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.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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."

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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.

"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.

Melkonian began meeting with the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, a Marxist group founded four years earlier by an Iraqi-Armenian who fought for the Palestine Liberation Organization. Fearing retribution from his previous associates, Melkonian slept with a machine gun and grenades. One morning, a friend of a friend spirited the Melkonian brothers and their cousin out of the Armenian quarter to a dank safehouse in West Beirut.

It was the Marxists' headquarters. Melkonian's mentor, Yenikomeshian, had already enlisted with the group.

"Monte had some real doubts" about the left-wing group, his brother said. "But he wanted so badly to help Armenians and he felt that something had to be done quickly."

Melkonian signed on with the group, which espoused violence to publicize the genocide and to punish Turkey for holding the Armenian homeland. His brother, believing that a Palestinian homeland was the key to stability in the region, traveled south to briefly become a PLO guerrilla. Occhinero returned home to Fresno.

Melkonian remained underground in Beirut for three years, rising to second in command of the violent Marxist group. The group seemed to be everywhere, taking responsibility for more than 40 bombings and assassinations of Turkish diplomats worldwide, including a 1982 suicide mission at the Ankara airport in Turkey that killed 10 people and wounded 72.

The FBI, which investigated bombings in Los Angeles by members of the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, suspected that Melkonian was keeping his family informed of his role and movements. But his father said the family was kept in the dark. In fact, he said, if not for a mysterious phone call they might never have discovered that their son had been jailed in France for carrying a forged Greek passport.

"It was strange," the father said. "This voice says: 'Dimitriu Georgiu has been released from prison.' 'I said: 'Who in the hell is Dimitriu Georgiu?'

"He says: 'He's your son.' I said: 'Well I didn't know he was in prison.' "

Melkonian's parents traveled to Beirut in 1982, hoping to talk some sense into their son. They were whisked to the top floor of a PLO office building where the Armenian Marxist leaders were holed up. The parents stayed one week, long enough to surmise that Melkonian was in too deep. Indeed, they were told that Arafat had twice intervened to rescue Melkonian from Libyans who thought he was a spy.

"I kept asking him: 'Why are you doing this crazy stuff?' and he just smiled," Charles Melkonian recalled. "He said: 'Dad, this is a 100-year movement. If Armenians of your generation had started this 50 years ago, we'd be 50 years ahead.' I said: 'We were trying to eat for Christ's sakes! What movement?"'

In his writings, Melkonian began to argue for a more political organization that limited its violence to Turkish diplomats. The group's Iraqi-Armenian founder, Hagop Hagopian, advocated suicide missions that also took innocent lives as a way to get the most publicity.

The final break came when two Melkonian supporters killed two Hagopian supporters. Hagopian flew to Syria and kidnaped Melkonian's two closest comrades, then held them for 30 days, filming their torture and execution. Melkonian's wife said she saw the film.

Melkonian went underground in France and founded a less violent offshoot of the Armenian Marxist group. He seemed to be making a transition to political activist in late 1985, when French police searching his apartment found two explosive devices and a map showing the travel route of a Turkish diplomat.

Convicted of criminal conspiracy, Melkonian spent four years in a French prison--years in which his mother was finally able to sleep through the night. "As funny as it sounds," she said, "at least I knew where he was."

In a series of prison essays, Melkonian cited failings of the Armenian Secret Army and called on Armenian revolutionaries to join Kurdish and Turkish rebels to establish a guerrilla force in eastern Turkey.

"Pens are pens and guns are guns," he wrote. "Right now we have a greater need for guns than pens."

It might take decades, he insisted, but they would succeed in wresting Armenian land from Turkey and joining them to Soviet Armenia.

The Soviet Union's collapse and the emergence of an independent Armenia changed all that. But it also presented Melkonian with an opportunity after his release from prison in 1990. In Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenians were trying to break free from Azerbaijan on land they said had belonged to Armenia for thousands of years.

Karabakh Armenians credited the American with turning their ragtag irregulars into a fighting force. He forbade the use of alcohol and drugs and the indiscriminate killing of civilians, according to accounts, and exacted a tax on Armenian Mafias in the form of guns and bullets. In an 11-day push, they say, his forces captured 1,500 square kilometers and dislodged Azeri troops from within missile range of Armenia.

"We actually have won this war so far thanks to Avo," said Warrant Officer Grayer Girgorian in an interview in The Times this year. "He turned our army from a bunch of Rambos into an army of discipline, valor and bravery."

Armenians have a saying that every man's destiny has been carved into his forehead. It was Melkonian's insistence on always being on the front line that put him in death's way last June. When the Azeri cannon shot finally whizzed by, a piece of shrapnel tore right through his forehead.

Back home in Visalia, after three months of funeral Masses and memorials, his parents watch videos of Melkonian on the war front. One tape is a pitch to Armenians abroad for arms and cash, and he is talking like the professor his parents imagined he would have been. They have turned their den into a shrine cluttered with his photos and bloodstained military jacket.

"My son chose not to sit in an armchair," Charles Melkonian said. "When you're on the front line for that long, sooner or later there's going to be a bullet with your name on it."

His mother remains haunted by the image of her son as a killer. "In Belgium, the child of a Turkish diplomat was killed," she said. "We didn't ask. Maybe we were naive. We didn't ask. We never asked because Monte wouldn't answer a thing."

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