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Kyrgyz Former Neighbors Talk About Tsarnaevs, North Caucasus Ties

Former Neighbors On Tsarnaevs, Suspected Boston Bombers
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Residents in the Kyrgyz town of Tokmok, where the family of Boston bombing suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev lived for generations, talk about the young men's early ties to Russia's North Caucasus republic of Chechnya. They also express disbelief that the Tsarnaev boys could have carried out such a horrific attack, saying everyone has "only good things" to say about them. (Produced by RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service's Ulanbek Asanalyev)

TOKMOK, Kyrgyzstan -- Before their family moved to the United States a decade ago, Boston Marathon bombing suspects Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev spent some of their early, formative years in the northern Kyrgyz town of Tokmok, home to the country's largest ethnic Chechen community.

RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service correspondent Timur Toktonaliev and cameraman Ulan Asanaliev traveled to Tokmok, which sits near the border with Kazakhstan, one day after the death of Tamerlan and the capture of Dzhokhar after a massive manhunt in the Boston area.

They spoke to family friends and other members of the community who knew the Tsarnaevs.

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The Tsarnaevs' large extended family is well-known in Tokmok. Locals say the family arrived along with a flood of 85,000 Chechens who were expelled from their native region in 1944 by Soviet leader Josef Stalin.

The communist dictator uprooted the entire population of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic -- an estimated half-million people -- during his brutal suppression of an insurgency there.

Tokmok's Chechen community now has around 2,500 people. The town’s population is about 50,000.

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Members of the Tsarnaev family had been in Tokmok for decades. But Batruddin Tsakaev, a family friend, told RFE/RL that the boys' father decided to move to the North Caucasus in the early 1990s.

"In 1992 or 1993, I think they left for Chechnya because the family has a house there from the early Soviet times," Tsakaev said. "After the Chechen War started, they came back with whole family in 1995. In the beginning of the 2000s they left for Daghestan, where many Chechens live."

Batruddin and other neighbors later confirmed that 1992 was the year the family left Kyrgyzstan.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was born in Russia's republic of Daghestan in 1993.

Neighbors say his mother was from that North Caucasus republic, which neighbors Chechnya. They told RFE/RL Zubeidat Tsarnaeva gave birth to Dzhokhar there in order to be closer to her family.

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Tamerlan Tsarnaev's former schoolteacher, Natalya Kurochkina, told RFE/RL she thought that living in the North Caucasus in the early 1990s was probably a disturbing experience and appeared to have a negative impact on the boy.

"I taught Tamerlan Tsarnaev in the fourth grade," Kurochkina said. "His family members were refugees from Chechnya. Tamerlan was very quiet, I'd even say an apprehensive boy in the class. I think he was somehow affected by what he had seen during the [Chechen] war."

She added that she thought "he was somehow affected by what he had seen, all that was going on in Chechnya then, the terrorist acts."

Leila Alieva, Tamerlan's classmate in the fifth and sixth grades, had a different perspective.

"I know him only in a positive way," Alieva said. "He was a very kind boy and his family was nice, too. He studied hard, and we went together to the music school, and he also was interested in sports. Everyone knows him as a good person. Anyone you ask will tell you only good things about him -- only good things."

The extended Tsarnaev family was well-known even beyond their local community. A high-level Interior Ministry official told RFE/RL that security services were very familiar with some members of the clan. However, the official would not provide any details regarding specific family members or their activities.

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It is not known if there was anything more than a personal connection, but organized crime boss Aziz Batukaev, who is also an ethnic Chechen, lived next door to the Tsarnaevs. Batukaev grew up and lived in Tokmok, but is now in Chechnya.

Movsar Batukaev, Aziz's brother, told RFE/RL the Tsarnaevs were good neighbors.

"Since the time that their family settled [in Tokmok], they lived here behind my [property's] wall," Movsar Batukaev said. "Later on, when their grandfather accidentally died, they moved to another place, but anyway I knew the Tsarnaevs very well."

The Kyrgyz parliament is currently investigating why Aziz Batukaev was released early from prison at the beginning of April. He was sentenced to almost 17 years in prison in 2006 for his involvement in several crimes, including the murder of a Kyrgyz lawmaker, his two associates, and an Interior Ministry official.

Prison officials in the northern Kyrgyz city of Naryn, where Batukaev was serving his sentence, say he was released because he suffers from leukemia.

With contributions from RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service's Aida Kasymalieva, Ulanbek Asanalyev, and Gulaiym Ashakeeva

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