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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
to Leshok in a convoy of busses and automobiles.
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
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.
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 http://www.warReports.com.
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