In the eyes of Nataliya Kurotshkina, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was not a likely candidate to carry out attacks using explosives. "The boy winced at even a small firecracker," recounts the 49-year-old, who was Tamerlan's first-grade teacher in School No. 2 in Tokmok, a typical Soviet-era city in northern Kyrgyzstan near the border with Kazakhstan. The teacher with dyed-blond hair runs past a portrait of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin on the second floor of the school. She produces a class picture from May 1995 showing Tamerlan, then a 9-year-old second grader, standing in the back row. He is wearing a blue suit and a white shirt while he gazes at the camera with curious eyes.
A class register listing the grades of all the students indicates that Tamerlan was ambitious and smart. He had top grades in almost all subjects, and was second-best only in math, geography and English. Kurotshkina describes her former student as "extraordinarily polite and well-raised."
However, even then there was another parallel world in which Tamerlan had been forced to grow up. In this world, violence was part of everyday life. "Tamerlan was a refugee child from Chechnya," the teacher recounts. "That's probably also why he was very withdrawn at first."
Driven Back and Forth by War
US investigators have identified Tamerlan and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, as the presumed perpetrators of the double bombing attack during the Boston Marathon on April 15. The homemade pressure cooker bombs they allegedly built killed three and injured more than 260, and they are also accused of subsequently killing a campus police officer. The brothers had lived in the United States for years. Tamerlan was killed in a shootout while trying to flee police, while Dzhokhar was cornered and captured on April 19 after being severely wounded.
In 1944, the brothers' grandfather was one of some 90,000 Chechens who Stalin had deported to Kyrgyzstan, then part of the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet empire, the Tsarnaevs sold their small house in Tokmok before returning to Chechnya.
Once they arrived, the Tsarnaev family reportedly owned some land in the early 1990s in the village of Chiri-Yurt, which lies about 25 kilometers (15 miles) south of the capital, Grozny. By all indications, the family was hoping to build a new life in Chechnya. Instead, they entered a region that was sliding into a war between Russian soldiers and independence fighters. "Tamerlan's father told me that he had no desire to fight and die in Chechnya," says Abil Seimkasiyev, Tamerlan's former boxing instructor.
The war fought between Russia and Chechnya between 1994 and 1996 was particularly savage, with kidnappings, bombings and decapitations. The family fled and returned to Tokmok.
Anzor Tsarnaev, Tamerlan's father, then owned a red Skoda that he would drive around the area. By all accounts, he made a living there as an auto mechanic. Reports from a number of international media sources, including the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, have frequently indicated that Anzor was a lawyer. But, in reality, he only had an identification card listing him as a "aide to the prosecutor's office," a document that was easily purchased on the black market in the 1990s. In any case, the father of the two suspected terrorists never studied law, says the Kyrgyz National University, which was the only institution training lawyers in the country at the time. There is also nothing to be found about Anzor Tsarnaev in the Central Asian country's archives, leading one senior official in the Interior Ministry to posit that the archives must have been "sanitized."
The Al Capone of Kyrgyzstan
These and other clues have given rise to a number of conspiracy theories in Kyrgyzstan. They revolve around the friendship that Tamerlan's father had with Aziz Batukayev, a crime boss known as the "Al Capone of Kyrgyzstan" who has been accused of being behind murders, gang wars, drug trafficking and prostitution. He also numbers among the main figures in criminal organizations operating in an area of the former Soviet Union that stretches across several borders.
Batukayev and Anzor Tsarnaev were close childhood friends. Both ethnic Chechens, they were born in the same year, attended the same school (No. 8), shared a boxing coach and often played soccer together on dusty streets. They also grew up in the same neighbourhood, with less than 200 meters (650 feet) separating their parents' homes. "They herded goats and cows together," says the brother of the mafia kingpin. "But Batukayev already looked lost on any day that he didn't get in a fight, while Anzor Tsarnaev also liked to read books a lot."
On April 9, six days before the attacks in Boston, Batukayev was surprisingly released from prison after serving several years because he was supposedly terminally ill with leukaemia. He then disappeared into Chechnya in a rented SUV. The blood sample used to prove Batukayev's illness reportedly came from another patient. Indeed, many in Kyrgyzstan believe that the short period of time between the release of the mafia boss and the Boston attacks are more than coincidental, though there is no concrete evidence to back these assertions.
Last week, individuals claiming to work for American law-enforcement agencies were trying to gather details about the Tsarnaev family's earlier life. They knocked on the doors of former neighbors, asked questions and gave candy to children. "But a lot of the kids don't try them because they might be poisoned," says the sister-in-law of the mafia boss.
Here, just as everywhere in the countries once belonging to the Soviet Union, residents are deeply ambivalent about the United States, which is simultaneously an object of hate and a land of promise. The Tsarnaevs came to the US in 2002. In the wake of the terror attacks in Boston, many of their former neighbors in Tokmok don't want to be associated with them anymore. "After the family returned from Chechnya, I only ran into Tamerlan's father a few times in the city," Batukayev's brother guardedly says. But another neighbor says that Tamerlan's father had tea with the Batukayevs during his last visit to the city in the summer of 2012.