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COLUMN ONE : The Riddle of Monte Melkonian : Family and friends wonder how a Visalia Cub Scout with no interest in his roots ended up as a terrorist and Armenian war martyr.

October 09, 1993|MARK ARAX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VISALIA, Calif. — Here in this San Joaquin Valley farm town, they still marvel at the transformation of Monte Melkonian from local Cub Scout with a talent for languages to international terrorist to Armenian war hero.

He had been an unusual teen-ager to be sure, touring the South Vietnam war zone alone at the age of 15. Still, his parents, teachers and priest shake their heads at the improbability of it all: A second-generation Armenian-American grew up not knowing the Armenian language or church, then turned his back on Oxford University to join the Armenian underground, a life that included four years in a French prison and dealings with Yasser Arafat.

That life ended this summer when Melkonian, 35, commanding a guerrilla force of 4,000 in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian enclave trying to secede from Azerbaijan, became the first American to die in the bitter ethnic war.

A throng of 100,000 mourners and the Armenian president followed the body, clad in bloodstained military fatigues, through the streets of Yerevan, the Armenian capital. Melkonian was buried in a soldiers cemetery looking out toward Mt. Ararat, in the land his grandfather fled 80 years earlier to escape the Turkish genocide.

To many Armenians worldwide, Melkonian is a martyr, his rout of the Azeris last winter the stuff of legend. A province in Nagorno-Karabakh has been renamed "Ft. Monte," and Armenian-Americans compare him to St. Vardan Mamikonian, the 5th-Century general who died turning back the Persians. In U.S. Armenian communities, Monte T-shirts are sold at picnics and fathers snap photos of sons beside a larger than life portrait of the commander.

To the FBI, which tracked his movements for more than a decade, Melkonian was just a wily terrorist who had led one of the most violent underground groups in the 1980s--the Beirut-based Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia.

"He was a soldier of fortune," said William O. Heaton, a special agent in Los Angeles. "Some people enjoy killing other people, don't they?"

To the family and friends he left behind nearly two decades ago, Melkonian remains an enigma.

"We didn't talk up the Armenian cause at home. We didn't drum the Turkish genocide into their heads," said his perplexed father, Charles Melkonian, a retired cabinetmaker. "And there were no grandfathers around to pass along the stories. . . . The change in Monte just kind of happened."

At a church service here last month, family and friends remembered Melkonian and watched a video of his Armenian state funeral. His high school history teacher, Linda Yost, could hardly listen or look. She tried to recall instead the star pupil who by age 16 spoke fluent Japanese and Spanish--two of the nine languages he would master--and devoured the writings of Locke, Descartes and Hobbes.

"He was simply the most brilliant student I ever had, a once in a lifetime," said Yost, who has taught at Mt. Whitney High School for 21 years. "I got goose bumps thinking what he might accomplish."

Now, she and the others search their memories of the teen-ager who captained the quiz team, looking for clues to the origin of Dimitriu Georgiu and Avo--the noms de guerre he took in a later life. Where and when, they wonder, did this fire get lit, a fire that carried him from promising archeologist in the 1970s to stalker of Turkish diplomats in the 1980s to Armenian war hero in the 1990s?

"It's one of the enduring mysteries of my experience here," said the Rev. Vartan Kasparian of the local Armenian parish. "How this one bright child, so American, not only stopped the clock of assimilation but reversed it in such a fierce way. . . . It was an astounding transformation to witness."

*

Long before his funeral, before he became a terrorist to some and a freedom fighter to others, Melkonian belonged to this valley. He was a kid straight out of a William Saroyan short story who chased jack rabbits through vineyards and rode inner tubes down irrigation canals.

He was a Little League pitcher, the first student body president at Conyers Elementary and the commencement speaker at his eighth-grade graduation, his head barely visible from behind the podium.

Her son was a pipsqueak who made peace among the warring factions of the neighborhood, said his mother, Zabelle Melkonian: "We had this neighbor whose two sons never got along and once a week she'd call and say, 'Get Monte over here.' Somehow he always managed to divert their attention and get things settled."

His father, Charles, owned a successful cabinet and fixtures business and belonged to the Elks and Lions clubs. His mother taught elementary school and joined the University Women's Club.

They had spent too many years overcoming deep prejudice against Armenians here, they said, to saddle their four children with Armenian culture and language and stories of the 1916 Turkish massacre, which historians say took more than 1 million lives.

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