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Feature - War and peace in the mountains

Battle zones, recreational playgrounds or sacred spaces?


BANFF, ALTA. — It’s Sunday afternoon and after a week-long celebration of all things alpine at the Banff Mountain Festivals, the focus turns from nature, adventure and extreme sports to something more serious and sobering.

The winter sun casts long, diffuse shadows across the Banff Centre’s bucolic campus, where resident elk and deer usually chew on grass beneath a pine forest.

But for the past week, the ungulates have been replaced by 10,000 adrenaline addicts from around the globe who have gathered here to watch films, read books, attend seminars and listen to world-renowned adventurers.

It seems that insulated down jackets and sunglasses, not natural fur coats, are de riguer on campus at this year’s festival.

Into the Forbidden Zone , a National Geographic documentary that follows uber-journalist Sebastian Junger, author of the best-selling book The Perfect Storm , and award-winning photographer Reza during a trip to war-torn Afghanistan, has just ended and a packed house of 950 stumbles out of the Eric Harvey Theatre into the crisp mountain air with dazed looks on their faces.

Junger and Reza travelled to Afghanistan in November, 2000, to meet with Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, known as the Lion of Panjshir, due to his fierce resistance of the invading Russian army during the 1980s.

The film shows the beauty of the dry Afghan mountains but also depicts the horrors of war; Northern Alliance troops whose limbs have been blown off by land mines and four-month-old children who are starving to death in refugee camps.

"Afghanistan is a country that has been forgotten by the rest of the world," says Ian Carrick, an Edmonton-based orthopedist who has worked there fitting land-mine victims with artificial limbs. "It’s a beautiful country that has been decimated by 30 years of war."

Massoud had been leading the fight against Afghanistan’s Taliban government until he was assassinated two days before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Superimposed against this background, the film carries a walloping emotional weight and left the audience stunned.

Perhaps park-warden-turned-writer Sid Marty put it best at a mountain poetry seminar that took place earlier in the week during the Banff Mountain Book Festival: "We live in a strange world, where a six-year-old boy can carry a gun."

Immediately following the film, the majority of the audience made its way down a hill towards another theatre – similar to a university lecture hall – for a panel discussion on war and peace in the mountains. Ironically, this seminar topic was chosen last spring.