Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 3 Issue: 2

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.

However, Politkovskaya underscores, helping children like Islam is most definitely not in the spirit of the times in today’s Russia. In an obvious reference to the Russian president, she writes: “Under any circumstances, it is necessary to be very cold, calculating and indifferent, which is now seen as a sign of a statist mind which incessantly thinks about the Homeland. But not about the children of the Homeland, children to whom the Homeland is in debt.”

“What do you usually do?” Politkovskaya asks Islam. “Nothing,” he responds. “I just sit here for entire days.” But the official television channel of the pro-Moscow Chechen government, in contrast, recently showed Deputy Minister Zinaida Batysheva, “garbed in white fur,” warmly thanking the Central Apparatus of the FSB, in the name of “the Chechen children,” for having generously sent them New Year’s gifts.

To conclude, it is good to see Anna Politkovskaya once again back in Chechnya writing with her customary courage and honesty about persons whom no-one wants to recognize as having worth and dignity. It is impossible, however, not to be concerned about Politkovskaya’s fate, or indeed about her life.