Koku Istambulova, via Twitter

A long life is often seen as an unalloyed good. Hence the concern in reports about declining life expectancies (as seen in this blog this very week). A longer life is generally seen to be better: who wants to die, right? Well, one lady who is ready for death, although she is still scared about dying, is also the world’s oldest person. Perhaps. Possibly.

Actually we’re not really sure if she is the oldest ever. According to her Russian passport and pension papers, Koku Istambulova is 129 years old and was born on 1 June 1889, but the originals of her papers were lost during the wars and depopulation policies which ravaged her Chechen homeland during the last century. If true, then Koku is much older than the oldest documented person who lived: Jeanne Clement of France who died in 1997 at the age of 122 years and 164 days.

But, no matter exactly how old she is, Koku Istambulova has seen enough woe to fill a much shorter life to the brim.  In World War II, when Koku was 54, the entire Chechen nation was banished from their Trans-Caucasus homeland by Stalin to Kazakhstan. On the trains people died due to the unsanitary conditions, the bodies were thrown to the dogs (literally) and the survivors were fed rotten fish. In Kazakhstan (where she stayed for 13 years) Koku lost both of her sons and was left with only her daughter, Tamara. Tamara died a number of years ago, and according to Koku’s great-granddaughter, Koku “cries as many times a day as she recalls her daughter”.

Although some reports have said that she has “not had a single happy day in her life”, Koku disagrees. When she returned to Chechnya and built her home with her own hands (out of mud, water and dry sticks), they were happy days.

“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.”

So what is the secret to Koku’s long life? According to the woman herself, there is no secret: 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.”

But this is not a blessing according to Koku:

“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. … It is hard to live when all who remembered you died long ago. And it is very scary to die, however old you are.”

Let us pray that Koku dies in comfort and peacefully. And that she looks back on her life and agrees with the words of St Theresa of Avila:

“In light of heaven, the worst suffering on earth will be seen to be no more serious than one night in an inconvenient hotel.”

Marcus Roberts is a Senior Researcher at the Maxim Institute in Auckland, New Zealand, and was co-editor of the former MercatorNet blog, Demography is Destiny. Marcus has a background in the law, both...