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The Critical Corner - 04/04/2005

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"My Brother's Road, An American's Fateful Journey to Armenia,"
by Markar Melkonian, I. B. Tauris, London, 2005
ISBN # 1 85043 635 5
EAN  # 978 1 85043 635 5

and

"The Right to Struggle, Selected Writings of
Monte Melkonian on the Armenian National Question,"
Edited by Markar Melkonian, Second Edition,
ASIN # B0006F3P4C
the Sardarabad Collective, San Francisco, 1993.

Armenian News Network / Groong
April 4, 2005

By Bedros Afeyan


In two remarkable books, a diasporan Armenian can have the question
answered: How could I have helped the Armenian cause? Or in Armenian,
`tserkess inch gookar vor?' What could have come from my hands or out
of my efforts? Well, Monte Melkonian and his brothers in arms (in this
case both literally and figuratively) have answered those questions
and these books chronicle their struggles, triumphs and crushing
defeats.  Whether making fools of themselves, being ruthless killers,
misguided dreamers, fanatical believers in a world vision the great
majority of their own compatriots do not share, or battle heroes
inspiring struggling, make shift armies to better resist and
eventually defeat the onslaught of Azeri aggression, these warriors
risked it all and in the case of Monte fell at the tender age of
thirty-five, by a fluke attack which was anticlimactic, to say the
least. Monte Melkonian was Zoravar Antranig (a freedom fighter who
operated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries on behalf of
imperiled Armenians) and Che Guevara all rolled into one.

Monte's older brother Markar, with the assistance of Monte's then wife
Seta, has written a love letter to his brother, respecting Monte's
vision and ferocity of dedication, while trying to chronicle the very
improbable road from central California's fruit and nut growing
capitals to Japanese warrior training while still a junior in high
school, a visit to South East Asia including a back door presence in
Vietnam during its war with the US, a stint with anthropology at Cal
Berkeley which resulted in a Bachelor's degree with honors, rejecting
the option of attending graduate school in England, Palestinian
training camps in Lebanon instead, Iran during the revolution and the
toppling of the Shah's regime, back to Beirut and Bourj Hammoud's
Armenian enclave defense posts, dedication to world socialist
revolution, resisting the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, ASALA
terrorism, attacks against Turkish diplomats in Europe, going on the
lam, French prison, return to Syria and Lebanon, dissention in the
ranks of ASALA fighters, the horror and shame which was Hagop
Hagopian's preposterous rule of ASALA, murdered confreres, hiding
again, Hye Baykar, more plans for spectacular terrorism in France,
Armed propaganda, failure, French prison again, four years of
smoldering in a small cell and isolation, exile in Yemen, bouncing
around in Eastern Europe, and finally, Armenia as it is becoming free
of the soviet yoke, as the Gharabagh movement is le dernier cri de
coeur left, dedication to the defense of the Mardouni district,
heroism, a multitude of successes against a far less motivated yet far
better equipped and manned army, ever increasing loyalty of the proud
and ferocious natives of that mountainous enclave, mythologized
status, chance attack by misplaced enemy soldiers, instant death from
a ricocheted mortar round, a hero's funeral in Yerevan, bold statues
with walkie talkie, Kalashnikov and binoculars prominently displayed,
legendary honors, a symbol of what one dedicated Armenian can actually
do for the Armenian Cause and shake the world by the tail while doing
it.

The story is remarkable enough, the road, improbable, and certainly
far stranger than fiction. How could this diminutive boy with a high
IQ have come to believe that armed struggle, terrorism, blind murder
and socialist revolution were the answers to this world's problems?
How could he have held on to this view even after spending a decade or
more in the Middle East in the middle of a civil war with the
atrocities and injustices and absurdities of battle all around him to
gauge and from which, logic would dictate, to eventually recoil? Well,
his dedication to the cause of liberating Western Armenia (which he
had visited with his family on an extended road trip a few years
earlier as a pre-teen), his dedication to international socialist
revolution and his fanatical blind faith in armed struggle must have
rendered the path visible to him quite narrow and without any other
choices in sight. While Monte is quick to label others as being
fascists, chauvinists, petit bourgeois and imperialists, if they do
not tow the line, and while he, on the other hand, is part of the
`progressive' elements and the `vanguard' and the this and the that,
it is amusing to see the rationalizations and machinations used to
justify such a black and white view. I suppose few shades-of-grey
admiring revolutionaries can be named. Ideology, whether religious or
secular, can consume the believer with such engulfing flames of smoke
and opacity that the view (or the lack of it) from the inside can only
be justified by compensating forces of self-assurance and
self-reliance and the keeping at bay of doubt and trepidation.

