How a California Kid Became an Armenian War Hero
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because national pride can take all kinds of shapes.
By Dan Peleschuk
Clad in fatigues and sitting cross-legged inside his hillside base, the weathered fighter speaks with the sluggish cadence of a man who’s seen too much war. Then again, Monte Melkonian’s journey from California college kid to battlefield commander in the Caucasus would have defeated nearly anyone else. “This,” the Armenian-American tells an interviewer in the grainy video, filmed shortly before his death in 1993, “is as much my homeland as it is the homeland of whoever’s been born here.”
Despite the exhaustion of a life spent fighting in foreign lands, Melkonian never lost his sense of purpose: to help his embattled ethnic kin defend themselves and to “liberate” historic Armenia — an ancient nation scattered far beyond its modern borders in the South Caucasus mountains. His enemies — including the U.S. government — named him a terrorist, but it meant little to the left-wing firebrand, whom many Armenians still consider a national hero.
Mathematically, we should’ve lost long ago. But we keep resisting, and we’re succeeding.
Monte Melkonian, American-born Armenian freedom fighter
Born to the children of Armenian immigrants in Visalia, California, in 1957, Melkonian exhibited a quiet charisma from an early age, according to his brother, Markar. “Without saying a word, he inspired confidence,” Markar says. Melkonian’s interest in his cultural heritage was probably sparked by a family trip to his mother’s ancestral village in Turkey, where the Ottoman regime had erased virtually the entire Armenian community during the genocide of 1915. That visit addressed a burning question, first posed by a teacher, that had long vexed the bookish youngster: “Where are you from?” Later, his high school travels in the early 1970s through a tumultuous South Asia planted the seeds of adventure.
By the time Melkonian graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1978, he had fully identified with, and become dedicated to, his ethnic heritage. Rejecting an offer to study archaeology at Oxford, he decamped instead to Tehran — gripped at the time by an Islamic revolt against the shah — hoping to secure a visa to visit Armenia, then part of the Soviet Union. Once on the ground, he found himself in Jaleh Square shortly after government troops had fired on demonstrators, killing dozens and marking a watershed for Iran known as “Black Friday.”
What the budding militant witnessed there began to inform his philosophy. “His life experience was culminating in the conviction that you’re going to have to fight for justice, and you can’t bother about what your enemies call you,” says Markar, who authored a 2005 biography of his brother, My Brother’s Road: An American’s Fateful Journey to Armenia.
Early in Lebanon’s civil war (1975–90), Melkonian grabbed a weapon for the first time — to guard Beirut’s Armenian neighborhood. After learning Armenian there, he joined a revolutionary militant group, which finally cemented his commitment to “the struggle,” as supporters called it. He carried out bombings and other hits against Turkish officials in European cities — all in retribution for the Ottoman Empire’s oppression of his ancestors.
Despite Melkonian’s dedication, the moral burden of his crusade finally struck him, Markar believes, when the militant mistakenly murdered a diplomat’s young relative. Hunted by Turkey’s intelligence branch, he was forced into hiding in the early 1980s and arrested in 1985. He ended up spending several years in French prisons.
Meanwhile, in Melkonian’s ancestral homeland, strife between ethnic Armenians and Azeris — fueled by historical grievances and exacerbated by the Soviet Union’s arbitrarily drawn borders — was reaching a boiling point. As the communist empire crumbled, it left a security vacuum, and the independence movement in Armenia became tinged with militancy.
“The thinking had switched from a peaceful citizens’ movement to one geared toward self-defense and independence,” says Emil Sanamyan, an analyst at the University of Southern California’s Institute of Armenian Studies. Of the many ethnic conflicts that sprouted after the Soviet collapse, the fight for Nagorno-Karabakh, the ethnic Armenian enclave that Josef Stalin had incorporated into neighboring Soviet Azerbaijan, would prove the most intractable.
Originally opposed to Armenian independence, Melkonian, who arrived in Soviet Armenia in late 1990, soon realized there were few other options. When full-fledged war broke out in 1991, he joined the fight alongside scrappy citizen soldiers and other volunteers. Given his experience, Melkonian was handed the command of 4,000 troops in the key district of Martuni.
Initially outgunned by the Azeri military, the Karabakh separatists bounced back with a string of strategic victories, thanks in part to Melkonian’s managerial prowess and battlefield efficiency. “Mathematically, we should’ve lost long ago,” he said in the 1993 interview. “But we keep resisting, and we’re succeeding.” Comrades also respected his incorruptibility, a rare commodity amid the chaos of war.
Fate finally caught up with Melkonian on June 12, 1993. During a frontline patrol, his unit ran into an Azeri tank they initially mistook for Armenian. When a blast from the tank’s cannon shattered a concrete wall behind the commander, fragments struck his skull, killing him instantly. Tens of thousands attended the funeral near the Armenian capital Yerevan for the military leader remembered fondly as “Avo.”
In 1996 — two years after active fighting ended with the creation of the de facto Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, a major win for Armenian forces and as close as Melkonian would ever come to fulfilling his goal — he was named Hero of Armenia. “Of course, there’s a lot of other young men and women who died in this war,” says Sanamyan, “but they don’t have the same kind of aura around them.” While Armenians have built memorials and named buildings after Melkonian, supporters of Turkey consider him a terrorist.
But what if you were to ask the impassioned revolutionary himself? Actually, Markar says, someone once did: “He said, ‘I don’t want them to remember anything about me.’”
- Dan Peleschuk, OZY Author Contact Dan Peleschuk