The Harrisburg Patriot
Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Searching for answers ; We look for ways to stitch world together, not pull it apart


With all the erratic moves in foreign policy around the world, when everything seems to change dramatically from moment to moment, one searches for answers to the conflicts that appear to be closing in on us from all sides. We hope for long-term, realistic answers that could start stitching the world together instead of tearing it apart.

Well, I think I have found one.

At first, this "answer" seems unlikely, but when you examine it even a little, it seems utterly obvious. S. Frederick Starr, the distinguished scholar of Central Asia from Johns Hopkins, sat down with me one day recently for lunch and laid out one of the most original plans I have heard in years. The plan is not for one nation, or even for one specific region of the world, although it is starting in Central Asia, under the leadership of the Aga Khan, leader of the Ismaili Muslims and chairman of the board of the new project. All they intend to do is to educate, inspire and bring into modernity the unique peoples of the "mountain regions" of the world, where an inordinate amount of the violence around us originates.

"With a few exceptions," he began, "the most numerous and obdurate conflicts in the world today occur in mountain zones. While each presents specific features, it is possible to speak of a generalized problem of social and economic breakdown in mountain regions almost everywhere."

The countries where mountain people are either the trouble, or in trouble, or both, skip off his tongue: "Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Nepal, Chiapas, Chechnya, Peru, Karabakh, Colombia, Bosnia ... It turns out that a disproportionate number of problems are found in the mountains. The people are independent and resourceful, but they are also impoverished and apprehensive; they are marginalized by their societies because in most cases they are so distant from the capital cities where power lies and because they so frequently find themselves on the insecure political borders of a number of states."

It is not only their accustomed poverty that is fueling change, he went on, but also the fact that "the poverty that prevails in many mountain areas today is of a peculiarly modern sort, in that it arises from a growing dependence on lowland metropolitan centers rather than from age-old self- sufficiency in a harsh environment."

Then he smiled. "And of course, they're feisty people," he added. "It's the Hatfields and the McCoys!"

At this, a memory crept into my mind that confirmed what he was saying. I remembered how, in the early 1990s, when I was covering the Serbs' brutal wars against Bosnian cities, I discovered that the Serbs had depended on the "mountain men" of the Dinaric Alps for their most brutal fighters.

"The wild mountain men with no sense of humor are the driving force of this war," Milos Vasic, the editor of Belgrade's Vreme magazine, told me then. "That is why the cities of Sarajevo and Mostar were so savagely destroyed. These cities are a different civilization to men frustrated by not being able to settle in them."

The idea of how to bridge these yawning chasms began with the real hero of this piece, the Aga Khan, whose Ismaili sect is centered in Pakistan but whose members have spread into several Central Asian countries. He visited Tajikistan in 1995, where there are a few Ismailis still living in the mountains. When he talked with them, he asked, "Where do you go for education?" To the Tajik capital of Dushanbe, they would tell him -- which was itself remote to them -- or even to Russia.

Almost immediately, the Aga Khan responded with his idea, telling them, "If you want to build an institution of higher education here, I'll be your partner." An international commission of educators and thinkers then worked for two years to form and refine the concept of a special university for the mountain people of Central Asia, focusing on developing their region, on teaching in English, on technology and culture, and on, in effect, everything that mountain people needed to connect them to the larger societies. At the same time, the idea was to make them self-sufficient -- from computers and engineering, to beekeeping and agriculture.THUS THE MAJOR CAMPUS of the "University of Central Asia," centered at Khorog, Tajikistan - - at 9,000 feet and, not incidentally, right on the border with Afghanistan -- actually opened its doors this month. When the project is completed, related schools will be opened all over the region.

Under the Aga Khan's patronage and under professor Starr's rectorship, the university was built with a $230 million budget for the first stage, and with an opening enrollment of about 2,000 students. Once fully operational, the university expects to have students from all the surrounding countries, including even China. All men and women pay something to attend, but at the same time, means are available so that no student who qualifies is turned away for lack of money.

GEORGIE ANNE GEYER is a veteran foreign correspondent.