Altitude Sickness

Altitude Sickness

Mini Teaser: Potted phrases like "ethnic tensions" and "age-old religious differences" bear little relevance to the true causes of mountain conflicts.

by Author(s): S. Frederick Starr

At the checkout counter of my grocer is an attractive magazine for
New Age shoppers entitled Shambhala Sun. This evocative name refers
to the mythical mountain realm of the Tibetan Buddhists, a hidden
place symbolizing purity, truth and wisdom. It is also what James
Hilton had in mind when he created the land of Shangri-La in his 1933
novel, Lost Horizons. As it happens, just last summer I was camping
on the Kazakstan-Russian border in the shadow of Beluka, a
16,600-foot peak that local people have long associated with
Shambhala. It is indeed an awesome sight, altogether worthy of the
symbolic role assigned to it by Buddhists and assorted mystics such
as Henry Wallace's friend, the Russian visionary painter Nikolai
Roerich. But the deep valleys of the Altai Mountain range that
surround Beluka are more notable for another characteristic: the
peoples who inhabit them are desperately poor and increasingly
frustrated over their circumstances.

For modern urbanites, the world's high mountain zones are symbols of
unspoiled nature and timeless truths that, we often presume, somehow
escape the lowland denizens of the global marketplace. They are
places depicted on gorgeous calendars, locales for "trekking"
(formerly known as hiking) and other forms of eco-tourism. But for
the people who actually live in them they are all too often places of
neglect or persecution, economic and cultural breakdown, and
spiraling violence. Indeed, a disproportionate number of the world's
bloodiest zones of conflict today are in mountain regions.

The majestic Andes highlands of Peru, for example, were for years the
scene of a relentless battle between local campesinos and the
intellectuals who led them, on the one hand, and the Peruvian army
and security forces on the other. The fighting pitted ethnic Indians
against the Spanish culture of Lima, and coca planting against the
economic uncertainties of legal market crops. It turned entire areas
of the Incas' enchanting mountain home into a killing zone. The
Sendero Luminoso and Tupac Amaru are less in evidence today, but few
if any of the problems that gave rise to them have been solved.

A world away, the Caucasus region presents an equally romantic
picture of towering peaks and brooding ruins, a region celebrated by
Russian poets, Lermontov and Pushkin among them, and by the young
novelist Tolstoy. But beginning in 1989, fighting in the small
territory of Karabakh ("The Black Garden") cost thousands of Muslim
Azeris and Christian Armenians their lives and led eventually to a
million displaced Azeris, one of the largest groups of refugees
anywhere in the world today.

Chechnya, one of several Muslim provinces in Russia's North Caucasus
range, presents another struggle in the mountains, but this time
between central and local rule. Several hundred thousand Russian
troops, tribal guerrilla fighters and civilians have perished there
in two vicious phases of warfare, with no end to the fighting in
sight. The Russians' best hope is that the violence can be kept from
spilling over into the neighboring mountains of Dagestan and
Ingushetia. Meanwhile, in the South Caucasus, independent Georgia
faces armed independence movements in Ossetia and Abkhazia.

In Mexico's inaccessible and mountainous Chiapas state yet another
struggle against central rule proceeds. The fact that no religious
differences divide the parties, and that the Indian-Spanish ethnic
split is only partial, may make this conflict less bloody. But it
poses as serious a challenge to Mexico as any that country has seen
in decades. The struggles in Chechnya and Chiapas are in some
respects similar to the generation-long conflict over Turkey's remote
and still undeveloped southeastern provinces, where ethnic Kurds,
peripheral to Turkish culture and political geography, have waged
armed struggle for greater control over their own affairs. Episodic
Kurdish struggles against Iran, Iraq and Syria fit a roughly similar

An undeclared civil war in Nepal pits Maoist insurgents against an
ineffective and discredited central authority in half of the
country's 75 districts, with the rebels now in full control of five
districts. Like Afghanistan's Taliban, the rebels forcefully impose a
puritanical order wherever they go, and are often welcomed in
mountain huts for doing so. For the insurgents promise stability and
a government attuned to the needs of impoverished mountain peoples,
rather than to the urban middle class of Kathmandu.

Not all mountain conflicts pit indigenous locals against the armies
of remote central governments. For four years in the early 1990s a
civil war raged across the newly independent Central Asian state of
Tajikistan. Ninety-five percent covered with mountains, Tajikistan
produced a many-sided conflict in which regional interests, rival
Muslim religious factions, clan and ethnic groupings, and a weak
central government all played a part.

