Erablur; A farewell to Monte

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“When I picked up the phone on the morning of June 12, 1993 and heard my sister’s voice, I figured she was calling about our brother, Monte. He was eight thousand miles away, on a warfront in the former Soviet Union, and we were trying to send him a batch of walkie-talkies.

“The walkie-talkies probably won’t be necessary,” Maile said, her throat catching. Then she informed me that my only brother had been killed that day in a skirmish at the foot of distant mountains, in Karabakh.

Such a strange fate for the kid in cut-offs — my little brother, eighteen months younger than me, with whom I had shared long summer days swimming in the irrigation ditches of our native San Joaquin Valley. But this was not the first time I had heard a rumor of his death: over the course of fifteen years, I had heard that he had been shot by a sniper, hit by an artillery round, buried under rubble in the wake of warplanes, and dispatched by a fusillade from airport police. This time, though, I knew the bad news was true. I asked Maile the first two questions that came to mind: how long did it take him to die? And: was he shot in the back? She didn’t have an answer to either question.

A couple of days later I was standing in the streets of Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, with Maile, my mother, my father, and my brother’s good friend from Visalia, our hometown in the middle of California. As we headed for the state funeral, mourners began pulling me aside to share their suspicions. “Your brother was killed in an ambush,” one said, “They were waiting for him.”  Another one claimed that an assassin had collected a reward for the killing, while someone else swore that the Turks had something to do with it. And then one of the mourners whispered that my brother had fallen into a trap, a trap set not by enemy soldiers but by men close to him.

The rumor of betrayal was not far-fetched.  Over the years, Monte had run afoul of many people—not only Turkish, Israeli, and U. S. intelligence agencies, but also ultra-nationalist compatriots, former cohorts in a self-styled Secret Army, local gangsters and warlords, and who knows who else—and he had survived perhaps a dozen lethal traps.

The “official” version of Monte’s death only heightened my suspicions:  my brother, a wily veteran of a hundred battles, was supposed to have been killed in a deserted village after he walked up to an enemy tank and mistook enemy soldiers for his own men. To further fuel my suspicions, I knew that several close military and political leaders in Armenia had been killed under suspicious circumstances. Whether they had been victims of a power struggle or of the hired guns of “family businessmen,” one thing was clear: their killers were not the enemy that faced them on the other side of the minefields. But if Monte had been betrayed, then the question arose:  who among the multiple candidates had done the deed?

Images that I had tried for years to banish from my imagination loomed back into view: there was Monte, alias Saro, peering through sandbags in Iranian Kurdistan. Then came Monte, alias Abu Sindi, huddling with Yassir Arafat under a hailstorm of shrapnel in Beirut. Then there was Monte, prisoner number 752783, alone in a dark cell in a prison outside Paris. Next came Monte, now alias Timothy Sean McCormick, collecting soda bottles on the street after a rally for Slobodan Milosevic, the new leader of a Yugoslavia that was sliding into madness. And finally, there was Commander Avo in the distant mountains of Karabakh, peering through binoculars at a battlefield strewn with buckled armor.

On the morning of the funeral, June 19, 1993, a shell-shocked soldier met us on the steps of the morgue. He had spent the night there, a self-appointed sentry sleeping fitfully on the stone stairs, wailing and chanting oaths. We climbed the steps and entered the chill of the refrigerated vault.  Monte’s body, clad in crisp camouflage, lay in a shallow casket of unfinished planks on a metal shelf. The woman in charge had wrapped his head with gauze just above the eyebrows, to conceal the deep cleft across his right temple, the result of a shell fragment that had crushed his skull a week earlier. Someone remarked that with his head wrapped that way the only sign of the wound was a badly chipped upper front tooth. But the chipped tooth, I knew, was no war wound: twenty years earlier, he had slipped on a rock at his favorite swimming hole in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Later that morning, eight of Monte’s comrades-in-arms slung rifles off their shoulders to take up the casket. We followed them to Officers’ House, in the middle of Yerevan. For four hours, thousands of ragged mourners filed past the casket, as a reed flute droned through the hall.  Unemployed factory workers in shabby jackets, gaunt peasants, and fatigue-clad fighters paid their respects to the thirty-five-year-old military commander, whom they knew as Avo. So did the President of Armenia and his ministers in Italian suits, as well as representatives from the country’s major political parties, and guests from Iran, Lebanon, Syria, and France. Russian officers swept kepis off their heads before entering the hall. The U. S. ambassador to Armenia, Harry Gilmore, arrived after the nearest of kin had been ushered to a back room for tea, and left before we reemerged into the hall.

According to the Los Angeles Times, some 100,000 mourners followed the casket through the streets that afternoon. Local journalists had exaggerated when they put the number at a quarter million, but who could count those who thronged Republican Square to follow the caisson through streets freshly washed and patched for the occasion?  Who could count the mourners who lined the road for six kilometers to a cemetery on a hill stippled with the graves of casualties of the most vicious war raging on the ruins of the Soviet Union? And what about the thousands who stood for hours under the sun at a gravesite piled chest-high with carnations and red roses?

At the edge of the open grave, a cowled priest brandished his miter like a sword, as old women in black wailed and children barely old enough to speak hung their heads. Unshaven fathers who had wept for their own dead sons wept again. I emptied the remaining bullets in the clip of Monte’s rifle, twenty-one of them, firing bursts into the air, conscious all the while that my brother would not have approved of this wasteful, needlessly dangerous display. Incense spiraled to the sky.

In the final years of his life, when military duties demanded his all, he had left it to others to describe him. In Washington D. C., a mouthpiece for the fledgling Republic of Azerbaijan obliged, describing him as a “terrorist with a criminal background.”  U. S. State Department employees dubbed him a threat to national security, and an FBI agent quoted by a Los Angeles Times reporter described him as a soldier of fortune who simply liked killing people. More than one mountaineer in the southern Caucasus declared him a saint, “our holy son,” and a New York Times correspondent quoted an Armenian who called him “the best god we ever had.”

Few people at the funeral, however, knew that the commander whom they called Avo was once a multilingual student of archaeology who had turned down graduate work at Oxford University to fight in revolutionary Iran and war-torn Lebanon.

The last time I had seen my brother alive was the summer of 1991, when I had come to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia to hold a cross over his head and the head of his bride in an ancient chapel carved into a mountain of volcanic rock.

Monte had lived on the move, through a dozen countries, with a dozen aliases and a dozen forged passports. He had spent half of his years in refugee slums, guerrilla bases, safe houses, prisons, and remote trenches. He had shared his journey with many people, good and bad, but he had left too many places in too great haste. It was not until several years later, after research and revelations, that Seta and I could begin to retrace the steps that led to the top of the rocky hill where he was buried that hot summer day.”

From KARABAKH DIARY; BLACK and GREEN. This chapter was taken from the book “Avo”, authored by Markar Melkonian, Monte’s brother, and Seta Kbranian, Monte’s wife.

In photo- Monte and Seta