The story of Rustam Daudov, Chechen teen hero

Much has been written about the worst sort of Chechens recently. I’ve read about Doku Umarov, who sends men and women barely out of their teens to blow up subways and airports. I’ve read about Shamil Basayaev, who commanded the Beslan school hostage-takers. Like the rest of us, I will be reading about the murderous Tsarnaev brothers for years to come. By week’s end, the words “Chechen” and “terrorist” seemed fated to equivalence.

And then, I remembered Utøya.

When I was still writing for TIME Magazine, I covered the initial days after the 2011 Norway massacre. A pasty loner named Anders Breivik murdered 77 people by setting off a massive fertilizer bomb in central Oslo before making his way to a summer camp to gun down as many teenagers as he could. One of the first things we learned in those early moments was how little resistance Breivik, who was dressed as a police officer, met during his attack. Security guards waved him onto the boat to Utøya. The captain helped him carry his bags, which were full of guns and ammunition. When the shooting began, the campers were confused and utterly defenseless. They had already heard about the bomb in Oslo—the rumor on the island was that it was the work of al Qaeda. And when Breivik, the Norwegian in a police uniform, strode up toward them, the campers went to him, sheep flocking to the wolf.

It’s that moment, in particular, that shows the danger of stereotypes. They’re dangerous not just because they degrade civil society (though they do), or because we should all just love our fellow man (though we should), but also because they make us more vulnerable in an attack or time of crisis. These mostly Norwegian kids, thinking that al Qaeda had bombed their capital, rushed toward the blond cop for safety. When they were close enough, he opened fire. By the time it was over, 69 people had been shot to death on Utøya.

The world’s attention had moved elsewhere by the time the story of Rustam Daudov and his friend Jamal Movsar came to light. These two friends, both Chechen refugees like the Tsarnaevs, were among the very few who fought back against Breivik. While others ran away or froze, they grabbed rocks and ran toward the gunman. I’ll leave it to Daudov to tell the story, but suffice to say that they have been credited with saving 23 people on the island that day. Both boys were 16 years old at the time.

Daudov, now 18, spoke with me this weekend from his home in Elverum, Norway. We spoke a little bit of Russian—he’s still fluent—and a lot of English. His English is impressive, cobbled together as it is from classroom lessons and American hiphop. Throughout his interview, he was calm, unflinching, humble.

I only noticed afterwards that in his entire recounting of the horrors of that day, he never once said the name Breivik. It’s a small detail, perhaps, but worth emulating. Why give the killers a name? They murdered innocents so that their names would be on our lips. Better to not remember Breivik by name. Same goes for the Tsarnaevs. Let’s remember instead the heroes in Boston: Bauman and Arredondo or Tareq Ahmed and Danny. And here’s a little thought experiment: next time you hear “Chechen”, don’t think “terrorist” or “Tsarnaev”. Think Daudov. Think Movsar. Think survivors. Think saviors. Think human beings.

Roads & Kingdoms: When did you come to Norway?

Rustam Daudov: I moved here in 2003. I was with my mother only. My father died in the second [Chechen] war in 1999.

R&K: How did he die?

RD: He was a warrior. He was killed by Russian soldiers.

R&K: Did you come straight from Grozny to Norway?

RD: I was born in Novgorod, but I lived my life in Grozny. My mother was a big businesswoman in her time. She had a lot of money back then. She wanted to protect me, so she went to Norway. It cost a lot to get here. We lived in Svolvær, in the north of Norway, for one year. Then we were approved for asylum and we moved here, to Elverum.

R&K: So you left Chechnya when you were 8. Do you feel Norwegian?

RD: I do kind of feel like that. I love most of the people here, they’re really nice.

R&K: Do you go back to Chechnya?

RD: We go back once a year. I have my grandma, grandpa, uncle, some cousins. I don’t know [if I would move there] though. Have you ever been to Chechnya?

R&K: No.

RD: You should go. It’s nice there.

My friends on the island were Arabs, Norwegians, Bosnians.

R&K: What are you studying?

RD: Health care, second year of school. Then comes [college]. Maybe business school.

R&K: Are there other refugees in your town?

RD: There are refugees everywhere in Norway. Every city you come to you’ll find them. But I’m not the type of guy who hang only with the one type of person or the other. I have all kinds of friends.

R&K: How has your mother adapted to life in Norway?

RD: She likes Norway really. She has many friends here too, and I don’t know really, but it looks like she really likes Norway.

R&K: What brought you to Utøya?

RD: We were like a group of friends that went together.

R&K: Other Chechens?

RD: My friends who I came there with were Arabs, Norwegians, Bosnians. I have a lot of friends. I cannot remember every country; it was 17-18 guys with some girls. When we were on Utøya, we did meet some Chechen guys, even a couple that dressed like Norwegians. They asked me, in Norwegian, if I’m from Chechnya, and I said yes.

We were there for four days; we were supposed to leave the next day. We all liked Utøya, [it was a chance to] enjoy some time in a park and have fun. Just to have fun, listen to good music, play cards, chill with each other, talk a little politics.

R&K: What’s your music?

RD: I like Jay-Z, you know. A lot of hiphop.

R&K: What kind of cards you play?