Other mountain-based conflicts combine ethnic, religious,
central-local and cultural issues in ways so complex as to make the
factors inextricable from one another. The Balkans (Bosnia, Kosovo
and Macedonia) are prime examples of how such diverse threads can be
woven into a web of strife, and are the more notable because during
the previous two generations the peoples involved had lived together
quite amicably.

No mountain zone has witnessed more bloodshed over the past two
decades than the Hindu Kush, Pamir and Kohi-Baba ranges that make up
Afghanistan. This crisis, like the struggle in Karabakh, began when
one state invaded another, in this case the Soviet Union's 1979
assault on Kabul. As in Communist Yugoslavia and Tajikistan, the old
state collapsed, leaving the field open to a range of local warlords
and their competing foreign supporters.

The one respect in which the struggle in Afghanistan surpasses all
other mountain conflicts is the impact of locally grown drugs on the
country and on its neighbors. Yet even though Afghanistan has been
producing 85 percent of the world's heroin--until this year--the
combination of drugs and mountain-based conflicts is not unique to
that country. It is a root cause of the ongoing fighting in the
mountains of Colombia's interior, and the reason President Clinton
committed $1.2 billion to stop it. The Balkans, Tajikistan,
Kyrgyzstan, Chiapas and Kurdistan are all important transit points
for drugs, as are Kashmir and the north of Myanmar, two more mountain
regions where strife prevails.

This cursory survey of three continents suggests an intriguing
correlation: While only about one-sixth of the world's population
lives in mountainous zones or areas immediately adjacent to them,
such regions account for a solid majority of the bloodiest and most
intractable contemporary conflicts. To be sure, other geographical
zones claim their share of strife, whether the arid lands of the
Levant and Arabia, the islands of Indonesia, or the coastal plains of
West Africa. Further, there is always the possibility that the
"mountain-ness" of Chechnya, Colombia, Afghanistan, Chiapas,
Karabakh, Kashmir, Peru and the Balkans is just a coincidence, or
that it is less important than any of a number of other factors,
whether ethnic or religious differences, demands for autonomy or
independence, or the putative "clash of civilizations."

The world press has been quick to ascribe virtually every instance of
bloodshed in mountain regions to "ethnic tension", "age-old religious
differences" or some other potted phrase acting as a substitute for
thought. Governments, including that of the United States, have
tended to shy away from direct, hands-on involvement in most such
conflicts because they are deemed to be ipso facto irreconcilable,
like a Rubik's cube with no solution. Yet not one of these standard
factors is present in all the conflicts enumerated above, let alone
in others not mentioned. The fact that serious conflicts occur in
mountain regions where one or several of these factors are absent
should counsel us to search more deeply for their true causes. So if
something negative is happening in the world's mountain regions that
goes beyond "ethnic and religious strife", what might this something

The simplest explanation for all this conflict in mountainous
territories draws from an old folklore-embellished argument well
known to every American: mountain people are naturally scrappy. North
Carolina's feisty mountaineers managed to strike adversarial poses in
nearly every conflict facing their state from the Revolution onward.
The Hatfield and McCoy families may have confined their
multi-generational grudge match to the area of Tug Fork in the
Appalachians, but they are enduring symbols of mountain folks'
tendency everywhere neither to forgive nor forget. Nor should we
neglect to mention the old-country home of many American
mountaineers--the Scottish Highlands, whose clans have fought and
feuded their way into indelible legend.

It cannot be denied that once aroused to battle, mountain people are
loath to give up. The sense of territoriality, independence and
cohesive social relations formed in isolated upland valleys are
perfectly suited to sustain conflicts over the long haul. One could
argue that relative isolation from the cosmopolitanism and culture
sharing of other regions has led to a general sort of illiberalism of
attitudes, as well as to an accentuation of the "mine versus thine"
mentality. In several cases, too, the relative isolation and
insularity of mountainous regimes has either contributed to religious
heterodoxy or provided a literal stronghold for it--Lebanon being
perhaps the most vivid example. And no one can deny that the martial
reputation of many mountain dwellers--Gurkhas, Druze, Hokka and
Pashtuns, for example--is well deserved.

Essay Types: Essay