'No Friend But the Mountains' asks why war is so often waged on mountains

War correspondent Judith Matloff travels the world, exploring the many conflicts that have erupted at high altitude.

No Friend but the Mountains: Dispatches from the World’s Violent Highlands By Judith Matloff Basic Books 272 pp.

We, the people, have an uneasy relationship with mountains. And if you read on, yours will likely become even more conflicted, because war correspondent Judith Matloff makes a good case that mountains are where “the centuries shrivel” and peace goes to die – peace, and lots and lots of men, women, and children.

As a species, homo sapiens fight a great deal. We will fight at the beach or on the frontier, in oases and in cities. However, we have a yen for fighting in the mountains. Now, mountains also have a reputation for the sublime – read Henry David Thoreau on his terrifying rapture atop Mt. Katahdin – that is all well, good, and beyond dispute. Turn the coin over and there is Matloff to unceremoniously point out that mountain landscapes, commanding one-quarter of the continental surface and harboring one-tenth of its population, are home to 23 out of the current 27 major, worldwide clash of arms.

No Friends but the Mountains is Matloff’s globe-hopping, more-often-than-not crushing investigation into mountain mayhem. She has the experienced intrepidity to go get the story behind these murderous frays without coming across as a flake with a death wish. She returns with chromatic stories, which can’t help but be chromatic as they are smeared blood red, from the Sierra Madre, the Caucasus, Jammu and Kashmir, the Himalayas, and the Andes. As well, she returns with the cultural and socioeconomic rubs that help us to grasp the bellicosities.

Take the Dinaric Alps of northern Albania, a place that immediately secures in our minds — being the first chapter, and a truly hideous conflict – Matloff’s mettle as a war correspondent: her savvy, grace under fire, and wisdom to know when the envelope of her presence is about to tear. As Matloff takes us through the punched and crumpled terrain, a number of circumstances become clear. Each valley is a kingdom, painting a mosaic of line, lineage, and chariness. What is happening on the other side of the ridge is unknown, but if history is true to itself, it's probably not good. The Albanians wrote the book on blood feuds, the actual book: the "Kanuni i Lekë Dukagjinit," a canon available at any neighborhood kiosk or bookstore, with its own chapter on personal honor. Item 917: “Blood is never un-avenged.” Between 1991 and 2012, some 10,470 Albanians died in feuding, 20 percent of the males in small, mountain communities. An obdurate landscape rears obstinate inhabitants.

It is not all intramural violence between clique and clan. Like many mountainous regions – as we will see with Mexico, Jammu and Kashmir, Colombia, the Russian sphere of influence, and Nepal – it is “out of sight, out of mind” as far as the state is concerned (until it isn’t, until the mountains have something the lowlander wants), a marginalization of poverty, discrimination, and a lack of elementary welfare such as clean water, schools, roads, and attention to health needs. Furthermore, no one holds official title to the land, which makes the stakeholder vulnerable to eviction, perhaps even inundation if the lowlands need a highland reservoir. The failure of the state’s patriarchy births the patriarchy of warlordism, with its instability and grinding machismo.

Mountain fastnesses have long provided the hidey-holes and shadowy recesses that protected the outlaw, and now the guerrilla, from Mao to Subcomandante Marcos. Light and fast, with an intimate knowledge of trail and hollow, mountains are home to the guerilla, thwarting great, cumbersome armies. Not always, Matloff admits. “Stalin looked suspiciously on the Chechens and accused them of collaborating with the Nazis.” Look who’s talking. “He figured the best way to deal with this annoying ethnic group was to get rid of it.” So he deported the entire population, some 478,000 souls (including Republic of Ingushetia, for safety’s sake), to Central Asia and Siberia, if they survived the freezing, three-week journey packed into freight trains without food or water.

Today, in Kashmir, one lives in fear of the Knock on the Door. Matloff writes: “Soldiers went for maximum surprise and minimal witnesses. They usually appeared at 1 or 3 a.m.... They never said where they were taking the men, just marched them off without a chance for a final hug. Mothers would bury their noses in their vanished sons’ clothes to remember their scent, until it faded. After a while, they forgot the tone of their voices.” It is excruciating to be put in these shoes; then, that’s the point.

Likewise, the insurgents are not all early-Zapatista Army of National Liberation, though many are akin to late-Mao. The Shining Path, Nepalese Maoists, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia went to the dark side. Early promises of land reform and improvement in peasant lives were abandoned. “They kidnapped children and forced them to fight; they also robbed, murdered, and extorted ‘taxes’ from the people in their lands.” The foco theory of Che, in which the guerillas disappear in the welcoming, supportive local population, became the loco theory as the indigenes took any opportunity to expose their heroes. 

Matloff brings an impressive sensitivity to the genius loci embraced by mountain people, the spirit of place, the imagination to endow a mountain with personality: the sacredness of Fuji, the devilry of Etna. Each ancient mir, sept, and hill town is distinctive. She witnesses the mental toughness, self-sufficiency, and improvisational talent of mountain dwellers. “I know when I meet a mountain person,” said a representative of the World Mountain People Association to Matloff. “There is something universal in the way of looking at the sky and walking on the earth.” The Association has drawn up three objectives: win respect for unique mountain cultures, recognition of territorial rights, and improvement of living and educational conditions. “They hadn’t had much luck with any of them.”

“What about high versus low,” Matloff asks, to help us organize and explain the world, to help us comprehend a people’s immiseration? She has a point, and she delivers it with plangency. Still, it is more difficult to keep the wolves at bay if your house isn’t in order, and if it is busted, fix it. “For thirty years, Marrash Kola had known that one day he would be summoned to his own murder. It finally happened one sparkling morning.” Another vendetta, just deserts, holy terror. And isn’t it always on a sparkling morning?

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