RD: Same card games you have in the United States. Everything. Poker, blackjack. I suck at that. I lose all the time.

Of course, I’m really proud to be Chechen. I’m always going to be that.

R&K: The Utøya trip was a youth retreat for the Norwegian Labour party. Are you particularly political?

RD: A little. I don’t like to sit on the couch and talk politics and do nothing. It’s good to do something, to go and meet people, see what everyone is doing. It was a good idea to go to Utøya.

R&K: Are there a lot of refugees in politics in Norway?

RD: No, not so many refugees in politics.

R&K: Do you even consider yourself a refugee still?

RD: I don’t know. Some call us refugees, some call us Norwegian. When I’m in Norway, they call me Chechen. When I’m in Russia, they call me Norwegian. But of course, I’m really proud to be Chechen. I’m always going to be that.

[Breivik] shot one of my very good friends, Isma. He died. Then it sort of clicked in my head.

R&K: Tell me about the day of the shootings.

RD: We were standing before the meal at the cafeteria. We were thinking we were going to eat. But it never happened.

We heard some gunfire, but we never thought about that. It couldn’t happen. So were chilling, thinking it was some kind of joke. But then this girl next to us got shot. She fell.

R&K: Did you see who shot her?

RD: I didn’t see him the first time at the cafeteria. We ran to the water. There was a kind of building. And there were my friends there. Then [Breivik] came to us and said, I’m from the police.

We were going to walk up to him, but my friend [Jamal] said, “I think it was he who was shooting.” It didn’t take a second and [Breivik] took out a gun and started shooting. When we saw it, we didn’t understand it.

He shot one of my very good friends, Isma. He died. Then it sort of clicked in my head. I remember it was loud. It was many people who panicked and screamed and everything. It clicked that we had to do something.

We got as close as we could from the back and threw the rocks at his head.

We found some stones, because we had nothing, you know. We had no weapon. We don’t carry weapons in Norway. We had really nothing. It was the only choice, to do what we did. We took some stones we found on the ground, about as big as my hand, I don’t know. We got as close as we could from the back and threw them at his head.

I know we hit him. He said in court later that he had been hit by stones.

There were two with me who threw stones. They were both Chechens.

R&K: Why do you think it was the Chechens who were fighting back?

RD: I don’t know. I remember [after we were rescued] that every of one my Chechen friends was looking back toward the island like nothing happened. One of my friends was just smoking a cigarette and chilling too much, like nothing happened. The police took him, they thought he was involved. But then they let him go when they realized what had happened.

R&K: Were you old enough to remember the war in Chechnya?

RD: Not really. Just a little bit.

R&K: Is it true what they say, that Chechens are just tough people?

RD: Chechen culture is really strong, you know. Actually, we don’t like to fight. We are really friendly. But when somebody does something to us, we do it two times harder.

I know we hit him. He said in court later that he had been hit by stones.

R&K: What happened after you threw the stones at Breivik?

RD: We saw that nothing happened with him. He didn’t fall. He just reloaded and screamed. I didn’t really hear him, but other people there heard what he said.

R&K: What did they say he screamed?

RD: “You black n*ggers”.

R&K: What happened next?

RD: We ran away to the shore. We found a shelter there, like a cave. There were some boys standing nearby and I told them to get into the cave, that [Breivik] was coming and would shoot them.

We got all the little kids in the shelter, and we waited. [Jamal swam to get] some kids, I brought them into the shelter, warmed them up and calmed them down. When the first [rescue] boat came later, we put the little kids, and one older kid who was really really cold, on the boat. It was another hour before the next boat came.

R&K: When did your mother see you again after that?

RD: Later that day, we rode with some friends back home. She was shocked, she was really in shock. If I died, I don’t know, something bad would happen to her, I think.

If you’re really a smart person, you’re gonna realize you can’t put a bad thing on a whole people

R&K: Have you been following what happened in Boston?

RD: Of course.

R&K: What do people there think about it?

RD: Nobody trusts it, like maybe somebody set them up. I do not include myself into that. I can’t say anything… I don’t know those things. I think we all are human beings, you know. So maybe, maybe it’s possible. But really, if you ask me, I don’t think those guys did that. Because one of those guys was really good in school, the other was really good in athletics. Why would they do this? I’m like Tupac: Have to see the real lies with my real eyes.

R&K: It seems, a lot, like they did do it. Are you worried that they’ll bring a bad name to all Chechens?

RD: If they did it, if that’s gonna bring us a bad name? I don’t really think about it so much. If you’re really a smart person, you’re gonna realize you can’t put a bad thing on a whole people.

Now I like talking about it: it’s a good story about Chechens.

R&K: Did the relationship between refugees and Norwegians change after Utøya?

RD: Yes, people are more like “we” now. Not “us” or “you”, but “we”.

R&K: By bringing all those kids into the cave, keeping them from Breivik and from hypothermia, you two have been credited with saving 23 lives.

RD: I never said that. I said I helped some people. I did something, but not so many things. I was a little bit shocked the whole time… I didn’t tell the story; a journalist from Oslo first came to me later and said, I heard what you did. Before I didn’t want to talk at all. I was worried, not about me, but about my family. That there would be more people like [Breivik] that would want to hurt them. But now I like talking about it: it’s a good story about Chechens.