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. o
fficials. She is, after all, still a mother.