November 25 is the birthday of national hero of Armenia and Artsakh, legendary commander, philosopher and warrior, activist of national-liberation struggle of the Armenian people Monte Melkonian. He would have turned 57 today.
Monte Melkonian was born on November 25, 1957 at Visalia Municipal Hospital in Visalia, California to Charles and Zabel Melkonian. He was the third of four children born to a self-employed cabinetmaker and an elementary-school teacher. By all accounts, Melkonian was described as an all-American child who joined the Boy Scouts and was a pitcher in Little League baseball. Melkonian’s parents rarely talked about their Armenian heritage with their children, often referring to the place of their ancestors as the “Old Country.” His interest in his background only sparked at the age of eleven, when his family went on a year-long trip to Europe in 1969.
While taking Spanish language courses in Spain, his teacher had posed him the question of where he was from. Dissatisfied with Melkonian’s answer of “California”, the teacher rephrased the question by asking “where did your ancestors come from?” His brother Markar Melkonian remarked that “her image of us was not at all like our image of ourselves. She did not view us as the Americans we had always assumed we were.” From this moment on, for days and months to come, Markar continues, “Monte pondered [their teacher Señorita] Blanca’s question “Where are you from?”
In the spring of that year, the family also traveled across Turkey to visit the town of Merzifon, where Melkonian’s maternal grandparents were from. Merzifon’s population at the time was 23,475 but was almost completely devoid of its once 17,000-strong Armenian population that was wiped out during the Armenian Genocide in 1915. They did find one Armenian family of the three that was living in the town, however, Melkonian soon learned that the only reason this was so, was because the head of the family in 1915 had exchanged the safety of his family in return for identifying all the Armenians in the town to Turkish authorities during the genocide. Monte would later confide to his wife that “he was never the same after that visit….He saw the place that had been lost.”
Upon his return to California Monte returned to his education. In high school, he was exceeding all standards and having a hard time finding new academic challenges. Instead of graduating high school early, as was suggested by his principal, Monte found an alternative thanks to his father: a study abroad program in East Asia. At the age of 15 Monte traveled to Japan for a new chapter in his young life. While there he began making money teaching English which helped finance his travels through several Southeast Asian countries. This introduced him to several new cultures, new philosophies, new languages, and in several cases, like his travels through Vietnam, new skills that would become immensely valuable in his later life as a soldier. Returning to the United States, he graduated from high school and entered the University of California, Berkeley, majoring in ancient Asian history and Archeology. In 1978 he helped to organize an exhibition of Armenian cultural artifacts at one of the university’s libraries. The section of the exhibit dealing with the 1915-23 genocide was removed by university authorities, at the request of the Turkish consul general in San Francisco. The display that was removed was eventually reinstalled following a campus protest movement. Monte eventually completed his undergrad work in under three years. Upon graduating, he was accepted into the archeology graduate program at the University of Oxford. However, Monte chose to forgo this opportunity, and instead chose to begin his lifelong struggle for the Armenian Cause.
After graduating from U.C. Berkeley in the spring of 1978, Monte traveled to Iran, where he taught English and participated in the movement to overthrow the Shah. He helped organize a teachers’ strike at his school in Tehran, and was in the vicinity of the Meydān-e Zhāleh (Jaleh square) when the Shah’s troops opened fire on protesters, killing and injuring many. Later, he found his way to Iranian Kurdistan, where Kurdish partisans made a deep impression on him. Years later, in southern Lebanon, he occasionally wore the uniform of the Kurdish peshmerga which he was given in Iranian Kurdistan.
In the fall of 1978, Monte made his way to Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, in time to participate in the defense of the Armenian quarter against by the right-wing Phalange forces. At this time, he met his long-time confidante and future wife, Seta Kebranian. Monte was affiliated with the Hunchakian socialist party and was a permanent member of the militia’s bases in Bourj Hamoud, Western Beirut, Antelias, Eastern Beirut and other regions for almost two years, during which time he participated in several street battles against rightist forces. He also began working behind the lines in Phalangist controlled territory, on behalf of the “Leftist and Arab” Lebanese National Movement. By this time, he was speaking Armenian – a language he had not learned until adulthood (Armenian was the fourth or fifth language Monte learned to speak fluently, after Spanish, French and Japanese. In addition, he spoke passable Arabic, Italian and Turkish, as well as some Persian and Kurdish).
