Friday, March 18, 2005

Times London Weekend Supplement

March 12, 2005

Road to revolution

PhD? I'd rather be a terrorist

by Philip Marsden

From Berkeley graduate to Armenian freedom fighter is a small step when history is on your side

I was too late. He was already dead. It was the summer of 1993 and I had come to the Armenian front line to interview Monte Melkonian. But a week or so earlier he had been caught in a skirmish near Agdam and died instantly from a shrapnel wound. At his headquarters, his men were in shock. In the canteen I sat down next to his aide. "Not there," he said reverently, "that was Monte's place."

During the previous four years Melkonian had become a legendary commander in the Armenians' post-Soviet war with the Azeris. What interested me about him was that, unlike the 4,000 fighters he commanded, he had not lived for 70 years under Soviet rule. He was from California, a third-generation Armenian, brought up in the most liberal state in the Union.

In recent years our idea of political radicalism has been overshadowed by the chilling logic of the suicide bomber. Even with the changes in the Middle East, it is unlikely that the divisions and destitution that breed such extremism will disappear overnight. Disenfranchised in Iraq's Sunni triangle or imprisoned in the hellish slums of Gaza, those who strap explosives to their bodies or drive a four-wheel bomb into a crowd have, by definition, nothing on this earth left to lose but their lives.

But there have always been other radicals, those who do have a choice, who are fewer in number but of much greater influence - those who throw away privilege or a good education for the life of political outlaw. Che Guevara swapped medical training for peasant-based revolution and died for it. The maverick Marxist Carlos the Jackal was born into a wealthy Venezuelan family but became an effective KGB-trained killer. George Habash passed out top of his class in paediatric medicine, but went underground to set up the guerrilla group PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine). And how different the world would look if Osama bin Laden, with a degree in civil engineering, had accepted a steady job in the family's property empire.

Monte Melkonian, too, had had professional options. In the late 1970s he graduated from Berkeley. He was a brilliant pupil who spoke several languages. His thesis on Urartian rock-tombs attracted the attention of Oxford University's archaeology department and earned him a place there to do his PhD. Instead he jumped on a plane for the Middle East. There began a 15-year odyssey that ended, cheek-down, on a dusty road in Armenian-occupied Azerbaijan.

Melkonian's career also reveals the profound shift in radical ideology - from revolutionary Marxism to nationalism, from the invocation of class struggle to the invocation of history or God. Like post-modernists everywhere, freedom fighters have rediscovered the power of tradition.

In My Brother's Road, Melkonian's elder sibling charts Monte's bloody passage through this period. He began as an agitator, organising strikes in Iran to help to topple the Shah. He then travelled north to Iranian Kurdistan and witnessed the disciplined Kurdish peshmerga rebels. But it was in the large Armenian quarter of Beirut that his involvement began to shift away from internationalism: in the free-for-all of the Lebanese civil war he first took up arms to defend his fellow Armenians.

I first heard about Melkonian in Beirut in the winter of 1991. The stories of his years there in the late 1970s seemed redolent of that era, a time of flared hipsters, radical chic, Patti Hearst and the Baader-Meinhof Gang. Gradually, Melkonian was being pulled towards a more particular cause, the one that haunts all Armenians. In 1915 decades of persecution had ended with the entire Armenian population of eastern Turkey being deported or murdered. More than a million died. Many of Melkonian's family were refugees from this time. It was a wound that did not heal with the passing years. In fact, faced by Turkish denial that it happened at all, resentment grew more intense.

During the 1980s, living the life of a tramp guerrilla, Melkonian wrote many articles and monographs. In these you can sense his ideology coming into conflict with a growing nationalism. With ever greater difficulty, he squeezed the Armenian question into the context of left-wing orthodoxy, believing for instance that Armenia's independence from the Soviet Union would be a terrible error.

Meanwhile, amid the anarchy of warring Lebanon, Melkonian's actions grew increasingly militant. He learnt to use aliases, false passports and a spectacular range of weapons. He crossed the path of Abu Nidal and Black September. He attended the joint training camps of the Bekaa Valley where the region's dispossessed - Kurds, Palestinians and Armenians - wriggled under barbed wire and dreamt of killing Turks and Israelis. In time Melkonian became involved with the vicious Armenian terrorist group ASALA (Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia). He set off a bomb in Milan. In Athens he leant into the car of a Turkish diplomat and shot him and, by mistake, his 14-year-old daughter (this was to become his greatest regret). He trained the Armenians who occupied the Turkish Embassy in Paris.

In the late 1980s, the Soviet Union was collapsing and the Armenians and Azeris of the south Caucasus were unpacking decades of mutual animosity. War was breaking out over the mountainous region of Karabakh and Melkonian travelled to Soviet Armenia for the first time. There he was confronted with the reality of failed socialism. In the mountains, Armenian villagers took up hunting rifles to defend their homes and attack their Azeri neighbours. By the end of 1991, the hunting rifles were being replaced with heavier weapons as a full-scale war erupted, the first in a pattern of post-Soviet wars in the Caucasus and the Balkans.

Melkonian found his guerrilla training invaluable. In lecturing his fighters on the wider context of the fighting he turned not to ideology but to history. "Lose Karabakh," he said, "and you will be turning the last page of Armenian history." He feared that, squeezed between Turkey and Turkic Azerbaijan, Armenians would be driven from their last pieces of territory and the work of 1915 would be completed.

His drawing on the grievances of the past was finding echoes throughout the old Soviet bloc and in the Middle East. In the north Caucasus in the 1990s, the Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev was stirring his people with talk of the "300-year war with the Russians", a war that began when Peter the Great landed in Dagestan in the 18th century. Milosevic had already woken the Serbs by invoking the Battle of Kosovo Polje 600 years earlier.

More recently, bin Laden has talked of the Crusades as having never ended while in Israel the old Zionism of kibbutzes and secularism has been eclipsed by the militant Jewish settlers of the West Bank. They, too, have a loss to correct, referring to the lands of Israel and Judah in the Time of the Kings, a full 3,000 years ago.

My Brother's Road; An American's Fateful Journey to Armenia by Markar Melkonian (IB Tauris, Ј18.95)

No comments:

Post a Comment