Cyprus: I was there… The day the Melkonian was bombed

I was there… The day the Melkonian was bombed

Cyprus Weekly
Friday, July 23, 2004
By Athena Karsera

A man who lived through the bombing of the Melkonian Educational
Institute as a recently graduated pupil was in Nicosia this week to
battle for the school’s survival.

One of Nicosia’s best-known landmarks for over 77 years and the pride
of the region’s Armenian community faces closure.

The 1926 stone building and its surrounding land of 125,000 square
metres is estimated to be worth at least CYP 40 million.


The government has placed a preservation order on the school since May
this year, ruling that “no alteration or construction be executed on
the buildings… considered to be on special architectural/
historical/ social importance.” While this may have temporarily
scuppered plans to sell off the school, its future beyond June 2005
remains uncertain.

Raffi Zinzalian had just graduated from the Melkonian and had a
university place waiting for him in Lebanon when the 1974 troubles
began. He had spent the day before the invasion on the beaches of
Famagusta and was in the school building when the Turkish planes flew
overhead on July 20, 1974.

“We were happy because the cease-fire would begin at 3pm and then at
2.45pm we saw the Turkish jets overhead. We thought they were headed
for the radio station (Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation- CyBC) but they
circled round and we heard a deafening noise, we had been bombed,” he

Zinzalian said that even his years in war-torn Lebanon could not
compare to the fear he felt on that day. Thirty years later, and now a
married father of three, he still has nightmares of the bombing.

“The roof in the dormitories was about to cave in and we couldn’t
breath. We knew we had to escape, the roof was on fire and so we ran
outside to the principal’s residence. The fire brigade was called, but
the roof had collapsed,” Zinzalian said.

The students and teachers left at the Melkonian made for the
mountains. Turkish troops had surrounded Nicosia and the only way out
was on the road to Larnaca. For 6-7 weeks communication and travel was
almost impossible and Zinzalian was able to leave the island on a
Soviet cargo ship to take up his place in Lebanon. “Two years later,
the war started there,” he said.

Following his studies, Zinzalian was employed at the Press Information
Office (PIO) as a Turkish-English translator. “I saw
+AFs-then-President, Archbishop+AF0- Makarios everyday,” he said.


Zinzalian then left for the USA to study photo journalism and media
and is now a publisher at the University of LaVerne Press and on the
board of Armenia International Magazine (AIM). He is also the
president of the Melkonian Alumni and Friends in California.

“We are all very sad that the school may be closed. All the alumni I
have spoken to, in LA, in Ontario, in Cyprus, in Greece, in Lebanon,
in Turkey, all feel the same,” he said.

Zinzalian has spent the last few weeks on self-financed travels to
lobby members of the alumni. “There are 1300 members of the alumni all
around the world,” he said.

Having had meetings with the Cyprus alumni of the school and
representatives of the Armenian community on the island, Zinzalian
said that the passion for keeping the Melkonian up and running will be
hard to beat.

“We are also looking into the archives of the school because the
Melkonian brothers who founded the school made provisions before they
died for it never to close. Before they died, they put the school in
the care of the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU),” he said.

The Melkonian Institute was built as an orphanage by Krikor and
Garabed Melkonian soon after the massacres of the Armenians in Turkey.

Zinzalian said that the closing of the school was “totally
unacceptable” not only because of the Melkonian’s important cultural
role and lengthy history, but also for the potential practical
problems faced by the 170 students continuing their studies at the
school following the graduation of a further 30 this past year.

“There are students at the school from all over the world who may not
be able to continue their studies as they have up until now,” he said.

“It seems ironic that the Melkonian school survived bombing and a war
and now is in peril from the people supposed to be protecting it,”
Zinzalian said.

He said that the alumni were prepared to keep up their peaceful fight
for as long as necessary, fund-raising — the California Alumni has
raised over +ACQ-370,000 for the school over the past five years —
and meeting with people able to help the situation. “The Cypriot
government has been very supportive,” he said: “and the Cyprus alumni
is the best we have.”

Zinzalian also said that he believed the AGBU did not expect to have
as large scale a fight on their hands. “I think they expected to sell
off the school and take the money back to the USA without much

He also criticised the AGBU for sending a non-Armenian to manage the
planned closure of the school. US national Gordon Anderson has been
sent to take the place of the school’s headmaster and oversee the
school’s future.

“Feeling the way we do about the school, I feel that closing it will
be impossible,” Zinzalian said.

+AKk- Cyprus Weekly, 2004