Here was a blind warrior willing to follow the orders of a first rate
psychopath such as Hagop Hagopian, who was eventually revealed to be
an opportunist, a dolt, a fanatical rotten-toothed tool of Arab
handlers, an indiscriminant murderer of innocent bystanders at an
airport or a Turkish diplomat, just in order to get on the news, crush
his opponents, take all the credit, pontificate about armed struggle,
get paid by his handlers, join forces with the Bakaa Valley training
squads of every ragtag freedom fighter squad from four corners of the
world, rage on, surrounded by a country destroying itself from
within. This story is set in Beirut, the Beirut of misbegotten
revolutionaries. And in this scene of carnage and incessant and
senseless brutality, a Visalia born boy of twenty two, barely
conversant in Armenian, yet there to learn his mother tongue, a
revolutionary with radical and extreme convictions, harbored from the
days of his sojourn in Japan and Vietnam and fomented in Berkeley in
the mid seventies, enters Bourj Hammoud and makes the rounds. Monte
could have been killed at a number of junctures in his life and no one
would have found it strange or surprising. He tempted fate and tempted
it again without respite till fifteen years later, a piece of his
forehead was blown off in Aghdam, past the Armenian homeland, into
Azerbaijan proper, during a battle already won by our side, and while
investigating the bounty of military equipment said to have been left
behind by the enemy in flight. A meaningless exchange of fire with a
few Azeri soldiers who were misinformed and told that no Armenians had
entered Merzuli, and so were on a routine patrol only. War is full of
incalculable errors and absurdities. Monte, at thirty-five, was a
victim of one such incident.

Yet he is a hero to his people and to the cause of Armenian freedom
and the restoration of our homeland usurped by the Turks at the end of
a genocide they committed during the first world war, under the cover
of another war, while everyone was looking elsewhere. The Armenian
cause, which is the recognition of those events and the proper
restitution by the current Turkish state by way of returning our
ancestral lands and the looted material bounty that they still
possess, took a turn once the Soviet Union collapsed and the Gharapagh
or Artsakh (as we call it in Armenian) issue became of immediate
concern. Armenian fighters, from Lebanon and elsewhere, could now give
their energies and quite often, their last breaths, to a clear and
present danger. They were now facing the overrunning of these
ancestral Armenian lands, formally within the borders of
Azerbaijan. Artsakh's population demographics would paint a different
picture. While ninety five percent of the population was Armenian,
Stalin had `wisely' dictated that Gharapagh be part of
Azerbaijan. This same fate in Nakhitchevan province had depopulated it
of Armenians so that Armenia could not ask for its return quite as
easily. This despite the fact that Nakhitchevan is between Armenia and
Turkey, without any contiguous borders with Azerbaijan. Gharapagh, on
the East, was isolated from Armenia too by a small corridor called
Lachine. All that has changed now and the areas surrounding Gharapagh
all the way to Armenia are no longer fighting zones but are secured by
Armenian forces, instead.

That war of liberation, that dicey touch and go period from 1991 to
1993 where many villages were entirely destroyed, hundreds of
thousands of Azeris and Armenians were made into refugees, Azeri
pogroms were perpetrated in Baku, Sumgait and elsewhere in Eastern
Azerbaijan far from Gharapagh, this historical milieu was where Monte,
with the nom de guerre Avo, did his life's most important work. He
instilled discipline and principled action to his troupes. Starting
with less than a dozen and eventually leading hundreds into battle, he
would not tolerate indiscriminant killing, the avenging of the dead
(an eye for an eye), the harming of noncombatants such as women and
children, the restriction of movement on retreating and evacuating
villagers, and other atrocities. He was also intolerant of opium or
marijuana cultivation by profiteers. All forms of corruption and half
measures were strictly forbidden, as long as Commander Avo was
around. Gharapagh was his redemption. Having inadvertently
assassinated the wife and children of a Turkish diplomat, first time
out, as a freedom fighter in Greece, as a member of ASALA, he had come
to regret carelessness and sloppiness in action. He saw to it that the
habits of his soldiers were more disciplined and honorable. He made
soldiers out of village boys, making his years of secret combat and
imprisonment almost worth the effort for an entire nation.

