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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

"When my father came to this country in 1913, he wanted nothing more to do with the old country," Charles Melkonian said. "He felt it was best to leave all that behind, and that's what we did with our children."

The elder Melkonian has tried to trace his youngest son's militancy to a single event. The best he can come up with is a 15-month overseas trip the family began in 1970.

They started in Europe and during the next 15 months, in a Volkswagen van with popup camper, traveled to 41 countries on three continents.

In Spain, a teacher asked 12-year-old Monte about his ethnic background and he replied, "Why American, of course." She asked him to check with his parents and that night, for the first time, they told him he was Armenian, descended from an ancient people who formed the first Christian nation.

A month later, the boy came upon his maternal grandfather's house in Turkey. There was one Armenian living in a town Armenians had built, his father said. The Turkish villagers said they did not know why the Armenians had left. The boy noticed the cross on the front door had been chiseled away.

"Monte told me he was never the same after that visit," said his widow, Seta, 30, a graduate student in literature at the University of Yerevan in Armenia. "He saw the place that had been lost."

His teachers and parents, sensing that he was bored with his sophomore year in high school, set up a year of study in Japan. Rather than return home at the end, he insisted on traveling in Asia by himself. His family said he lived with monks in South Korea and went to Vietnam to glimpse the war, a 15-year-old roaming the ravaged countryside with a backpack and 35-millimeter camera.

"He went to these places without us knowing," said his mother, eyeing his grade school photo. "Can you imagine that boy with a crooked smile in Vietnam?"

Melkonian returned home proficient in Japanese and karate. He now seemed to be in a footrace with himself, his family said. At UC Berkeley, he graduated in 2 1/2 years with a double major in archeology and ancient Asian history. He got all A's despite often taking off at mid-quarter to enjoy Carnival in Rio de Janeiro or to mine gems in the Cambodian mountains. He would have the stones cut in Thailand and sell them to friends to finance his education.

There was little evidence of the budding militant until the spring of his senior year. The university, yielding to Turkish government pressure, banned an exhibit on the genocide that Melkonian and his friends had put up in the library.

Turkey has long argued that accounts of the Armenian genocide by U.S. and European historians stem from anti-Turkish bias. If Armenians did die in large numbers, Turkish officials say, it was the result of war and famine.

"It was the beginning of Monte's politicization," said David Occhinero, his cousin and roommate at Berkeley. "We made such a stink that they put the exhibit back up and the librarian resigned."

His parents did not know it but he had already chosen his path. On the eve of his departure to London, ostensibly to accept a fellowship to Oxford, he made a remark to his father that seemed cryptic at the time: "I've got too much education already for what I'm going to do."

He never enrolled at Oxford. Instead, he hitchhiked from London to Iran, where he taught English at an Armenian school. It was 1978, the waning days of the Shah, and Melkonian watched troops in a helicopter rain bullets on a parade of demonstrators. He told his brother he never got over the sight of bodies piled high in the street one day that vanished the next. Life there was cheap.

He moved to Beirut to help defend the city's Armenian enclave from attacks by right-wing Christian Phalangists. The faction controlling the enclave--the right-wing Dashnaks--welcomed the earnest American. He was given a rifle and guard post. His brother, Markar, and Occhinero--inspired by his example and hoping to learn Armenian--soon joined him.

The insanity of Beirut wasted no time introducing itself. According to his brother and cousin, they all stood guard while Armenians strapped dynamite inside tires and rolled them down the hill toward the Phalangists.

"We were living in the community," said Markar Melkonian, 37, a doctoral student in philosophy at the University of Massachusetts. "You got to know the woman who brought you coffee in the middle of the night while you stood guard. You didn't want to see harm done to her. So you did your part."

Over the next 18 months, they said, Melkonian soaked up six more languages and watched the Armenian quarter suffer an exodus of people and businesses to Southern California. Disenchanted with the Dashnak Party, he came under the influence of a Marxist economist, Alek Yenikomeshian, the scion of a prominent Beirut Armenian family who advocated stronger measures to defend Armenians.

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