Bombing Suspects' Chechen Roots Weigh Heavy On Nation's Refugees

NPR's Eleanor Beardsley talks to Chechen refugees living in France, and hears how they're reacting to news of of the recent Boston Marathon bombings. There are some 10,000 Chechen refugees in France and Germany, and upwards of 25,000 in Austria.

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The Tsarnaev brothers are among tens of thousands of Chechens whose families have sought asylum abroad after two brutal wars with Russia. About 10 percent of the entire Chechen population now lives in Europe. France has one of the largest communities. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley spoke with Chechens in Paris to see how they're reacting to the attack in Boston.

AICHAT: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: I meet the two young Chechen refugees at a cafe near the Gare de Lyon. Twenty-three-year-old Aichat, who doesn't want to give her last name, fled to France 14 years ago after the first Chechen war. Her 24-year-old male friend, who wants to remain totally anonymous, arrived here four years ago after the second Chechen war. Both describe a decimated homeland that is still an incredibly scary place to live. The neatly dressed, clean-shaven young man says people in Chechnya are living under enormous pressure.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through Translator) I had no real problems - yet - but the problems were coming, so I had to get out. It was like living under Stalin there with Kadyrov. No one can talk, not even between friends.

BEARDSLEY: The young man is speaking of Chechen president Asimov Kadyrov, who came to power in 2007. Kadyrov, an amateur boxer formerly in charge of Chechen security forces, is known for eliminating his opponents. He rules Chechnya with an iron fist. Kadyrov has the full backing of Russian president Vladimir Putin because he keeps order in the troublesome republic. Other pressures come from radical Islam, says the young man.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: He says members of his own family have been subjected to Islamist extremist propaganda, which he says began in earnest after the second Chechen war. The Islamist radicals are completely foreign to our moderate way of practicing Islam, he says, but people don't have the means to fight it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

AICHAT: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: The two confer in Russian to fill in any gaps in the young man's French. Aichat explains why the Islamist extremists are gaining power.

AICHAT: (Through Translator) Because of the two wars that went on for so long, there's a whole generation that has grown up without formal education. So, people are vulnerable to misinformation.

BEARDSLEY: Both the young people say they were shocked that the Boston bombing may have been carried out by Chechens. But the young man thinks the oldest brother could have come under the Islamist propaganda when he returned to the region in 2010. It's definitely possible, he says.

ANNE LE TALLEC: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Lawyer Anne le Tallec has been representing Chechens seeking asylum for the last 15 years. She says what the boys are accused of doing in Boston is completely contrary to how Chechens live and behave abroad.

TALLEC: In the most of the cases, it's people totally innocent who have nothing to do with the policy or the resistance in Chechnya. And if they come here, it's to find just the peace and to be in security. OK. Here, there are very quiet.

BEARDSLEY: Some reports say as many as 60,000 people left Chechnya for Europe between 2010 and 2012 alone, a sign that the situation in the North Caucasus Russian Republic is not improving. The young Chechen man says that feelings and anger and injustice over their homeland state could have pushed the Tsarnaev brothers to plant the bomb.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through Translator) About a quarter of our population died in these brutal wars with Russia. It's almost a genocide but no one even talks about it, and no one helped us. So, that festers.

BEARDSLEY: Both of these young Chechens say they are grateful to France for taking them in and say they can't imagine turning on a country that offered them safety and a future. The only one who gained anything from the Boston bomb attacks is Russia, says the young man.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through Translator) Before, for Americans, the Chechens were a people fighting for their freedom. Now, we're being associated with al-Qaida and international terrorism.

BEARDSLEY: He says Russia has won the propaganda war. Now, Putin can continue his policies of force and no one will question him. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

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