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Report from Leshok

Walking With God

By James T. Phillips
29 August 2001

Mirko Hristov and his family had already walked over 100 miles on a personal pilgrimage to the recently destroyed Leshok Monastery when they arrived at the last Macedonian military checkpoint north of Tetovo on Tuesday morning, August 28. They still had another 10 miles to go before reaching the Orthodox Christian shrine on the one day of the year when, in normal times, thousands of people would gather to celebrate a religious holiday. Macedonia is not experiencing normal times, and the last miles of walking for the Hristov family would be the most difficult and strenuous.

The family began their walk in Strumica, a small city in eastern Macedonia, not far from the Bulgarian border. They trudged through peaceful valleys and climbed up and over soaring mountains during their journey west to Leshok. The only hazards faced by the Hristov family before they arrived in Tetovo were sore feet, hot days under a blazing sun and reckless automobile drivers.

When the family walked by the Macedonian checkpoint, they entered territory occupied by the National Liberation Army. The NLA is an Albanian rebel group that has waged war, since March of this year, against the people of Macedonia. Especially hard-hit have been the citizens of Slavic origin who once lived in villages situated along Route 405, the Tetovo-Jazince roadway; many Macedonians from northwest Macedonia have been cleansed by the Albanian rebels, including most of the residents of Leshok. Albanian citizens living in the village of Poroj, just north of Tetovo, have also suffered terribly from battles between the Macedonian military and the Albanian rebels.

Only Mirko and his 13-year-old daughter Olympia, joined by a few friends and supporters in Tetovo, continued the Hristo family pilgrimage on the final leg of their long journey across Macedonia. "God is protecting them," said Goran as he sat with a few of his fellow Macedonian soldiers behind a sandbagged bunker at the Tetovo checkpoint. "Mirko Hristov believes that God will not let them be hurt by the terrorists.

They are walking with God." The embattled military men were awed by the bravery of Mirko and his daughter, and allowed them to cross the frontline and enter rebel-held territory. "I also believe in God," said Goran.

Leshok is located in the middle of the self-proclaimed "Free Zone", the area of northwest Macedonia where Albanian rebels maneuver without restriction or interference by the Macedonian military or police. The only Macedonian military presence between Tetovo and the border village of Jazince is at Vratnica, where soldiers man three separate checkpoints. Mirko and Olympia were walking into the wild side of a country torn apart by a very uncivil civil war.

Poroj is the village closest to Tetovo. Exchanges of gunfire are common, and the superior weaponry of the Macedonians has destroyed many of the homes in Poroj. It is also the village where the Albanian rebels fly the red and black double eagle flag, the same flag that waves over territory conquered in Kosovo by the Kosovo Liberation Army. The road through Poroj is very dangerous to travel.

41-year-old Mirko Hristov, the owner of a small design firm, as well as a student of philosophy, and his daughter Olympia walked north on Route 405, through the villages of Poroj, Dzepciste and Neprosteno. The rebels of the National Liberation Army did not harm them. A peace agreement and the deployment of NATO soldiers aided the protection afforded by their God.

Mirko and Olympia reached the village of Leshok early in the afternoon and climbed up the winding road that leads to the Monastery. Except for an American reporter, they were the first visitors to arrive for the holiday celebration; hundreds of Orthodox Christians and dozens of journalists would soon follow. The celebrants and journalists would travel to Leshok in a convoy of busses and automobiles.

The Leshok Monastery was turned into rubble with a front entrance on August 21, destroyed by a bomb explosion at three in the morning. Mirko and Olympia paid their respects to the skeletal remains of the irreplaceable shrine, and then Mirko began writing in a small notebook as he climbed further up the hill to where the American reporter was standing with a group of British soldiers from NATO. Mirko did not take his eyes off of the notebook, and his hand kept scribbling away as he approached the reporter.

" I am writing a message to Ali Ahmeti," said Mirko through an interpreter. Ali Ahmeti is the leader of the National Liberation Army, and his headquarters building is in the village of Sipkovica, located high in the mountains west of Tetovo. It is well fortified and difficult to reach, even with God as a companion. When Mirko finished writing, he looked at the reporter and said "I ask you to please take this message to Ali Ahmeti."

The reporter agreed, and the note is on its way to Sipkovica. The long pilgrimage by Mirko Hristov and his family ended on a hillside near the Leshok Monastery. This is Mirko Hristov's message to Ali Ahmeti, translated from Macedonian into English by a fellow traveler and walker, Zarko Jordanoski:
"Men who know what they want, no matter how much they hate, have to guard their own dignity and the dignity of those who follow them.

I believe that my generation has enough honor to do better, even if it is only two men." © The News Insider 2001James T. Phillips, who sent this report from Leshok, Macedonia, is a freelance journalist who has previously reported on the conflicts in Iraq, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Currently, Phillips edits the web publication

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