Operation Caroline and the bomb that shook South Yarra

At 2.16 am on 23 November 1986, a car bomb exploded at 44 Caroline Street in Melbourne, outside the Turkish consulate in South Yarra.

Because it was the middle of the night, the only person injured was the bomber himself – he died, blown to pieces by his own bomb, which wasn’t part of the plan.

In theory, the bomb was supposed to go off hours later, when employees of the consulate would be at work. Reports at the time estimated that anywhere from 50 people to ‘hundreds’ could have been killed.

That morning, the police faced what’s been described as the first-ever investigation of terrorism in Victoria. They formed the Operation Caroline bomb task force, and within days had discovered the identity of both the bomber, Hagob Levonian, and his accomplice.

This was part of the series of international attacks perpetrated by Armenian terrorist groups against Turkish diplomats, in the hopes of pressuring the Turkish government to acknowledge and redress their ongoing denial of the Armenian genocide.

Two main groups, the Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide and the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, committed nearly fifty acts of terrorism across Europe, the Middle East and North America, as well as in Australia, from 1973 to the early 1990s.

Strangely, Levon Demerian, the accomplice, was charged with the murder of the deceased bomber, along with conspiracy. He was initially convicted of both, and sentences to 25 years. However, the Supreme Court overturned the murder conviction (if two people set a bomb together and one of them dies, is that really murder) and Demerian served 10 years for the conspiracy conviction.

When he went to prison, he was Australia’s number-one high-risk security prisoner. Prison guards told reporters he was a gentleman, the kind of person you’d want as a neighbour.

My Name Is Revenge audiobook Ashley Kalagian Blunt

When My Name Is Revenge came out, I visited Melbourne to give a talk about the book. Melbourne seemed like the kind of place where people would be interested in Australia’s historical connections to the Armenian genocide, and author Toni Jordan kindly agreed to be part of the event.

On the night, it poured rain and the train lines were down in the suburb where the bookshop was, and only a handful of people turned up, most of them friends.

One man who I didn’t know waited until the end of the book signing to speak to me. He was Armenian Australian, and had brought a photo album full of newspaper clippings about both the 1986 bombing, and the 1980 assassination of two men in Sydney that I’d written about.

He wanted me to have the archive. I could see how much time had gone into it, articles cut from a variety of newspapers over almost a decade, and carefully arranged. And I could see that wanted someone to have it who was interested, who might do something with it.

44 Caroline Street in May 2021

It turned out Australia didn’t ‘need worry’ about the ‘Turk terror’, as one headline called it. That was the last attack here, and the attacks had ceased everywhere by the early 1990s.

Earlier this year, I was in Melbourne again, and visited 44 Caroline Street. It’s just an ordinary building on an ordinary street corner, with no hint of the violence that happened there 35 years ago.

There was some measure of justice done in the case of the bombing, with the success of Operation Caroline, unlike in Sydney, where there’s now a $1 million reward for information about the still unsolved 1980 assassination.

And unlike, too, for the victims of the genocide and their descendants, who still live with the legacy of the genocide.

Author Toni Jordan (right) with Ashley Kalagian Blunt