This is the story told by a warrior brother, who gladly answered the
call to bear arms in Lebanon during the first few years Monte was
there, but one who never joined ASALA. So Markar knows a thing or two
about the atmosphere and dramatis personae in Beirut of the late
seventies and early eighties. He is a leftist fighter himself.
Armenian causes are less his concern, but ones to which he has been a
witness thanks to his brother and his sister-in-law. Markar has to
navigate clear of a great many land mines as he tells this story.
There are people who are alive who must be mentioned in camouflaged
tones. There are details which can never be revealed, and then there
are details which have to be changed at least vis a vis emphasis, if
his brother Monte is to come off as being at least partially likable,
despite acts of terrorism and mass violence. Revolutions do not take
place just in tea rooms and porcelain tea cups are not the only
material that get smashed when revolutions are in full swing.

The first revolution that had to occur was the awakening of the
Armenian youth from the stupor and ineffective sloganeering of their
parents' generation. The Armenian cause for the first fifty years
after the perpetration of the Armenian genocide had no international
legal or political voice or backing. Our people were silent except for
less than a handful of assassinations of the heads of the Turkish
ruling class that perpetrated those murders and gave the orders for
the extermination of the Armenian people. Besides those token and
isolated gestures, Armenians were by and large silent and in shock,
trying to resettle in the US, Europe or the Middle East and find their
bearings.  By the mid seventies, however, and with the world
radicalized with the anti-Vietnam movement, the student protests here
and in Paris, for instance, the war in Algeria, the Palestinian cause,
the Socialist movements sweeping Europe and South America, and many
other examples, the time seemed ripe to show our true revolt at what
had happened to our parents and grandparents at the beginning of the
century. Our cause had the right to be made public and redressed,
since we were now here, well educated, wise to the world, and
unwilling to take it lying down any more. Add all this in the anarchic
milieu of Beirut where you could find any kind of arms you wanted at
bargain basement prices, and you have the recipe for guerrilla
warfare. That is what ASALA dreamed of and what ASALA practiced. What
external backing and handling ASALA and its leadership had is of
course a matter of speculation. But having freedom of movement as its
boys did, passports, safe houses, etc., without the aid of outside
elements, is beyond the realm of the possible. This aspect of the
story which is quite crucial does not get quite the attention it
deserves in Markar's book.

Monte and his brother in arms, one Alec Yenikomshian, were two of
ASALA's star recruits. A far shadier character, one Hagop Hagopian
from Mosul, Iraq, is reputed to have been its founder. He was the one
with Arab insurrection pedigree and terrorist network contacts. He was
the one who could get his boys trained as part of an international
network of terrorists or freedom fighters, depending on your point of
view. As depicted in Markar's book, `My Brother's Road,' Hagopian was
the uneducated, wild, ruthless single-minded operative who was ready
to make some noise around the world concerning the Armenian cause.
While Tashnags, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), talked a
good game and verbally threatened armed struggle, Hagopian was ready
to transfer his know-how from the Palestinian movement of which he had
been part, to the newly forming Armenian one. Alec, a bright young
Tashnag, disillusioned with that party's passive stance, switched over
to ASALA and Monte was recruited around the same time. Then many
others followed but never more than a hundred front line fighters
strong, according to Markar. If you think about the amount of noise
these fellows made in the mid to late eighties in Europe and the
Middle East, it is quite surprising to learn of how few the real
players actually were. According to Markar, perhaps less than a dozen
for the first few years of operation. Alec lost his eyesight in France
while preparing a bomb which went off while being assembled. The book
is dedicated to him as well as to the memory of two patriotic young
confreres of theirs, Garlen and Aram, who attempted to aid Monte to
finally eliminate Hagopian and his out of control monstrosities from
the scene. They were both caught, tortured and killed by Hagopian and
his loyalists. Monte never got over the brutality and absurdity that
was Hagopian's way.  These stories make for chilly reading, masterfully
presented, however intricate and serpentine the allegiances and blind
allies the story necessarily has. And yet, the possible ties of
Hagopian to the Syrian intelligence forces and through it to the KGB
is never mentioned. That Hagopian was seen as a Syrian agent and that
ASALA's eventual attacks on (non-Russian aligned) Tashnag leaders was
potentially instigated and endorsed by the Syrians and the Soviets is
never aired in this book.  That seems to be a rather large omission.
For admitting that inter-Armenian warfare was started, the Justice
Commandos were organized, which was now a Tashnag secret gorilla
force, and that the two ended up taking credit for the same attacks
sometimes, only get passing attention in Markar's book on his
brother. But as far as fiascos are concerned, nothing is graver than
Monte's decision to kill Hagopian and the slow torturous route in
attempting it, and its numerous failures. This is all covered in great
detail in this book.  But how these enthusiastic Armenian youth of
JCLA and ASALA were potentially used as pawns in the cold war,
manipulated by the Soviets, is not.

