Since the capture last Friday of suspected bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the story of the Chechen refugees who fled genocide in 2002 has been haunting me. The Tsarnaev family was given refugee status when they came to the US around ten or eleven years ago. An enormous wave of 100,000 refugees evacuated the Caucasus region after years of brutal conflict to gain independence from Russia. They said the Chechens were being exterminated.
I preface what I have to say now with words that should go without saying. Violence can never be condoned or justified. If you are looking for reasons to excuse or to blame, you won’t find them here.
Let’s remember 20 years ago the Soviet Union dissolved and its republics reverted to sovereign states. To the south, between the Black and Caspian Seas the Russian Federation fractures at its edge. There, the tiny Republics of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia are found just outside the boundary of the Russian Federation. Chechnya is just inside that boundary and Chechens wanted to break away from Russia but it was not to be. There were years of war. By 2002 their situation was a nightmare.
Before the conflict, there were around 700,000 Chechens in the Caucasus. By 2002, many were dead, most were displaced within the region, and practically all were economically ruined. For 100,000 to leave that year, the situation must have worsened. The Russian army was finishing the war by killing everyone in sight. A half-dozen countries in Europe gave the Chechens refugee status. A number of Chechens went to the US which gave them refugee status too. It was an international humanitarian gesture. It was a statement about the Chechens’ human rights.
It was also a dare, a belligerent challenge, to Vladimir Putin. Russia had floundered after the Soviet Union broke up. As soon as Putin took charge in 2000, Republican neo-cons and rightwingers in Congress began their drumbeat. Clinton was denounced for failing to stand up to Putin. The Chechens became a human rights cause. Sen. Jesse Helms (R – NC) welcomed Ilyas Akhmadov, acting as Foreign Minister for Chechnya, to Washington, DC. He bellowed on the floor of the Senate, demanding that Akhmadov be met and welcomed by Clinton’s people.
By 2002, the support for Chechens by members of Congress was shrill with calls for NATO intervention and autonomy for Chechnya. One resolution included a list of to-do’s for Vladimir Putin. Another look at the geography of the region shows something notable. Head slightly west of due south from Chechnya, across Georgia and Armenia, through Turkey to the south, to the border of Iraq. The total distance is about 500 miles. The Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Iraq would be introduced before the end of the year. Neo-cons can’t resist a foreign adventure.
That was the political climate in America, 2002, when it was resolved that Chechens would have refugee status in the US. Humanitarian reasons and human rights support with Putin’s angry disapproval, too, made an appetizing composition for many. In American media coverage of the Chechnya story at that time, the adjective “innocent” was frequently paired with “Chechen.” The Muslim faith of Chechens was mentioned rarely. That was then. The administration of that era with all its misdeeds was careful enough to avoid demonizing Muslims. It was Putin who disagreed bitterly with the innocence of Chechens and the Moscow theatre hostage crisis in 2002 that left 130 Russians dead wasn’t our problem.
When the US accepts immigrants as refugees, it gives them a special status. There must be evidence of danger that would threaten their well-being and lives if they were repatriated to their point of origin. It’s a serious matter. Political asylum is another status that has been given to certain immigrants in rare instances by the US. American foreign policy in 2003 and 2004 continued in its support of Chechnya. Ilyas Akhmadov was granted political asylum in 2004 which further angered the Russians.
The Chechens charge of genocide was disputed, especially by the accused Russians, and it has been studied worldwide. Genocide is more than the mass killing of human beings with a common identity. It involves the eradication of a culture, the disappearance of a language, the loss of customs and community, and it results in an overwhelming sense of deprivation for survivors who have lost so much.
The economic disadvantages they face are enormous and the loss of intangible intellectual and emotional attachments are more than some survivors can overcome. Genocide deniers point to the survivors as if they haven’t suffered enough. If what happened in Chechnya isn’t genocide, I don’t know what is.
Post traumatic stress disorder would be expected among Chechen refugees. In the US there are echoes of the persecution and victimization they suffered. Americans who jeer the ingratitude of the bomber who was given everything here in America might learn something from the experience of Chechens. In Russia, there was a sustained campaign of vilification. Government officials and media personalities referred to Chechens in a derogatory way using the same descriptive words. The public adopted a belief that it was acceptable to attack any Chechen they might encounter. It became unsafe for Chechens to travel anywhere out of their small homeland and the area immediately adjacent. For a refugee trying to recover a sense of security, the bigotry of Americans can be destructive.
I don’t know what the Tsarnaevs experienced before coming to the US and during the years they were here. I can’t say how much they shared in the misery of the general Chechen refugee population. I know little of them but I know some things. I also know something about other Chechen refugees mainly in Europe. In the US, we have no context where the Tsarnaevs belong. The number of Chechen refugees in the US is small and inconspicuous. In Europe, their number is larger and they’re more visible. Certain elements of the Tsarnaevs’ story in Boston appear in the stories of Chechens who settled in Europe too.
Harassment by Russia turns up a lot. Russia continued to pursue Chechen refugees everywhere by demanding extradition. It also tried another tactic by offering repatriation. It tried to influence the host countries in various ways. Putin repeatedly insisted that the Chechens were dangerous Muslim terrorists. (And the Chechens obliged with some of the most vicious terrorist attacks of the last century.) The UK thwarted a plot to assassinate a former Chechen leader who has political asylum there. Of course, an FBI interview at the request of the Russian Federal Security Service would rattle refugees unsure of their own safety.
Over the duration of time that refugees spend in a host country, a lot can change, hopefully for the better. In the US, the increase in anti-Muslim bigotry is tragic. When the refugees were accepted their faith wasn’t an issue. Today, we see anti-Muslim bigotry openly expressed everywhere. Look at Sen. Lindsay Graham’s recent statements, noted by another Kossack here and by others elsewhere. He speaks about stripping Dzhokhar Tsarnaev of his rights because of alleged ties to radical Islam and his Chechen heritage. Does Graham have any idea of the astounding irony in his statement?
Americans reach far to find the reasons for the unfortunate problems that appear with increasing frequency. They don’t seem to recognize how they created the perfect conditions for their own misfortune.
If you have people who ran for their lives from genocide at the hand of the Russians, to be adopted by a nation that bragged about its humanitarian support for human rights, and after years of struggle to overcome extreme economic disadvantage in this land of plenty, there’s nothing to show but lingering fear, an overwhelming sense of loss, loneliness and grief, and the generous hosts turned out to be hateful bigots little better than the ones left behind, and none of it has any chance of ever getting better, what would the radicalization of these people look like?
Seriously, why would any of these people need to be radicalized?
If Americans could feel the suffering of other people, and if they reacted the way that normal humans do when another suffers, much would be different. If Americans could feel the suffering of other people, there wouldn’t be so many trying to make them share their suffering.