Politkovskaya would smile


Excerpts from a  RFERL article 2002


As was noted in the most recent issue of this newsletter, the award-winning Russian war correspondent Anna Politkovskaya has returned to Russia after having been ordered by her editors to spend several months abroad due to serious death threats made against her by persons opposed to her reporting concerning the conflict in Chechnya. The January 10 (no. 1) issue of Novaya Gazeta carries a new article by her, entitled “A Face Which Has Forgotten How to Smile,” datelined “Alkhan-Yurt, Chechnya,” which examines the sad fate of a 12-year-old boy, Islam Lichaev, living in a collapsing, drafty house without doors or glass windows on a semi-destroyed street in Alkhan-Yurt.

“Dostoyevsky,” Politkovskaya begins her essay, “is of course not guilty of anything. But one no longer has the strength now, after more than two years since the beginning of the second Chechen war, to read his reflections about a child’s tear…. In Chechnya there has for a long time not been any talk about the tears of children.” The subject of her article, Islam, is an invalid of the first group. He is blind, his eyes having been scorched out by flames while, instead of hands, he now possesses mere stumps. On March 8, 2001, Islam accidentally detonated a landmine. “Whose mine it was is not known.” The small invalid, who looks as if he were 8 rather than 12 years of age, now lives in a destitute house with his demoralized mother, Zara, and five siblings on a street which has been “bombed again and again.” He does not have a father.

The Russian state, Politkovskaya reflects, might be ready to help Islam were he not perceived as a “bad” Chechen, “that is, as one having no use from a propaganda point of view.” Unlike the young 15-year-old Chechen boy recently honored (posthumously) by President Putin, Islam did not kill a Chechen field commander “or someone else whom our special services had been unable to catch.” Rather, “he is the most normal contemporary Chechen child whose virtual entire life has passed in hunger and war. His years passed not in study but in considering such questions as: where are the armored columns passing by my house going; who has been killed on my street; into whose house have they broken; and whose corpse has been found in nearby Chernorechensky Forest?”



On Islam’s street live “the poorest of the poor, outsiders of the present Chechen life-children without fathers, and mothers with many children and no husbands.”


When Islam’s mother attempted to gain assistance from the pro-Moscow authorities for her “mutilated” son, they said to her: “Perhaps he was a saboteur and himself placed that mine, stupidly blowing himself up on it? Are we to provide treatment to a rebel?” For the pro-Moscow Chechen authorities sitting in Grozny behind a high government fence, Islam and “hundreds of mutilated Chechen children” who have accidentally detonated mines are of absolutely no interest, since they have summarily been assigned to the category of “bad” Chechens.

Zara, Islam’s mother, had traveled to Djohar (Grozny), the capital, hoping to be able to speak with Zinaida Batysheva about his predicament. “Batysheva,” Politkovskaya stipulates, “is the Chechen [Valentina] Matvienko, the deputy minister for social issues of that government which sits in Grozny and which does not stick its nose outside. All help for invalids is under her control.” But Zara was not admitted so see Batysheva; rather she was rudely shown the door. The point is, Politkovskaya emphasizes, there really was something that Batysheva could have done for Islam. He has been provided with crude, extremely heavy and painful prosthetic devices which have been cheaply manufactured for the indigent populace, while well-to-do citizens are able to purchase normal functioning devices. Islam could be immensely helped by workable prosthetic devices. In addition, by a miracle, Islam still has an optic nerve in one eye; he could be given an operation with the result that his sight could be partially restored.

Well this ‘small invalid’ , this child of war  from the ‘poorest of the poor’ has a story that does end in Alkhan Yurt but has continued and flourished in London.

I met Islam as a junior trainee plastic surgeon and he was a young teenager fresh from Chechnya. I was given what would become the fateful task of organizing the extraction of an ingrowing toenail. This is a minor inconvenience the magnitude of which is multiplied in the blind. In Islams case the pain and inconvenience was made much worse by his lack of hands. Islam bore this complaint and so many others uncomplainingly with a laughter at himself I came to learn is quite typical of many people of the Caucasus. In Islams case this came with the full weight of lifes hardest physical, mental and moral challenges.

He arrived in the UK in 2002 under the auspices of a British charity accompanied by an older but still teenage brother. Their trials and tribulations were immense as I and others who have been involved with them know too well. A series of accommodation changes, poverty, severe health problems often exacerbated by poor living conditions and their youth, conspired to make life frequently unbearable. And it should be borne in mind this is in the UK with an enviable welfare state.

Yet this remarkable person has passed through all these tribulations of puberty to adulthood with the greatest of credit to his spirit and the love of those around him. He is a father of four young children, husband and student. He has managed to learn a foreign language in a foreign land with two major life changing disabilities, each of which in their own right would consign many sufferers to a life a despair. In Islams case these disabilities have been crowned by a chronic and frequently severe illness, that almost certainly would make progress virtually impossible for most sufferers in Islams situation. Yet Islam has managed by patient devotion to study and natural high levels of intelligence to put himself in a position to be applying for a place at University in the UK despite his physical trials. It was therefore with joy that recently  I was able to help him write his CV application which with his customary impatience had to be written impeccably and by yesterday!

It speaks volumes of his developed heart that he has opted for a career in Social Work, knowing very well by personal experience the harsh rigors of life as an asylum seeker, of the problems of culture shock, of severe physical disability, the problems of navigating the welfare state and the social and health services and a myriad of other complex and frequently severe health problems and psychological issues that place Islam in a unique position of insight to be able to help others.

It is of great credit to the Chechen nation, to Politkovskaya, to those many people who helped Islam progress to where he is today, and to Islam himself who could never have survived without the huge self sacrifice of his older brother, that today he stands today proud of his achievements. He looks resolutely forward to his role in a world, that though he does not have the eyes to see, yet has a vision for a better place. A place where his own losses and suffering are the currency by which he may make his contribution to the well being of others.

I am almost certain that Zara his long suffering mother who recently passed away in Chechnya and Politkovskaya, who made his plight known to the world, are smiling on Islam wherever they may be. The Roddy Scott Foundation pupils wrote recently of their own definitions of courage. Click the link PankisiTimes.

I would add to those definitions, that a powerful example- a living epitome of human courage is Islam Lichaev who shows us all very clearly a way forward through life with courage and the determined application and focus on educational attainment, and a strong desire to help others, in spite of his personal suffering.


Perhaps our worldy names are not by coincidence. ‘Islam’ is derived from the Arabic word ‘Taslim’ – meaning surrender or submission. In the Chechen language ‘Lich’ means ‘Eagle’. Islam has certainly surrendered his physical body to worldy fate through no fault of his own, but like the eagle, his hopes and aspirations for a life better lived soar boldly in the high mountains of spirit. Herein perhaps lies the true beauty of the Caucasian Mountains, to set us all free.



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