The people who fled the terror in Chechnya

Joshua Foust writes: Early reports suggest that the two suspected Boston Marathon bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, are ethnically Chechen. Media reports suggest their family lived in Chechnya in the 1990s and later moved to neighboring Dagestan and then Kyrgyzstan. The Tsarnaevs moved to the United States about a decade ago, and the younger brother, Dzhokhar, became an American citizen last year. The connection between Chechen expatriates and the former Soviet Union might prove critical to understanding why these two men allegedly turned to terrorism.

Russia and Chechnya do not get along, to put it lightly. Chechnya is a tiny, autonomous republic in the southwest of Russia — part of the Caucasus region between Europe and Asia between the Black and Caspian Seas. In 1944, Josef Stalin deported the entire population of the North Caucasus — about 600,000 people in the republics of Ingushetia, Chechnya, and North Ossetia — across the Caspian Sea to the Soviet republics of Central Asia on the suspicion they were collaborating with Nazi Germany.

The mass deportation was catastrophic: Crowded, poorly ventilated trains dumped people in the middle of the steppe between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, stranding them in the vast wastelands with no supplies. Although Nikita Khrushchev eventually returned the displaced Chechens to the Caucasus in 1957, the scars of that dislocation never went away. In many ways, the Caucasian displacement led to the militancy and separatism that still haunt the region.

After the fall of the U.S.S.R., some Soviet republics gained their independence. The “stans” of Central Asia — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan — all became independent countries. So, too, did the countries of the South Caucasus — Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. The North Caucasus, however, never gained independence from Moscow, though many wanted it. In the years after independence, the South Caucasus was ravaged by brutal ethnic wars in Georgia and between Armenia and Azerbaijan. By 1994, Chechnya had declared its own independence, and the Russian military surged into the country.

The first Chechen war killed thousands of people, mostly civilians, and thousands more fled the republic looking for refuge. A lot of them settled in Central Asia because a sizable Chechen population had remained there since Stalin’s forced relocation, particularly in Kazakhstan. But, over the subsequent two decades, they had trouble integrating and settling down. Refugees living in the former capital of Almaty reported being harassed by the police after the 9/11 attacks on the assumption they were terrorists. Chechens who settled in the northern part of the country faced arbitrary arrest and deportation back to Russia. In 2007, Refugees International wrote a scathing assessment of Kazakhstan’s treatment of Chechen refugees, noting that the Kazakhstan government prioritized its relations with Russia over treating refugees fairly. [Continue reading…]

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