In the spring of 1980, Monte was inducted into the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, ASALA, and secretly relocated to West Beirut. For the next three years he was an ASALA militant and contributor to the group’s journal, Hayastan. During this time several Palestinian militant organizations provided their Armenian comrade with extensive military training. Monte carried out armed operations in Rome, Athens and elsewhere, and he helped to plan and train commandos for the “Van Operation” of September 24, 1981, in which four ASALA militants took over the Turkish embassy in Paris and held it for several days. In November 1981, French police arrested and imprisoned a young, suspected criminal carrying a Cypriot passport bearing the name “Dimitri Georgiu.” Following the detonation of several bombs in Paris aimed at gaining his release, “Georgiu” was returned to Lebanon where he revealed his identity as Monte Melkonian.
In mid-July 1983, ASALA violently split into two factions, one opposed to the group’s despotic leader, whose nom de guerre was Hagop Hagopian, and another supporting him. Although the lines of fissure had been deepening over the course of several years, the shooting of Hagopian’s two closest aides at a military camp in Lebanon finally led to the open breach. This impetuous action was perpetrated by one individual who was not closely affiliated with Monte. As a result of this action, however, Hagopian took revenge by personally torturing and executing two of Monte’s dearest comrades, Garlen Ananian and Arum Vartanian.
In the aftermath of this split Monte spent over two years underground, in Lebanon and later in France. After testifying secretly for the defense in the trial of Armenian militant and accused bank robber Levon Minassian, he was arrested in Paris in November 1985, and sentenced to six years in prison for possession of falsified papers and carrying an illegal handgun.
Monte spent over three years in Fresnes and Poissy prisons. He was released in early 1989 and sent from France to South Yemen, where he was reunited with Seta. Together they spent year and a half living underground in various countries of eastern Europe in relative poverty, as one regime after another disintegrated.
On October 6, 1990 Monte arrived in what was then still Soviet Armenia. During the first 8 months in Armenia, Melkonian worked in the Armenian Academy of Sciences, where he prepared an archaeological research monograph on Urartian cave tombs, which was posthumously published. Seta and Monte were married at the monastery of Geghart in August 1991.
Finding himself on Armenian soil after many years, he wrote in a letter that he found a lot of confusion among his compatriots. Armenia faced enormous economic, political and environmental problems at every turn, problems that had festered for decades. New political forces bent on dismantling the Soviet Union were taking Armenia in a direction that Monte believed was bound to exacerbate the crisis and produce more problems.
Under these circumstances, it quickly became clear to Monte that, for better or for worse, the Soviet Union had no future and the coming years would be perilous ones for the Armenian people. He then focused his energy on Karabagh. “If we lose [Karabagh],” the bulletin of the Karabakh Defense Forces quoted him as saying, “we turn the final page of our people’s history.” He believed that, if Azeri forces succeeded in deporting Armenians from Karabagh, they would advance on Zangezur and other regions of Armenia. Thus, he saw the fate of Karabagh as crucial for the long-term security of the entire Armenian nation.
On September 12 (or 14) 1991 Monte travelled to Shahumian region (north of Karabagh), where he fought for three months in the fall of 1991. There he participated in the capture of Erkej, Manashid and Buzlukh villages.
On February 4, 1992 Melkonian arrived in Martuni as the regional commander. Upon his arrival the changes were immediately felt: civilians started feeling more secure and at peace as Azeri armies were pushed back and were finding it increasingly difficult to shell Martuni’s residential areas with GRAD missiles.
In April 1993, Melkonian was one of the chief military strategists who planned and led the operation to fight Azeri fighters and capture the region of Kalbajar of Azerbaijan which lies between the Republic of Armenia and former NKAO. Armenian forces captured the region in four days of heavy fighting, sustaining far fewer fatalities than the enemy.
Monte was killed in the abandoned Azerbaijani village of Merzili in the early afternoon of June 12, 1993 during the Battle of Aghdam. According to Markar Melkonian, Monte’s older brother and author of his biography, Monte died in the waning hours of the evening by enemy fire during an unexpected skirmish that broke out with several Azerbaijani soldiers who had gotten lost. Monte died in the arms of his closest and most trusted comrades.
Monte was buried with full military honors on June 19, 1993 at Yerablur military cemetery in Yerevan, Armenia. According to one estimate, some 25,000 people filed past his open casket as it lay in state at the Officer’s Hall in Yerevan. Among the dignitaries present were Levon Ter-Petrosyan, President of the Republic of Armenia, high-ranking Armenian and C.I.S. military leaders, and members of all the major political parties in the country.