The origins of Monte's fanaticism and dedication to world socialist
revolution are not that easy to make out by reading My Brother's Road
either. In fact, the time line of these developments has elements that
require explanation. Reading this book, you might conclude that Monte
became a radical in Beirut. This is a plausible story of course,
except that going to Beirut is not the act of a sane innocent Armenian
just trying to learn his mother tongue, as it is suggested in this
book.  Beirut in 1979 was an inferno and anyone who volunteered to go
there must have had a taste for the burning sensation of open warfare
and a predisposition for walking through hell. Monte certainly was so
disposed as the two following stories will attest from his earlier
days at Berkeley. These stories lead to the conclusion that Monte got
radicalized and was turned on by the wild side, as it were, in Asia,
during that year following his exchange student year in Miki City,
Jaspan and his stay in Osaka and his tour of South East Asia. He was
sixteen then. Somehow during that year, with jewelry smuggling or
perhaps other illicit means that he mustered, Monte fell in with the
wrong crowd. Bottom line is that he emerged a dedicated revolutionary.
This was not just Bushido or Japanese warrior lore. This was hard core
seduction into ultra left wing world revolution and armed
struggle. How might we have a hint of this? Let these two anecdotes
serve as an indication.

As Markar's book mentions, the Armenian students association (ASA) at
Berkeley was being revived in the fall of 1977 by Raffi H. and Armen
S.  When the first meeting was called, the thirty or so students were
greeted by handouts Monte had prepared and was passing out. These
called for armed revolution and liberation of Western Armenia. The
slogans were radical and called for immediate action. So how should
these students have walked out and become revolutionaries? Monte had
thought of that too. He had photocopied the appendix to the Greek
Cypriot activist Colonel George Grivas' 1964 manifesto on revolution,
`Guerrilla warfare and EOKA's struggle: A politico-military study.'
This appendix was a do it yourself course on how to turn everyday home
appliances and materiel into weapons. Never mind that Grivas was a
monarcho-fascist. Never mind that these tactics dated back to the
1950's where throwing the British out of Cyprus was the goal and more
importantly, the reunification of Cyprus with Greece (enosis). For
Monte, this was appropriate reading material to pass out at the
inaugural meeting of the revived Berkeley ASA. Needless to say, it
made a lasting impression on some of the kids without making any
converts, apparently.

The next episode tells us that Monte knew of the attitudes of Tashnags
and their actual stance vis a vis revolution. In 1978, (when he was
twenty one and a few months before moving to Beirut) the commemoration
of the Armenian Genocide in San Francisco was to have been held with
community wide participation and cooperation. Different factions were
invited to a meeting to discuss options on what to do on April 24th
that year and how to go about doing it. Monte decides to attend. There
are Tashngs (Armenian Revolutional Federation, ARF), Ramgavars
(Armenian Democratic Liberals, ADL), Parekordzagan (Armenian General
Benevolent union, AGBU) members and others around the table. When it
is time to voice his opinion, Monte says, why don't we have the usual
march to the Turkish consulate but this time, let us have the first
few rows of marchers carry Kalashnikov rifles? This way we will be
declaring that we are moving beyond stale marches and even more stale
rhetoric. We will be declaring that we are ready for the armed
struggle to liberate our homeland annexed by Turkey and that they will
be made to pay for what they did to our ancestors in 1915.

