USA TODAY, April 26, 2013
By Yamiche Alcindor
MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, Md. — When he first came to America eight years ago, Alvi Tsarni lived with his brother, Anzor Tsarnaev, and his family in a small Cambridge, Mass., apartment. It was there he spent the most time with his nephews, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan, who he described as happy young men.
“They were just regular kids,” Alvi Tsarni, 48, said while sitting inside his Montgomery Village, Md., home. “They would go outside and play. They liked music, dancing, playing video games and the Internet.”
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was very young and played a lot with the children of another nearby Chechnyan family in Cambridge, Tsarni recalled. The brothers didn’t get into trouble, ate whatever their mother cooked, and lived an ordinary life.
Tsarni, who lived with the family for a year, didn’t remember the Tsarnaev brothers and their family as very religious. Tsarni said he never talked about Islam with the father of the two suspected bombers.
“We were born Muslim but we weren’t practicing,” said Tsarni, who just started going to a Maryland mosque two years ago. “Their family was not practicing. Nobody used to pray. The younger one didn’t pray; he just partied.”
Instead, the focus of the family was on school and making sure the children got good grades.
“I just told them to learn and study. ‘If not you’ll have to work like me,’ ” said Tsarni, a construction worker.
When news broke that the brothers allegedly were behind the Boston marathon bombings, Tsarni said he couldn’t believe it — and he doesn’t believe it now.
“They would never do something like this,” he said. “There’s no proof.”
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev would have to confess in front of the family for Tsarni to believe that his nephews carried out the pair of bombings, Tsarni said.
Adding to Tsarni’s disbelief: his inability to claim the body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The uncle said he went to Boston for two days and asked repeatedly to see the body as well as to have it released. His requests were not met, he said.
Police officers and the FBI have not allowed him claim his nephew, Tsarni said. Meanwhile, Tsarni says he has contacted several mosques in New Jersey, Maryland and Boston and all have refused to bury Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
On Thursday, Tsarni’s body shook with frustration. He says he’s been distraught ever since he heard that his nephew was dead. No one in the family has identified the body.
“I still don’t know what to do,” Alvi Tsarni said.
THE FINAL CALL
On April 18, at about 7 p.m., Tamerlan Tsarnaev called Alvi Tsarni. It was just hours before the young man would die in a shootout with police in Watertown, Mass.
The uncle and nephew hadn’t spoken in more than three years because of family issues that Alvi Tsarni declined to discuss. In the call April 18, Tsarni says, Tamerlan Tsarnaev said he wanted to make peace with his uncle. Tsarni says he was happy to hear from his nephew and didn’t question why he was calling.
“He just called me and asked, ‘How are you doing? How is your family? How is everything else? ‘ ” Alvi Tsarni said. “It was just a conversation, and he was happy for me. He said ‘I love you,’ and I said ‘Of course, I love you, too.’ ”
Tamerlan Tsarnaev later called back and asked for another uncle’s number, Ruslan Tsarni. The young man never called Ruslan Tsarni. Alvi Tsarni speculates that his nephew might have been killed before he was able to call the second uncle.
Now, Alvi Tsarni said he is waiting for evidence that his nephews were in fact the people who carried out the bombings. He said police haven’t shown the public the faces of the brothers planting the bombs and also haven’t shown any video of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev speaking to police.
“I can’t say they did it,” Alvi Tsarni said. “I don’t believe it. I need some kind of proof. If he did this, he deserves to die. If he’s innocent, let him go. But please, investigate, find the truth.”
The brothers’ father is on their way to America. “I am going there to see my son and bury my older one,” Anzor Tsarnaev said in an emotional meeting with journalists. “I have no bad thoughts, I’m not planning any bombings, I don’t want to do anything. I’m not offended by anyone. I want to know the truth, what happened. I want to work it out.”
The suspects’ mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, who was charged with shoplifting in the U.S. last summer, said she has been assured by lawyers that she would not be arrested, but said she was still deciding whether to go to America.
Tsarnaeva, wearing a headscarf and dressed all in black, said she now regrets moving her family to the U.S. and believes they would have been better off in a village in her native Dagestan.
“You know, my kids would be with us, and we would be, like, fine,” she said. “So, yes, I would prefer not to live in America now. Why did I even go there? Why? I thought America is going to, like, protect us, our kids, it’s going to be safe.”
