Monte “Avo” Melkonian, Commander of Artsakh War for Independence

Monte “Avo” Melkonian, Commander of Artsakh War for Independence

“If we lose [Artsakh], we turn the final page of our people’s history…”

Who he was

Monte Melkonian was an Armenian-American volunteer and commander in the Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) War for Independence, where he died in battle. He is remembered as personifying the indomitable spirit with which Armenians achieved victory against the odds and liberated part of the historic Armenian homeland, Artsakh. 

Born and raised in the Central Valley of California, he hardly spoke Armenian and was not very connected to his identity in his youth. After college, where his sentiments about Armenians were aroused, he turned down admission to a doctoral program at Oxford University to go to the Middle East.

During his time in Iran and Lebanon, Melkonian, a staunch socialist, fought both for social justice and in defense of Diaspora Armenian communities. He would eventually settle in Armenia, still under Soviet rule but about to become independent. As he got news of Armenian pogroms in Azerbaijan and the increasing hostilities toward Armenian populations in Artsakh, Melkonian left for the front, convinced that if Armenians lost that land, the rest of Armenia would soon be consumed by attacking Azerbaijanis and Turks.   

He was known for his considerable military skill, but his thoughtfulness, eloquence and his fluency in English made him especially unique in his ability to articulate the reasons why Artsakh was so important for the Armenians. Thus, his messages about the importance of Artsakh, which became the messages of the whole Armenian Nation, resonated throughout the world.

He had established a reputation for being unwaveringly just and immovably principled among his troops, the rest of the military command and the local population in areas where he fought. He did not smoke or drink, and neither were his soldiers allowed to drink.

Melkonian was killed by enemy troops following a battle. He was buried at the Yerablur military cemetery in Yerevan and has been further memorialized through the naming of many schools and institutions in his honor, as well as through several statues, including in Martuni, where he was commander.  

He became a symbol of a unified Armenian Nation - one which transcended the borders of any existing Armenian state - and showed that there were Diasporans who seemingly had no connection to the concerns of Armenians in Soviet Armenia, but who were ready to come and be a part of defending Armenian lands and the people who populated them.

Interesting fact

Melkonian went to Japan in his teens and lived there, learning Japanese, a language that he spoke better than Armenian for some time. 

Learn more about him

My Brother's Road: An American's Fateful Journey to Armenia by Markar Melkonian

Fresno-Born Karabakh Commander Dies on Battlefield - Los Angeles Times