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In Dagestan, family and neighbours of Boston suspects describe shock

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The Observer

People in Makhachkala wonder how two 'normal' boys could be capable of the Boston bombings

Miriam Elder in Makhachkala

For around one month last summer, Tamerlan Tsarnaev would regularly hop across the dusty street in the centre of Makhachkala to a crowded little shop stuffed with dried fish and bread. Often he would buy a banana and sometimes kefir, a sour Russian dairy drink. The shopkeepers remember him fondly – quiet, kind, respectful.

What the ethnic Chechen, who was killed on Friday during a manhunt to track down two brothers suspected of carrying out the Boston marathon bombing, was doing in Dagestan no one quite knew.

As the authorities attempt to piece together the winding tale that saw two young brothers carry out one of the most horrific attacks on US soil in recent history, attention has turned to Russia's troubled Caucasus, a mainly Muslim region long struggling with an Islamist insurgency and increasing tension with Russia's Orthodox heartland.

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According to US travel records, Tsarnaev arrived at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport on 12 January, returning on 17 July. He spent time in Makhachkala that summer. "It was 40C and he was wearing these American boots," said Larissa Abakarova, who maintains a shop across the street from the home of the parents of Tsarnaev and his brother, Dzhokhar, who was arrested late on Friday. "He was stylish, kind, good-looking. I'm in shock."

Tsarnaev's parents moved to Makhachkala, a bustling city beside the Caspian Sea, around two years ago, neighbours and friends said. His father, Anzor, is said to have struggled to stay afloat in the US, where he worked as a car mechanic for nearly a decade. In Makhachkala, he sold perfume at a market. He was renovating a shop and had hoped to open it soon.

The family's convoluted route to the US and Makhachkala mirrors that of countless ethnic Chechens strewn about the world as the result of a Stalin-era mass deportation, followed by two separatist wars that tore apart the republic in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse.

The Tsarnaev brothers, as well as two sisters – Ailina and Bella – grew up mainly in Kyrgyzstan, a Central Asian nation that is home to a small Chechen community. They moved to impoverished Dagestan briefly in late September 2001 and immediately enrolled in the city's oldest school.

"They were usual kids, from a usual family," said Magomed Daudov, the school's director. "No one remembers them." That may be because the family left five months later, moving to the US in March 2002 where, according to an uncle, they received asylum. Tamerlan was 16, his younger brother just eight.

People in Dagestan were quick to distance the republic from the two brothers, noting just how much time they spent abroad. Indeed, the brothers spoke little of Dagestan in their wide social media presence, focusing instead on Chechnya, the ethnic homeland they barely knew.

A neighbour, Vyacheslav Kazakevich, said the Tsarnaevs' parents would travel regularly between the neighbouring republics of Dagestan and Chechnya, where several relatives live, including an aunt. He said that Tamerlan visited Chechnya, just an hour's drive from Makhachkala, during his trip to Russia in early 2012. "All their roots are there. They had no ties to rebels or to wahhabi," he said, using the accepted Russian term for Islamist fundamentalists.

Experts on Russian terrorist networks have been quick to cast doubt on any supposed ties to the Caucasus Emirate, an umbrella rebel group aiming to build an Islamist caliphate along Russia's mainly Muslim southern flank. The group, which has committed a series of deadly attacks across Russia over the years, has never struck outside of the country. Although the Tsarnaev brothers expressed solidarity with Chechnya's struggling independence movement, there is no evidence of them maintaining direct links with rebels.

Neighbours and friends described the Tsarnaevs' parents using the same words – kind, chatty, decent. "They are not fanatics – they are typical people like us," Abakarova said.

The Tsarnaevs' parents indignantly defended their children as events quickly unfolded on Friday. In video leaked to Russian news sites, Anzor Tsarnaev was shown saying "my kids have never even seen a weapon". He called them "angels". He described how the family fled from Kyrgyzstan to Chechnya, back to Kyrgyzstan, to the United States, hoping to find a place where Chechens could live in peace. "We were saving ourselves, like everyone else was," he said.

His wife, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, told the Russia Today television channel that "my sons are innocent". She described how the FBI questioned the family regularly. "They were telling me that Tamerlan was really an extremist leader and that they were afraid of him. They told me whatever information he is getting, he gets from these extremist sites. They were [watching] his every step."

By Friday evening, the Tsarnaevs had been questioned by the Federal Security Service, sources said. Zubeidat Tsarnaeva shut off her phone and her husband rarely picked his up after that.

At around 6pm on Friday, a relative drove the two away – some said to Chechnya, others to a secret location in Makhachkala.

"She was sobbing last night as she left, you could hear it," said Abakarova. "She was in hysterics."

Violence in Dagestan has been on the increase for years, as the Islamist insurgency grows from targeting mainly police to targeting those, including religious teachers, seen as collaborating with the republic's secular authorities.

That, more than anything, has led to an outpouring of grief. "No person in Dagestan, or any other region in Russia, would justify what these people did," said Daudov. "We have lived through this and we know better than anyone that it shouldn't happen."

"It's not that I judge these boys – it's that I think they don't have a human face," he said. "But, they were socialised in America. The question has to be asked: why, having studied well, in good schools, were they socialised in such a way that they were forced to commit this incomprehensible act?"

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