THE OTHER UNCLE
A second uncle, Ruslan Sarni, who also lives in Montgomery Village, recalls that the Dzhokhar and Tamerlan acclimated easily to America, grew up in a close family, and had a happy childhood filled with Chechnyan and American traditions.
Ruslan Tsarni says the young men’s shift to extremism could be blamed on the growing influence of their mother and an Armenian he called “Misha.”
Ruslan Tsarni, 42, is the brother of the Tsarnaevs’ father. He defended his brother in an hour-long interview with USA TODAY, describing Anzor Tsarnaev as a hardworking man who tried to stop his wife from inviting a radical “Misha” into their home
Ruslan Tsarni recalls two young boys who loved every moment of their American experience. Neither ever talked about being homesick or leaving America. Instead, they reveled in their homeland and took in all the things other immigrant children love, including McDonald’s.
“Dzhokhar was all ears, and he loved french fries,” Tsarni, a business consultant, said outside his home Thursday afternoon. “He was so skinny. They were nice American kids while I was privy to their family.”
Dzhokhar looked up to Tamerlan, their uncle said, and the two were very close as youngsters. Tamerlan enjoyed having a little brother and took special care to watch over him. The family expected the older brother to keep Dzhokhar out of trouble, Tsarni said, and would look to Tamerlan if there was ever any childhood mishaps.
“Dzhokhar would literally follow his brother around the house,” he said, explaining that Tamerlan would always walk in front of Dzhokhar. “They loved each other.”
That relationship is also why Tsarni now believes Tamerlan was the leader of the bombing plot and pulled in his younger brother.
The Tsarnaev parents and Dzhokhar came to America in 2002, and Tamerlan, whose paperwork needed to be processed, followed in 2003.
Both boys loved school, music and sports, their uncle recalled. Tamerlan Tsarnaev got into boxing; Dzhokhar was into wrestling and soccer.
“They weren’t deprived of anything,” Tsarni said. “I was very close to them. These were happy, cheerful kids.”
Tsarni described Dzhokhar, the youngest of four kids, as quiet, nice and happy. He said it was easy for him to be overlooked in the family. Tamerlan was the oldest and his mother doted on him, Tsarni said. There were also two daughters and then Dzhokhar.
Despite their family being several generations Muslim, Tsarni said neither he nor the Tsarnaev family went to mosque or prayers together. He couldn’t remember a time where the family read the Quran together. Instead, the family talked about school and making sure children in their family achieved success.
“It’s not about going to mosque, it’s about how you live your life,” Tsarni said. “We didn’t accept C’s. We had a code of behavior: listen to elders and show respect.”
Tsarni added that he wouldn’t even drink in front of his nephews because the family wanted to set a good example.
Both brothers met to the family’s expectation including Dzhokhar who would voluntarily make tea for his uncle when he visited, Tsarni recalled.
Tsarni fondly recalled Tamerlan in 2006 walking down Boston’s Massachusetts Avenue drinking Starbucks and greeting friends and several people in the neighborhood. He also says Tamerlan was also partying at nightclubs, drinking and writing music.
“He was a happy person,” the uncle said. “I don’t know what happened.”
A FAMILY DISPUTE
In 2007, Ruslan Tsarni had a falling out with the Tsarnaev brothers and their mother, to whom the brothers had grown very attached. Tsarni wouldn’t go into detail about the incident, saying it was unrelated to the bombings or the possible motive behind it. He did, however, say after an e-mail and phone call with Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2007, the uncle and nephew became distant.
During that time, Tsarni says his brother told him an Armenian man named “Misha,” began visiting the family’s small Cambridge, Mass., apartment. The man would stay past midnight and talk to the family about Islam. When the Tsarnaev father would object, the wife would brush him off, Tsarni said.
Ruslan Tsarni describes “Misha” as a man in his 30s, who preached sports, music and school were unimportant and instead stressed a radical version of Islam.
Tsarni said the boys’ father was too occupied with paying bills and supporting a wife. The parents moved back to Russia in the past year, he added.
Tsarni last spoke with Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2009. Gone was the hard-partying, outgoing person he once knew. In his place was a completely different young man who dodged questions about work and school and instead talked about spirituality.
Tamerlan “would just say he was on a path to God,” Tsarni said.
Tsarni didn’t take the talk seriously and never told authorities.
Now, Tsarni said he can’t grieve for his dead nephew or Dzhokhar, who remains hospitalized. “It’s hard when you have a dead body in your family and you can’t mourn,” he said. “Last Monday, they were just unjustifiably evil.”
Contributing: Associated Press