Rustam Daudov was just a small boy when the second Chechen war broke out. In 2003, his father was killed, and soon after, the family emigrated to Norway.
They thought life would be peaceful there — light years away from the violence they had witnessed back home.
Daudov enjoyed life in his new home, and slowly began to take an interest in local politics. In July, the 16-year-old and a fellow Chechen friend, 17-year-old Movsar Dzhamayev, traveled to a Labor Party youth camp on the Norwegian island of Utoeya.
Daudov says they went to the camp “to look around and find out what was going on, just out of interest” and also to get a look at “what the political future holds.”
But on July 22, Daudov and Dzhamayev were among hundreds of teenagers who found themselves trapped on Utoeya as a far-right extremist angered by the government’s liberal immigration policies went on a massive shooting spree at the camp, killing 69 people over the course of an hour.
Fighting Back With Rocks
After seeing the heavily armed assailant, 32-year-old Anders Behring Breivik, kill several people at close range, Dzhamayev called his father, who urged the boys to fight back. So Daudov and Dzhamayev hurled rocks at Breivik, hoping to knock him unconscious.
But after watching Breivik kill an acquaintance by shooting him in the head, the boys fled. They turned their attention to finding a cave to help people hide as the rampage continued. In the end, they helped provide shelter for 23 people — many of whom had entered the water surrounding the island, making them even more vulnerable.
Daudov claims it’s possible that more people could have been saved but that the attack had been so unexpected it reduced the island to chaos.
“There were places to hide; it’s just that everyone was panicking, everyone was in shock,” he says. “No one could believe what was happening. A lot of them couldn’t even tell if what was going on was real or not. No one had ever thought that something like that could happen in Norway. And even hiding didn’t always help — after all, he had an entire hour.”
Since Breivik’s attacks — which also included a car bomb in Oslo that killed eight peple — Daudov and Dzhamayev, themselves a target of Breivik’s anti-Muslim, anti-foreign campaign, have emerged as heroes.
Line Brustad, a correspondent with Norway’s “Dagbladet” newspaper, first heard of the teenagers when a young survivor told her about two young men who had helped direct people into a cave for safety.
Medics and emergency workers escort shell-shocked youths from the scene of the Utoeya rampage.
According to Brustad, the anecdote was later confirmed in part by Breivik’s lawyer, Geir Lippestad. “He spoke to Breivik, who told him that someone in fact had thrown some kind of object at him on the island,” she says, adding that this corroboration prompted her to tell the story these boys had to tell as it was “the right thing to do.”
The tale of Daudov and Dzhamayev has been hailed back in Chechnya, and the republic’s head, Ramzan Kadyrov, even said that the young men had acted like “real heroes.”
Kadyrov’s press secretary, Alvi Karimov, goes one step further. “These teenagers behaved in a very manly way in a situation where even adults could easily get confused and think primarily about saving their own lives,” he said. “But they saved the lives of other children. That deserves a lot of respect.”
The incident has called attention to Norway’s Chechen diaspora. Thousands of Chechens have resettled in Norway since the start of the second Chechen war in 1999.
But the relationship between the Chechens and their host nation is not always a tranquil one. Norwegian police stage regular raids on Chechen households and dozens of Chechens have been deported for violating immigration rules.
Wartime Experience Kept Them Calm
Another Chechen at the Utoeya site, Anzor Djukaev, was arrested after the massacre when a Norwegian survivor told police the boy had acted unusually calm and unafraid during the shooting. Djukaev was stripped of his possessions — including his mobile phone — and held incommunicado for 17 hours before police were convinced he had no connection to the massacre and released him.
Djukaev, who told RFE/RL he planned to file a lawsuit for unfair arrest, has said his calm behavior was a result of his wartime experience in Chechnya.
It’s an explanation that Daudov echoes when explaining why he and Dzhamayev may have been the only people on the island with the presence of mind to fight back against a heavily armed killer.
“We probably reacted that way because we’re Chechen,” Daudov says. “In Norway they’re not used to this. We lived through a war. But they thought that something like that could never happen. At that moment, even we thought something like that could never happen in Norway.”
based on reporting from Moscow by Anastasia Kirilenko; written by Daisy Sindelar in Prague