There is silence in the room. No one can believe the brashness of this
young man. So discussion of this proposal begins around the table and
the number one concern is the legality of this idea. You know this is
the US, he is told. You cannot just walk around with automatic rifles!
Monte thinks about this and says, well, suppose they are not loaded,
then. It is just a symbol of our resolve. Say they are not loaded so
there is no danger to anyone. And so attention is now focused on the
Tashnag representative to find a way to diffuse this bomb. The dutiful
Tashnag representative, Khajag S. says, uhhh... we cannot endorse this
plan because... uhh... the weapons will not be loaded, you said? Aha,
well, that seems pointless. It would be less than healthy for us to
show that we are willing to run around with weapons which are not
loaded and not ready for action! And so with this (Talmudic class)
circular argument (of course we are not against weapons, we are for it
all the way. But you can't have loaded weapons on the streets. If they
are not loaded what is the point of marching with them?) the idea was
not adopted. But as you can see, Monte knew how to walk into a room
and shake the whole foundation from under the feet of the gathered
crowds who were much more attached to the status quo than they would
have liked to admit even to themselves. He needed to be in a place
where radicalism would be welcomed. Where better than Beirut and
Teheran, which are the two destinations most forcefully beckoning him
via his imagination and dreams? He had, according to Markar, close
associations with Cypriot, Iranian and Palestinian activists at
Berkeley. Contacts must have been made there which served him well
once he landed in the Middle East.

Monte was radicalized and committed to armed socialist world
revolution. As Markar says. ` Before he was twenty, he had traveled
enough roads and read enough books to have figured out that most
people on Earth were poor, voiceless, and dispossessed in one way or
another.  Subservience and oppression were the normal state of affairs
in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Ireland.  Those who were not
normal were the rulers and beneficiaries of the wealthiest and most
powerful empire ever, the United States of America.' And then, even
more poetically.  Markar adds, `These were heady days for a brash
astute young man. The example of Vietnam was ever-present in Monte's
thoughts, and it appeared as though the winds of freedom were filling
red sails from Angola to Nicaragua.' So why not Armenia and Armenians
too? Turkish socialist movements seemed to be going strong right
around then and Iranian rumblings were being heard with the
unthinkable prospect of actually toppling the Shah and his corrupt
regime. Monte wanted to be part of the action.

Do read this book by a loving brother (greatly aided by Monte's widow,
Seta), reminiscing about the exploits of Monte's shooting star like
trajectory through life. With no more than four hours of sleep each
night, with a fire burning inside of him, he read, trained, hid,
evaded, killed, and rose to kill again for a decade or more in Beirut
and Syria as his home base. Then wandering around, lost, jailed,
failed, lost again, and finally Armenia, independence, and a war of
self preservation in a tiny enclave with heroic strength and resolve
possessing villagers he could help lead to victory, or, at least,
avert defeat. Many battles later, Monte had made his presence quite
worth the while in Artsakh. The villagers adored him. Mothers named
their children after him and felt safe as long as Zoravar Avo was
leading the charge and securing their future. Monte was an old man by
the time he turned thirty five. He had burned his candle from every
side and as a cylindrical implosion as well. He did not die in vein.

If every Armenian asks what can I do for my people?  Tserkes inch
gooka vor? Let him read this book and the accompanying one from 1990
(second edition, 1993) which contains detailed analysis and manifestos
of Monte's and his fellow combatants under the title, The Right to
Struggle. That reader can then forge his own path to making a
difference to a people desperate for a leader or two who can dedicate
themselves to the preservation of their culture and identity not
chauvinistically, nor with hatred, but through a language and spirit
that Monte came to adopt and absorb as his own. A small house he had
bought in Yerevan that had a window overlooking mount Ararat,
overjoyed him. He wanted to settle down and be part of that land with
Seta. It was not to be. But the dreamer saw to it that you can do it
some day with less peril than what he faced when he first adopted that
dream.

Getse' Monte, flawed, misguided miscreant, as he may appear to be to
whomever reads this book. Moral ambiguities abound in Markar's book.
But lessons in a short life lived to the full are also there. Make
2005 the year you get to know Zoravar Avo, (through both these books)
a hero of the war of liberation in Artsakh every Armenian should know
intimately. If you ever wondered what would happen if you crossed
Zoravar Antranig with Che Guevara, wonder no more. You will have
yourself a Monte. This April 24, light a candle in his name when you
go to church to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Armenian
genocide, the cause of our dispersion, our expanded diaspora, the need
to stem our assimilation in the West, our unstated desire for a pied
piper to march us safely home.


--
Dr. Bedros Afeyan is a theoretical physicist who works and lives in
the Bay area with his wife, Marine. He writes in Armenian and in
English and also paints and sculpts. Samples of his work can be found
on his personal web pages at: http://208.177.152.139/

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