Uncle Ruslan Meets the World
Ruslan Tsarni hadn’t yet brought in his garbage cans when reporters, then investigators, showed up at his home Friday morning. By afternoon, his quiet cul-de-sac in Montgomery Village was echoing with news choppers hovering overhead and reporters swarming the street.
He had been following the tragedy of the Boston Marathon bombing like the rest of the country. Then his wife pulled up images from AOL of the two suspects accused of setting the bombs that killed three and maimed scores of others as it exploded at the finish line. The faces were his brother’s sons. As he spoke to the reporters thronging past his driveway, the elder nephew, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was dead. The younger one Dzokhar Tsarnaev remained at large, the subject of a massive manhunt that scoured the streets of the suburbs surrounding Boston.
“Turn yourself in,” Tsarni tells Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, through the forest of TV cameras facing him.
Tsarni is visibly angry as he speaks to reporters—not at the press pack that has descended on his home and put him at the center of national news, but at his nephews who had wreaked this violence. He distances the boys from Chechnya, from Islam, from his own family. He hasn’t seen that part of his family in years. He doesn't say why: "It’s personal."
"I’ve just been following this from Day One," Tsarni says, “but never, ever would imagine that somehow that children of my brother would be associated with that. It is an atrocity. We’re devastated. We’re shocked."
This is what international news looks like when it arrives on ordinary suburbs where residents worry more about their neighbors raising dandelions than terrorists.
Just outside the town of Gaithersburg, Montgomery Village is a community of some 32,000 people, a diverse area where immigrants from around the world—Africa, Asia, Latin America, and in Tsarni's case, Chechnya—have moved in alongside native-born whites, blacks, Asians and Latinos. It’s a place where people leave in the morning for jobs in the District. Where neighbors smile and wave but don’t know each other’s names. It’s a place where mailboxes seem more likely to be tied with yellow ribbons in honor of troops, not “DO NOT CROSS” police tape.
On Friday morning, it’s a place where cherry trees are blooming and dogwood scents the air, where SUVs sit parked in driveways, and where two dozen journalists have converged to follow the latest lead in the deadly bombing, their satellite trucks close behind.
Tsarni’s neighbor across the street says she watches his children play in their backyard playhouse, the one with the yellow slide, next to the trampoline. His nephews—not those nephews, other nephews—shoveled the snow from her driveway.
"The kids swim. They play piano. Their lawn looks better than mine does now," says the woman, with gray hair and Dior glasses, standing on her front lawn. She declines to give her name after her next-door neighbor harangues her for talking to the press.
Tsarni’s house is a two-story colonial style, brick with red shutters and a two car garage at the end of the driveway. Myrtle bursting with purple flowers grows along the hill in the front yard in front of the stairway that leads to their front door. When his wife arrives home, police escort her Toyota Sienna through the pack of reporters and into her driveway and guide her up her stairway. Her long black hair is tied in a ponytail. She wears jeans and a sweater. Before Monday, she was a suburban mom. Now, she’s the aunt of Suspects #1 and #2.
Tsarni spends the morning with police and FBI investigators. When they leave, he comes out to talk to the press. We scramble to get closer, to see him better, hear him better, shout questions at him. He wears a blue polo shirt, jeans and flip-flops. If his nephews are behind this, he says, it’s because they're “losers,” jealous of others who better “settled themselves.”
“How do you feel about America?” a reporter shouts. “What do you think of the United States?”
Tsarni doesn’t pause.
“I teach my children, and that’s what I feel myself, this is the ideal micro-world in the entire world. I respect this country. I love this country. This country, which gives chance to everybody else, to be treated as a human being and just to be a human being. To feel yourself human being. That’s what I feel about this country.”
When he’s done, he turns and a police officer leads him up the stairway, through his red front door and into his micro-world, blowing up around him.
Photo by David Frey