Arabs, Kurds, Armenians: Memoirs of an Armenian in the Bekaa Valley

Had he lived long enough, he would have just celebrated his 61st birthday. On November 25th, 1957, he was born in California, far away from his native homeland. Likewise, his father had been born far away from his family’s country of origin. Despite being among the third or fourth generation in the diaspora, his homeland was essential to him. At the age of 24, he wrote in a column:

“There is no Armenian ‘race’, but there is an Armenian people, an Armenian nation. And that is why we must struggle. The Armenians in the diaspora are unable to stand against the centrifugal impacts of cultural assimilation and are losing their identity as a cultural-national existence. Unless the diaspora Armenians defend their right to live in their own country, they will increasingly lose their cultural identity. And when this happens, an ongoing white genocide will have been completed.”

[Translator’s note: the term “white genocide” is often employed to speak about the non-physical forms of ethnocide and genocide such as forced displacement, assimilation, erasure of cultural heritage and history, etc. in the context of atrocities against Armenians, Kurds, Syriacs, Assyrians, Êzîdîs. This has nothing to do with the usage of the term by right-wing conspiracy theories in western countries involving claims to racism against white people].

At the age of 35, he lost his life when commanding Armenian fighters in Karabagh on June 12, 1993. His name was Monte Melkonian, his nom-de-guerre Avo. Monte means mountain, Avo is the one who brings news.

Now you will wonder how come we have never heard of his name before? How come we have never read anything about him anywhere else? I thought the same, when I first heard about him and I still do. By a meaningful coincidence, I learned about his life and story a few days before the PKK’s 38th anniversary, and a few days before his 59th birthday.

When he arrived in Iran in 1979 to participate in the struggle to overthrow the Shah and found out that the Kurds were preparing to rise against the regime, he was rather prejudiced towards them. He had read about the Kurds’ collaboration with the Ottomans during the Armenian genocide and thus, he had little reason to trust the Kurds. Nevertheless, he traveled to eastern Kurdistan with his friends to join the armed resistance there. If the Kurds would be successful in Iran, Turkey would be next, he thought.

First, they went to Mahabad, where they met leaders like Abdulrahman Ghassemlou (Qasimlo) and Ghani Boloorian. Although he found Qasimlo to be too western in his style and mentality, together with his friends, he expressed his desire to join the ranks of the Kurdistan Democratic Party-Iran (KDP-I). However, when word spread about Monte being an American, the KDP-I leaders changed their approach and said: “We don’t need more fighters on the frontlines”.

The group was welcomed more warmly by the Komala party. Sheikh Îzeddîn Huseynî, a highly respected spiritual and political Kurdish leader, invited them and offered his Armenian brothers military training and weapons. Monte was moved by the Sheikh’s affection but decided to leave Komala to join the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) in 1980.  Two years prior, he had built relations in Beirut, Lebanon, where a large community of Armenians lived and where therefore the movement was strong. The ASALA militants were being trained by the Palestinians. For this, they went to the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon in the early 1980s.

During that period, apart from the Palestinians and Armenians, another group was engaged in military training in the Bekaa Valley: the Kurdistan revolutionaries, namely, the PKK. The following are excerpts from Monte Melkonian’s diaries:

“At night, the Kurds actually dreamt about their suffering motherland, and as soon as they awoke they charged off to the drill ground. They dug foxholes with gusto and shouted Thaura! Thaura! (Revolution!) during assault practice, instead of the usual Allahu Akbar! (God is Great!). When they picked the odd quince, they left coins for the farmer at the foot of the tree, and when a Druze farmer came to harvest olives at a nearby orchard they climbed the trees with buckets to help. Once, when the Kurd Suleiman broke a banana in half and absent-mindedly landed Comrade Hassan the smaller of the two pieces, his PKK comrade Terjuman demanded a round of criticism and self-criticism. Suleiman came clean with a self-criticism and a solemn oath never again to engage in such unseemly behavior.

After their initial amusement wore off, the scruffy, swearing, cigarette-smoking Arabs and Armenians at the camp began to feel self-conscious in the presence of the abstemious Kurds, with their internationalist songs, their allusions to German classical philosophy, and their constant focus on revolution.

Their enthusiasm was contagious. One by one, the smokers started tossing aside their cigarette rations after returning from the morning jog. All the comrades grimly huddled around the radio for news about the September 12, 1980 military coup in Turkey. Arab recruits volunteered to shoot Turkish diplomats. Before long, they were all stomping shoulder to shoulder under the sun, shouting in Arabic, Kurdish, and Armenian: ‘Return to the homeland!’, ‘Struggle until victory!’ and ‘We are fedayees!’”

With these short anecdotes from Monte, it is possible to understand the mutual impact of revolutionary movements on each other in the Bekaa Valley at the time.

On the 40th anniversary of the PKK’s foundation, let us commemorate and remember the destitute conditions in which the “firsts” that re-defined revolution through the eyes of the struggling sibling peoples of the region, and their revolutionary personalities and life styles, came into existence. Likewise, we must remember all the Montes that have been genuine comrades of peoples. If a common resistance memory, a common resistance history, exists that ought to be updated to revive the Middle East, this would above all be animated by the revolutionary spirit of the early 1980s in the Bekaa Valley. What would happen if this spirit would once again spread throughout the Middle East? A revolution would happen. A genuine revolution of peoples…