Reviews for No Friends But the Mountains

"Americans discount geography precisely because they have been the beneficiaries of it. People elsewhere know better. Judith Matloff's book is an indefatigable journalistic exploration of how mountains shape, sustain, and even determine war and culture around the world. Her argument, which her reporting makes undeniable, is at once obvious and original."

Robert D. Kaplan, author of "The Revenge of Geography"


"In “No Friends But the Mountains,” Judith Matloff has delivered a vital, deeply revealing book of political travelogue and intrepid correspondence. She is the ideal witness - learned, dogged, skeptical, but always listening out for new and credible voices. This is classical international journalism of the highest order."

Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia Graduate School and staff writer for The New Yorker


"The most spectacular heights on earth hold mysteries, not least why conflict so often shadows their vistas. Judith Matloff – a brave, engaging, keenly observant guide – rides shuddering buses, boards decrepit helicopters, and hikes through mud and checkpoints in pursuit of answers and solution. Along the way, as history and present-day circumstances intertwine, Matloff reveals the rich, surprising, and perplexing life of places too often diminished by the flat imagery of war."

Sheri Fink, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of Five Days at Memorial and War Hospital


"Judith Matloff’s book is a political geography of mountains, once the haunt of witches, now--in many parts of the world--strongholds of outlaws and rebels, told with a sense of drama by someone who has clearly done her fieldwork."

Yi-Fu Tuan, author of Romantic Geography


"Vistas, vainglory, vengeance and violence mark Judith Matloff’s engaging voyage across mountainous terrains. She reports with empathy on religious charities, anthropologists, guerrillas, and state armies all attempting to pacify some of the world’s least governed spaces."

David D. Laitin , professor of political science at Stanford University and author of Nations, States and Violence


"Matloff’s impressive and necessary work issues a moral imperative: pay attention to the mountain communities of the world, because they are in danger, which “like water, flows downhill.” This book examines the seeming causality between mountains and violence. A seasoned combat journalist, Matloff ( Home Girl, 2008) visits a mountain range in each chapter, providing both the historical context for conflict there and a personal narrative. Ingredients that create brutal conditions for mountain people include poverty, government callousness, minority ethnic groups, a sacred attachment to the land, and contested water resources. In the Dinaric Alps of Albania, these factors combine with an ancestral tradition of blood feuds to oppress. In the Mexican Sierra Madres, a lack of resources and isolationism support a cycle of resistance and repression. The mountain people of Kashmir endure such deprivation and violence that they require psychological and soulful healing. Matloff approaches her topic with a magic combination of wisdom and empathy, and it is impossible to not be moved. In the final chapters, Vermont, Norway, and Switzerland offer models to improve the violent plight of mountain people and, by extension, of us all." — Emily Dziuban

Booklist, Starred Review


"Determined to discover why violence flourishes in high-altitude areas, war correspondent Matloff (Fragments of a Forgotten War) investigates the cultures and ongoing conflicts of mountain ranges around the globe. She travels more than 72,000 miles to compile her survey, braving the mile-high battlefields of the ongoing Colombian civil war and the deadly Indian-Pakistani dispute over Kashmir, witnessing the destitution of the indigenous populations of Nepal and Mexico, and talking her way out of trouble with Russian police in Chechnya. Interviews with American veterans who fought in the high altitudes of Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush lead her to visit an Army mountain training center in Vermont’s (relatively small) Green Mountains; this excursion results in an even more intense journey to an Arctic NATO base in Norway. To cap off her journey, she focuses on Switzerland, a largely mountainous nation that outgrew its iolent history to become a bastion of democracy and peace. This trip to some very different corners of the globe is recounted in clear, visceral language; vertigo sufferers may not enjoy some of the more harrowing moments, but Matloff’s investigation is a worthy read for foreign affairs and anthropology buffs alike, and her conclusion provides insight into current global affairs. 10 maps." Agent: Joy Harris, Joy Harris Literary. (Mar.)

Publishers Weekly, Starred Review


"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?”

Peter Lewis, The Chrisitan Science Monitor, March 10, 2017


"Mountain regions host a disproportionate share of the world’s conflicts: home to poppy growers and jihadists, they are where wars of resistance are fought. And though they display a vast range of topographical variations, they hold in common “cruel weather and harsh earth,” instilling in those who live there a deep sense of apartness.

Or so veteran war correspondent Judith Matloff argues in this chillingly enlightening account of those who live in mountain regions in order to elude or destroy authority, and whose blood feuds are handed down from one generation to the next.

Matloff finds that conflict zones produce a sort of limbo; people who live there are caught on “existential borders”, cut off from the world. In pursuit of this thesis, she visits Marquetalia in Colombia, where 1,200 peasants took over an abandoned farm and lived communally, until driven into the mountains by the government, helped by the United States, who feared a Castro-like revolution. Flight into the Andes allowed the insurgency to grow: the FARC used a decades-long familiarity with the terrain to carry out night raids on settlements below.

Matloff also gained access to the Sierra Madre’s Zapatistas, whose rebellion was “the world’s first by internet” –their anti-globalisation messages transmitted through a website—and convincingly argues that the Boston Marathon bombers’ Chechen parentage, with its inherited sense of isolation and dispossession from a mountain homeland, led them to identify with the Muslim cause.

It is important that we pay attention to these places, so that we might better respond to conflicts that threaten to ignite in the future. “Danger, like water, flows downhill.”

Geographical Magazine, March 2017


"A veteran journalist drops into the highest hotspots across the globe for a sobering account of why mountainous regions often engender violence."From Kentucky to Kashmir," Matloff (Conflict Reporting/Columbia School of Journalism; Home Girl: Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block, 2009, etc.) finds that mountainous regions—with their tendency toward insularity and suspicion regarding outsiders—disproportionately make up the most warlike zones on the planet. The author, who has visited many of these fraught elevations over the years, presents nine journalistic accounts from the front lines: Albania's northern Dinaric Alps, the Sierra Madre of southern Mexico; Colombia's Andes, Nepal's Himalayas, the Northern Caucasus of Chechnya and Dagestan, Kashmir, Afghanistan's Hindu Kush; Norway's Lyngen Alps, and the Pyrenees and Swiss Alps. In the final chapter, which covers the Swiss Alps, Matloff offers a kind of reality check of the efficacy of the lofty Swiss in keeping peace and unity for hundreds of years—namely, a loose confederation of self-governing cantons. Long-running disputes between clans can start legendary strife, such as in Albania, where blood feuds endure for generations. The Zapatistas of the Sierre Madre, descendants of the ancient Maya, have been battling the central government for centuries over land rights and equal treatment. The indigenous Rai, only 2.8 percent of Nepal's population and who live in the highest mountains in the world, are fighting the damming of their precious glacial waters, which, writes the author, also supply "Asian rivers on which billions of people depend." Matloff interviewed many inhabitants of these highlands, recording their hardscrabble ways of life and the deep reverence they hold for the mountains. Moreover, she observed the American military training at the Army's Mountain Warfare School in Jericho, Vermont, as they prepared for the harsh conditions in Afghanistan as well as Norway's Arctic Allied Training Center, "where NATO trains its most hardened men for the high cold." A tightly focused study of mountain societies that hints at future conflicts."

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