A woman who claims to be the oldest person in the world has told of the brutality of her deportation into Soviet internal exile by tyrant Stalin during World War Two.
Koku Istambulova is 129 according to her Russian passport and pension papers which show her date of birth as 1 June 1889.
Now in lucid and deeply shocking testimony, she has spoken emotionally of the appalling day her native Chechen people were deported en masse by Stalin to the steppes of Kazakhstan almost 75 years ago and says the only happy day in all her years was when she entered a home built from her own hands back in her native land.
Upon returning home from the shocking Stalin purge that sentenced her to 13 years in a foreign land, Koku set about building a home after Russians occupied many of the vacated Chechen houses.
Previously, Koku has been quoted saying that she is the oldest person who ever lived – yet she has not had a single happy day in her life.
However, despite trawling through dirt to craft her home from mud, water and dry sticks, Koku has now said the day she got back and the eventual building of her home – ‘the most beautiful in the world’ – were happy days.
The wily old woman knows people’s fascination with her, she said to TV crews interviewing her for a documentary on the Chechen purge: ‘You’re asking if I had a single happy day in my life.
‘It was the day when I first entered my house. It was very small and I stoked the stove with wood. But it was my home.
‘I built it myself, the best house in the world. I lived there for 60 years.’
Her great granddaughter Medina, 15, now chosen by the family to care for the remarkable Koku, said: ‘Granny built it herself when she returned from exile.
‘She mixed soil and water, added dry sticks and grass and made stones out of it, then put them one on another and painted with white paint later.’
However, this was preceded by truly dark days, Koku told how people died in the cattle-truck trains used for the forced exile of her people – and their bodies were thrown out of the carriages to be eaten by hungry dogs.
If her age is correct, Koku was 54 at the time, having earlier lived through the coronation of the last tsar Nicholas II two days before her 7th birthday – and his toppling when she was 27.
‘It was a bad day, cold and gloomy,’ she said of the February morning in 1944 when the entire entire nation was banished from their mountain homeland in the Trans-Causacus.
‘We were put in a train and taken … no one knew where.
‘Railway carriages were stuffed with people – dirt, rubbish, excrement was everywhere.’
Stressing the cruelty of Stalin’s action, she said determinedly in her native Chechen language: ‘Write that – there was excrement in the carriages.
‘We were not allowed [to go] anywhere.’
Young Caucasus girls died because from the rupturing of their bladders – they were ashamed to go to the toilet in crowded stinking the crowded trains.
Older women tried to crowd round them to stop their embarrassment as they relieved themselves.
Yet there was worse.
‘On the way to our exile, dead bodies were just thrown out of the train,’ she said.
‘Nobody was allowed to bury the dead.
‘Corpses were eaten by dogs. My father-in-law was thrown out of the train in this way.’
The guard fed them ‘rotten fish’, she said.
‘We had hard times when we were deported.’
The paranoid Stalin alleged the Chechens were collaborating with the Nazis.
‘We were told that we were bad people and that’s why we had to leave,’ she said.
‘I don’t know what we suffered for…I felt no guilt.’
Before the war, she recalled ‘scary’ Nazi tanks passing her family home.
She suffered devastating personal bereavements in her Kazakh hell – her two sons both perished in the harsh conditions.
‘There were no doctors, no-one to treat them,’ she said.
‘My younger boy came down with something and passed away really quickly. Such things happened in every family.
‘When women gave birth children often died because there were no obstetricians, only neighbours and friends.’
Weeping the old lady said: ‘I only kept my daughter Tamara.’
Medina, Koku’s granddaughter, said that Koku feels the loss of Tamara, a mother of six and grandmother of 16, who died several years ago.
‘After her death Koku went almost blind. She hardly walks now. And when she recalls her daughter, my own granny, she gets anxious.
‘She cries as many times a day as she recalls her daughter.’
Koku says she never went to school.
‘I was working since early childhood,’ she said.
‘I never studied. I took care of a cow, chickens. I dug the soil in the garden, and kept digging… every day.’
She gathered cotton and corn, and nursed her younger brothers and sisters.
As a child she remembers playing with dolls made of cloth by her uncle. She had red shoes and white stockings bought by her father at a fair.
These were the first and last nice clothes in her short youth.
She said: ‘Father was ill, then mother was ill. Grandma was ill.
‘I was the oldest, how could I leave them?’
She married late when a man was chosen for her from another village.
‘I didn’t know him at all,’ she said.
‘But then I started to love him.
‘What else could I do if I got married? I had to endure.
‘His name was Magomed and he was younger than me.’
She laughed as she recalled: ‘He wasn’t handsome at all.’
Asked about the secret of going life, she previously said: ‘It was God’s will.
‘I did nothing to make it happen.
‘I see people going in for sports, eating something special, keeping themselves fit, but I have no idea how I lived until now.’
The expulsion, preceded by the 1940–1944 insurgency in Chechnya, was ordered by NKVD chief Lavrentiy Beria after approval by Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin
As for food, she shuns meat and loathes soups but loves fermented milk.
She has lived through two world wars, the Russian civil war after the Bolshevik revolution, and two Chechen wars.
She asked: ‘Why did Allah give me such a long life and so little happiness?….
‘I would have been dead long ago, if not for Allah who was holding me in his arms.’
Koku said: ‘It is hard to live when all who remembered you died long ago.
‘And it is very scary to die, however old you are’,
Officials say originals of Koku’s documents were lost during the wars which ravaged her homeland in the early part of this century.
This means there is no way to prove her exceptional age. But here in Chechnya no-one doubts her longevity.
The state pension fund, a state body, claims there are 37 people over 110 years of age in Russia yet all these claims, including Koku’s, are impossible to verify because of the lack of reliable birth or early childhood written records.
Most live, like Koku, in the Caucasus which has a history of long living people.
The oldest documented human lifespan is Jeanne Calment, from France, who lived 122 years, 164 days, dying in 1997.
As a girl she met Vincent van Gogh.