Today, November 25, marks the birthday anniversary of National Hero of Armenia and Artsakh, legendary commander, philosopher and warrior Monte Melkonian. He would have turned 63 today.
Monte Melkonian was born in 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. By all accounts, Melkonian was described as an all-American child who joined the Boy Scouts and was a pitcher in Little League baseball. Melkonian’s parents rarely talked about their Armenian heritage with their children, often referring to the place of their ancestors as the “Old Country.”
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. Monte would later confide to his wife that “he was never the same after that visit….He saw the place that had been lost.”
Upon his return to California Monte returned to his education. In high school, he was exceeding all standards and having a hard time finding new academic challenges. Instead of graduating high school early, as was suggested by his principal, Monte found an alternative thanks to his father: a study abroad program in East Asia. At the age of 15 Monte traveled to Japan for a new chapter in his young life. While there he began making money teaching English which helped finance his travels through several Southeast Asian countries. This introduced him to several new cultures, new philosophies, new languages, and in several cases, like his travels through Vietnam, new skills that would become immensely valuable in his later life as a soldier. 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. Monte eventually completed his undergrad work in under three years. Upon graduating, he was accepted into the archeology graduate program at the University of Oxford. However, Monte chose to forgo this opportunity, and instead chose to begin his lifelong struggle for the Armenian Cause.
On October 6, 1990, Monte arrived in what was then still Soviet Armenia. During the first 8 months in Armenia, Melkonian worked in the Armenian Academy of Sciences, where he prepared an archaeological research monograph on Urartian cave tombs, which was posthumously published. 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.
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 Nagorno-Karabakh. “If we lose Karabakh,” the bulletin of the Karabakh Defense Forces quoted him as saying, “we turn the final page of the Armenian history.” He believed that, if Azeri forces succeeded in deporting Armenians from Karabakh, they would advance on Zangezur and other regions of Armenia. Thus, he saw the fate of Karabakh as crucial for the long-term security of the entire Armenian nation.
On September 12 (or 14) 1991 Monte travelled to Shahumian region (north of Nagorno-Karabakh), 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 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.
Monte was killed in the abandoned Azerbaijani village of Merzili in the early afternoon of June 12, 1993 during the Battle of Aghdam. According to Markar Melkonian, Monte’s older brother and author of his biography, Monte died in the waning hours of the evening by enemy fire during an unexpected skirmish that broke out with several Azerbaijani soldiers who had gotten lost. Monte died in the arms of his closest and most trusted comrades.
Monte was buried with full military honors on June 19, 1993 at Yerablur military cemetery in Yerevan. According to one estimate, some 25,000 people filed past his open casket as it lay in state at the Officer’s Hall in the Armenian capital.
Incidentally, Karvachar region was handed over to Azerbaijan on the birthday of its liberator. According to the November 9 joint statement of the Armenian prime minister and the presidents of Azerbaijan and Russia, Armenia was set to return Artsakh’s Karvachar region to Azerbaijan by November 15, but the deadline for the withdrawal of Armenian civilians from the region was extended until November 25.