(Corrects date of Chechen president's election to 1997 in eighth paragraph.)
The identification of Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev as suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings focuses attention on the troubled history of Chechnya and the legacy of its recent wars with Russia. As the investigation continues and we learn more about the circumstances and motivations of the bombers it is important that we also hear the voices of ordinary Chechens who struggle to overcome the trauma of violence and exile and lead normal lives in the U.S.
The Tsarnaev brothers were born in Kyrgyzstan, a country in Central Asia that, like Chechnya, had been part of the Soviet Union. In 1944, Joseph Stalin ordered the deportation of the entire Chechen nation -- almost 1 million people -- from the North Caucasus to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The Chechens had been falsely accused of collaborating with the Nazis, and were branded an enemy nation. About one third of the deportees died of cold, hunger and disease in Central Asia, where they lived in detainment camps similar to those of the Soviet gulag.
Most of the survivors were allowed to return home in the 1960s. As a group, however, Chechens were stigmatized as traitors throughout the Soviet era. The Tsarnaev family remained in Kyrgyzstan through the 1990s.
In 1991, as the Soviet Union collapsed and sovereignty devolved to the individual republics, the Chechens seized the opportunity to establish a state. The Chechen Republic proclaimed its independence in 1991 on a foundation of national self-determination and democratic principles.
Russia sought to re-establish control and waged a brutal war against the breakaway republic in 1994-1996. The conflict ended when Russian troops withdrew from the territory, but refused to recognize its independence.
The second war started in 1999 and endures as a disjointed Islamic insurgency across the North Caucasus. In the 1990s, the Chechen resistance was a secular national liberation movement that had broad support. But during the second war, the moderates were killed or marginalized and Islamic radicals became dominant.
Aslan Maskhadov, Chechnya’s moderate president who was elected in 1997 and sought negotiations with Russia, was unable to restrain more radical commanders, who eventually took over the resistance movement.
Unable to repel the much larger and better-equipped Russian military through conventional warfare, some Chechen commanders turned to terrorism. There were many attacks against targets in Russia, including explosions on airplanes, at airports, even at a concert. The most infamous outrages were the 2002 standoff in the Moscow theater, Dubrovka, and the takeover of a school in Beslan in 2004, in which 331 hostages perished, including 186 children. The mastermind of that attack, Shamil Basaev, sought to spread the war beyond Chechnya to other areas of Russia’s North Caucasus.
Russian forces eventually crushed the broad-based Chechen resistance, and in 2005, the Kremlin installed Ramzan Kadyrov as the region's president. He has presided over systemic terror against the population, including summary executions, torture, rape and disappearances. Today, Chechnya is relatively calm. But neighboring Dagestan, which probably had more of an influence on Tamerlan Tsarnaev, remains a hotbed of insurgency. The Tsarnaev family stayed in Dagestan for about a year before moving to the U.S. in 2002 and Tamerlan Tsarnaev visited there in 2012. This region is plagued by frequent attacks by Islamic insurgents and violent reprisals against the civilian population by Russian military and security forces. In 2012, more than 400 people were killed -- including civilians, insurgents and security forces -- in the violence.
During the two wars in Chechnya, more than 200,000 people were killed, most of them Chechen civilians. Those who remain continue to suffer the ruin and trauma of the war and the abuses of an authoritarian government.
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.
(Miriam Lanskoy is Director for Russia and Eurasia at the National Endowment for Democracy. She is the co-author with Ilyas Akhmadov of "The Chechen Struggle: Independence Won and Lost." The opinions expressed are her own.)
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