee spends two days with the parents of the Boston bombing suspects, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, hearing their side of the story in Dagestan.
“I loved the USA. I really did,” said Anzor Tsarnaev as he drove me through Makhachkala, Dagestan, last week, reminiscing over the 12 years he and his family lived in Massachusetts.
“I loved the USA. Until it killed my son.”
On April 18 this year, Anzor Tsarnaev’s life and family imploded. It was the day that his two sons Tamerlan and Dzhokhar were named as prime suspects behind the Boston bombings.
Soon after 12.45 that night, in a shoot-out with the police, Tamerlan was wounded. According to eyewitnesses, his brother then threw a bomb towards police, 80 metres away. Under the cover of smoke, Tamerlan ran closer to the “feds”, and carried on shooting.
As his older brother was shot and fell to the ground, Dzhokhar drove off and smashed through the police lines. On his way he ran over his brother, dragging him, tumbling, under the car. Tamerlan was pronounced dead in hospital.
It’s an account that Anzor can’t accept. For him and his wife Zubeidat, their son Tamerlan is the man who is seen in local TV footage being led away, naked, by police at around 1am on the morning of 19 April. Police say the man was found close to the scene, in the search for Dzhokhar after he had made his getaway. He was stripped for fear he might be carrying explosives. Poring over the local TV footage, the Tsarnaevs are adamant that the man is their son.
I am a mother. I would know my own son anywhere. Zubeidat Tsarnaev
“I am a mother. I would know my own son anywhere,” said Zubeidat.
And that means the gruesome morgue photo of Tamerlan, his body bloodied and butchered, shows the work of the US police – who have thus far failed to provide the identity of the “naked man”.
“Look at what they did to my son!” cried Anzor. “They must have cut and hacked him, then hung him upside down. Look at the blood that’s run to his neck and head.”
It’s an image and scenario that have tormented Anzor for this past month and a half. Between three weeks ago, when I first met him, and now, he has literally turned grey.
The Tsarnaev couple were in Dagestan when their world caved in this April. Having spent the 2000s in the US, Anzor and Zubeidat decided to return home – Anzor for health reasons and Zubeidat in order to set up a business. They were expecting Dzhokhar to visit his homeland just days after the bomb attacks on the Boston marathon. But from then on the family has been in crisis and in the eye of a media storm.
After giving a press conference in Makhachkala in April, they escaped to Grozny in neighbouring Chechnya. When I saw them there, they fought to negotiate for the release and burial of Tamerlan’s body. In the US, no mosque could be found willing to inter him – while Russia’s stance of not returning bodies of insurgents to the family, made his repatriation in the North Caucasus unfeasible. The family also launched their attempt to raise money for Dzhokhar’s medical and legal needs.
But soon the family was obliged to return after the Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, called the two brothers “devils” – the word or warning he uses for members of the Islamist insurgency rocking the North Caucasus – and they were warned that the media attention that followed the couple was not welcome in the republic.
Back in Dagestan, Anzor and Zubeidat have struggled to keep away from media attention, staying with relatives away from those addresses where they had been seen before. Last week I spent two days with the couple, soon after they had spoken to their son on the phone for the first time since his arrest.
The conditions imposed by the prison authorities were that the family could not discuss the case itself. They told me that nothing was mentioned – and that, despite reports to the contrary, Dzhokhar had not claimed he was innocent. Instead, the talk was about his health.
Zubeidat played me the recording as you could hear Dzhokhar’s voice speaking in Russian.
Is it painful for you to speak, Zubeidat’s voice asked.
“No, I’m eating and have been for a long time,” her son reassured her. “They are giving me chicken and rice. Everything’s fine.”
“I thought he was going to scream, what’s going on? He would ask the world, what’s going on?” Zubeidat told me. “But instead he was just calming me down, he was trying to calm me down. Mama, you don’t worry about anything. I hope you’re not getting any problems. Are you OK there? Everything is going to be ok, Mama, I eat, they give me already rice, and I started eating chicken. So he was trying to make us calm, you know?”
To hear Dzhokhar’s voice brought Zubeidat comfort. But she knows well that there are many challenges ahead.