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on April 1, 2005
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In two remarkable books, My Brother's Road and the Right to Struggle, 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.