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.

Essay Types: Essay