Monte Melkonian

Monte Melkonian
Monte Melkonian
Monte Melkonian bust.jpg
Bust of Commander Monte Melkonian, Victory Park, Yerevan, Armenia
Nickname Avo
Born November 25, 1957(1957-11-25)
Visalia, California
Died June 12, 1993(1993-06-12) (aged 35)
Merzili, Aghdam, Azerbaijan
Allegiance Flag of Armenia.svg Republic of Armenia
Years of service 1979-1993
Rank Lieutenant Colonel (Շտաբի պետ)
Commands held Martuni Detachment
Battles/wars 1979 Iranian Revolution
Lebanese Civil War
1982 Lebanon War
Nagorno-Karabakh War
Relations Markar Melkonian
Other work Memoirs: The Right to Struggle, selected writings printed after his death in 1993.

Monte Melkonian (in Armenian: in TAO Մոնթէ Մելքոնեան, in RAO Մոնթե Մելքոնյան; sometimes simply referred to by just his first name Monte; November 25, 1957 – June 12, 1993) was a famed Armenian commander during Nagorno-Karabakh war. Melkonian had no prior service record in any country's army before being placed in command of an estimated 4,000 men in the war.[1] He had largely built his military experience beginning from the late 1970s and 1980s where he fought against the various splintering factions in the Lebanese Civil War, against Israeli troops in the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and was a member of the Armenian organization ASALA.

An Armenian-American, Melkonian left the United States and arrived in Iran in 1978 during the beginning of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, taking part in demonstrations against the Shah. Following the collapse of the Shah's monarchy in 1979, he traveled to Lebanon during the height of the civil war and served in an Armenia militia group in the Beirut suburb of Bourj Hammoud. In ASALA, he took part in the assassinations of several Turkish diplomats in Europe during the early to mid-1980s and was later arrested and sent to prison in France. In 1989, he was released and in the following year, acquired a visa to travel to Armenia.

Throughout his tenure, Melkonian carried several different aliases including "Abu Sindi", "Saro", "Timothy Sean McCormack" and "Commander Avo";[2] the last of which was the name addressed by troops under his command in Nagorno-Karabakh. The last years of his life were spent fighting with the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army.[3] Monte was killed in the abandoned Nagorno-Karabagh village of Merzuli in the early afternoon of June 12, 1993,[4] with controversial reports about the circumstances of his death and was subsequently buried at Yerablur cemetery in Yerevan, Armenia. He is revered by Armenians as a national hero.[5]


Early life


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.[6] By all accounts, Melkonian was described as an all-American child who joined the Boy Scouts and was a pitcher in Little League baseball.[5] Melkonian's parents rarely talked about their ethnic 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?"[7]

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.[8] Monte would later confide to his wife that "he was never the same after that visit....He saw the place that had been lost."[5]


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.

Departure from home

Teaching in Iran

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.

Civil war in Lebanon

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 Kbranian. Monte was a member of the Armenian militia and was a permanent member of the militia's bases in Bourj Hamoud,Western Beirut,Antelias 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 Muslim" 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).

Participation in ASALA

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 resistance 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.

Arrest and imprisonment

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.


A small monument built in honor of Melkonian at the front of the Yerevan State University dormitory.

On October 6, 1990 Monte arrived in what was then still Soviet Armenia. During the first 8 months in Armenia Melkonian worked in Armenian Academy of Sciences, where he was preparing an archaeological research monograph on Urartian stone carvings inside caves in Armenia and its neighbours. 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. Yerevan was swept up in an atmosphere of chauvinism and exasperatingly foolish illusions about the West.

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.[citation needed]


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 Taliban and 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.[3]


A Statue of Him in Martuni

In the early stages of fighting in Karabakh, small groups of volunteers Fedayee, or "brigades" (jogadner) played a major role in the fighting. Monte was a member of one such group in the Shahumian region. He quickly became disenchanted with them, however, for a number of reasons: their tendency to emulate the Azeri practice of executing captured prisoners; their adoption, in more than one case, of the aesthetic trappings of fascism; and their military inefficiency, compared to more professionally organized and disciplined forces. For these and perhaps other reasons, he set out to curtail the activities of the Fedayeen in Martuni. Monte never wore a pistol; he never smoked; he swore very rarely; and he never drank liquor while in military uniform. When he participated in the traditional toasts, he would raise a glass of yogurt. He handed his monthly salary over to cooks, cleaning women and the families of wounded soldiers, and time and again he turned down privileges, preferring to live under the same conditions as the fighters under his command. He established a policy of collecting a tax in kind on Martuni wine, in the form of diesel and ammunition for his fighters. One night in January 1993, he personally stopped a truck smuggling contraband wine to Stepanakert, and dumped the entire tank load onto the road. A couple of weeks before his death, he incurred the wrath of local Mafia bosses in Karabagh-and defied the advice of close friends-by burning a large field of cultivated cannabis plants.

Monte’s activities in Martuni were not limited to the military field. He supported the operation of a cooperative bakery in Martuni; he visited reactivated elementary schools and hospitals; and at the time of his death, he and Seta were planning to set up a worker-owned carpet manufacture, to employ local women who were skilled weavers. In a country with a rigidly patriarchal culture, Monte discouraged discrimination against women, chiefly setting an example for men to follow in the conduct of their daily affairs. He washed dishes, appealed to women to fight on the front lines and considered female staff in the radio room and the kitchen at headquarters to be fighters on an equal footing with uniformed soldiers on the battlefield. His reputation for modesty and directness earned him the affection of the civilians he defended.


Monte was killed in the abandoned Azerbaijani village of Merzili in the early afternoon of June 12, 1993,[4] with controversial reports about the circumstances of his death.

Monte was buried with full military honors on June 19, 1993 at Yerablur military cemetery in Yerevan, Armenia. According to one estimate, some 15,000 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.


  1. ^ Melkonian, Markar (2005). My Brother's Road: An American's Fateful Journey to Armenia. New York: I. B. Tauris. p. x. ISBN 1-85043-635-5. 
  2. ^ Melkonian. My Brother's Road, p. viii.
  3. ^ a b Croissant, Michael P. (1998). The Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict: Causes and Implications. London: Praeger. ISBN 0-275-96241-5.
  4. ^ a b de Waal, Thomas (2003). Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War. New York: New York University Press. p. 208. ISBN 0-8147-1945-7. 
  5. ^ a b c Arax, Mark (October 9, 1993). "The Riddle of Monte Melkonian" (Fee required). Column 1 (The Los Angeles Times): p. 1. Retrieved 2007-11-10. 
  6. ^ Melkonian. My Brother's Road, p. 4
  7. ^ Melkonian. My Brother's Road, pp. 10-12
  8. ^ Melkonian. My Brother's Road, pp. 12-18


  • Arax, Mark. "Riddle of Monte Melkonian" (Fee required), Column 1, The Los Angeles Times, October 9, 1993, p. 1.
  • de Waal, Thomas (2003). Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War. New York: New York University Press
  • Melkonian, Markar (2005). My Brother's Road, An American's Fateful Journey to Armenia. New York: I.B. Tauris
  • Melkonian, Monte (1990). The Right to Struggle: Selected Writings of Monte Melkonian on the Armenian National Question. San Francisco: Sardarabad Collective

External links

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