Chechnya. July 1995
I went to Chechnya in 1995 on assignment for an American news magazine that no longer exists in that form. The brief was pretty broad – I was to photograph what was happening in Chechnya six months after the destruction of its capital, Grozny.
The Russians say the tiny Chechen republic to the south of the former Soviet Union is home to Russia’s worst mafiosi. The Chechens are criminals, they say, and Muslim fundementalists to boot. A journey through these badlands in a series of thrice cursed vehicles gave a different view, one of the brutal repression of a nation wanting to be free.
America is slowly recovering from the wounds of the 2013 Boston marathon bombing, trying to come to terms with why two young men, brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who had grown up in multicultural suburban Boston, would decide to commit an act of terrorism against their adopted nation.
Chechnya hit world headlines in 1994 when the brutal winter battle for the capital Grozny saw thousands die. Grozny was the prize for Chechen separatists who wanted to be free of hundreds of years of living under Russian rule, under the Tsars, the Soviets and modern Russia.
This militancy came as a surprise to many, but a couple of years before, Chechen militants had made their presence felt in the heart of Europe during the Bosnian war. Volunteer Chechens joined other ‘Jihadists’ to help the outgunned and overwhelmed Bosnian Muslims fight both Serbian and Croat forces in Europe’s first major conflict since WWII.
It was after the Second World War that Chechen anger and resentment really began to grow, when Stalin saw fit to use collective punishment against a nation for their supposed Nazi collaboration. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims from Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia were forced out of their homes to other, less idyllic parts of the Soviet Union – Siberia and Central Asia. Thousands were executed.
The Tsarnaev family was among those deported by Stalin and eventually allowed back under Nikita Khrushchev’s more permissive rule.
One can image the family and national stories that were fed to the children, generation by generation. And then came the Nineties, and open war with Moscow. While the brothers were born in Kyrgyzstan, in today’s world of global Jihad, it is little wonder how the children Tsarnaev grew up to be influenced by their history; they are heirs of a generation of battle-hardened and brutalised men. It is little wonder they would prove to be perfect models of universal sleeper terrorists.