My First Visit To My Birthplace,
The Village Neret Near Lerin in Aegean Macedonia
By Atanas Strezovski
am Atanas Strezovski, an Australian citizen and passport
holder. In July 2003, while on holiday in Europe, I
decided to visit my birthplace to see my relatives and
friends and to be present at the wedding of the daughter
of aunty, Georgiou Elefterija.
While in Bitola, the Republic of Macedonia, I had received
an invitation, written using the Greek alphabet to make
Macedonian words. The letter said that I would be welcome
“dear nephew” to attend the wedding of Hrisula and Atanasios
and that they would wait “with warm heart” for me to
On my first attempt to return to Greece for a visit
in August 1994 I had been denied entry - the border
official told me this was because my passport had my
birthplace as “Neret” and the country as “MKD”. Neret
is the original Macedonian name for my village, and
MKD is the international abbreviation for Macedonia.
However, after the Balkan Wars the region became part
of Greece and the village was renamed into the Greek
“Polipotamos”. The border official said that there was
“no way” I could enter Greece while the terminology
“Neret” and “MKD” were in my passport.
On this occasion, because I had the invitation, I had
a small hope that the Greek authorities would permit
me to enter Greece when I arrived at the border checkpoint
at Medzitlija. To encourage me, my mother, Paraskeva,
who was also born in Neret but now lives in Bitola,
had said to me that many people had been let into Greece
because they had such an invitation. But I later realized
that the invitation was irrelevant to the Greek authorities.
I made a deal with a Macedonian taxi driver that he
would take me to the village Neret for 25 euros.
set out at 8.30 am. The whole time I was afraid that
they would not let me into Greece, as I know that many
Macedonians born in Aegean Macedonia (now called northern
Greece) have been wiped out from the records forever
by the Greek authorities.
Despite the history and my own experience in 1994,
I kept my small hope that they would let me enter. On
the way, the owner of the taxi said that many hundreds
of Macedonians with Australian and Canadian passports
had been denied entry at the border simply because their
birthplace was written under the original Macedonian
name, for example “Buf, Makedonia”. According to the
taxi driver, the Greek Government does not want to see
Macedonian names and that is why they turn people back.
The Government wants to see these toponyms written only
under the new Greek names with which they had Christened
He said that when the Macedonians were denied entry
they became very unhappy and that as a taxi driver he
was also unhappy as the passengers paid for their journey
but had not reached their destinations. What the Greeks
are doing is very unfair, he said, but they are very
powerful internationally and what can the Macedonians
do? He then added that he has two Greek border officers
who are good friends of his and that if one of them
is on duty there is a small possibility that I could
pass through. Otherwise there would be no chance at
all, he said.
About 9 am we reached the check point, Medzitlija.
He told me to wait in the taxi and he would test the
ground for me. A few minutes later he returned and said
it was successful.
When I saw the stamp in my passport, I was surprised
that I would be allowed to pass the border, as I could
clearly remember not being allowed to pass through in
1994. I could not believe the situation. I was overjoyed.
As soon as we started the car, I said to the taxi driver
“The ice is broken, the times are softer, and even the
Greeks can see that the Macedonians are people too.
This is probably because of criticism and pressure from
human rights organizations and the European politicians
and community.” The young taxi driver said “Do not be
so happy until the job is done and we reach your village.”
The driver said that although he had been to many villages,
this was the first time he was going to Neret. We would
need to ask directions from somebody and, as there were
a lot of Greek agents in plain clothes, to be on the
safe side we would need to ask in the Greek language
and to ask for the village using its Greek name. “Pujse
to Polipotamos” he said to me in Greek to show me how,
as I was on the footpath side of the car.
And that is what happened. When we met a women, I said
the above words and she answered something in Greek
which I did not understand. But the taxi driver told
me even if I do not understand what she is saying, she
was showing with her hand that we need to turn right
at the T junction.
We continued on for another 10 minutes. But to ensure
we were going in the right direction, we stopped again
and asked a man who was plastering a house - using the
same Greek words above. His short answer - in perfect
Macedonian - was that we were on the road to the village
Neret (“pa Vie patuvate za selo Neret”). With a similar
short reply - also in Macedonian - I said to him with
a smile “Yes, we are going there.” ("Da, tamu odime.”)
He gave us precise directions. “Turn left at the third
bridge. It is the last village. You cannot miss it.”
In 15 minutes we arrived at the village Neret. At once
I was greeted by my relatives, my aunty Elefterija and
my cousins Dimitrios and Vasili Tolis.
wedding was underway when we arrived. The band played
Macedonian and Greek music. But there was only music
- no singing. Even well known Macedonian national songs,
such as “Mariche Le Lichno Devojche” (Maria You Pretty
Girl) were only played by the band but no one sang to
Until 4 pm the ceremonies were only in the centre of
the village. Around 3 pm I went to the church to speak
with the priest. There was no sign of the name of the
church - not in Macedonian nor in Greek. I asked the
priest but he refused to answer. He seemed frightened.
I asked one of the guests near me “What is the name
of this church?” The lady replied “Sv Bogorodica” (St
Mary). I asked why there is no name on the church? Why
it is blank? She said “We know the name”. When I asked
the priest if the church is called Sv Bogorodica he
said “Yes” in Macedonian, but made no further comment.
But the service in the church was entirely in the Greek
the church and in the village, when there were no Greeks
present, the people generally spoke Macedonian, so my
impression was that the Macedonian language at least
is no longer forbidden. However, it is a shame that
there is no Macedonian school and that the Macedonian
language is not used or taught at school.
That evening in the nearby town of Lerin, in the hall
where the wedding celebrations continued, the band played
Macedonian music but the words were sung in the Greek
After the wedding we returned to Neret and I stayed
with my cousin Dimitrios.
The next day I awoke about 10 am. I was alone in the
house. I looked at the photograph albums, which my cousin
had already pointed out to me.
of the photographs were of my relatives, and I saw photographs
of my dead grandfather, Hristos Strezos. I also saw
photos of his son, my uncle, Kosta Strezov, who now
lives in the town of Burgas in Bulgaria. It was Kosta
who had originally told me about this wedding and suggested
I try to enter Greece to attend. Kosta had previously
not been allowed to enter Greece and so on this occasion
had not tried to enter to attend the wedding.
I also saw a photograph of my grandfather’s other son,
my father, Giorgi Strezovski. I was in the photograph,
a child of about four sitting on his knee. The photo
was taken in Bitola in about 1948. I was born in 1944
and my family had left Neret and gone to Bitola while
I was a baby. My father was a patriot. He had told my
mother that if we stayed in the village we would become
Greeks but if we left we would have a chance to remain
Macedonians. Many other Macedonians in Greece had felt
believe that as a Macedonian intellectual my father
was persecuted by Serbian nationalists. My father was
a professional musician, a clarinet player and composer,
but in the photograph he was wearing a Yugoslav army
uniform. Because of the split between Tito and Stalin,
he was imprisoned for about three years in Serbia during
the time of the “Informbiro”. His health deteriorated
through maltreatment, and the prison doctor diagnosed
that he would soon die. They let him free so that he
would not die in the prison hospital. From Serbia he
moved to Bitola and then Skopje but no doctor could
help him and he passed away.
also saw my mother, Paraskeva Strezovska, with her sons
Lenin and myself, Atanas, photographed in Ohrid, although
I do not know in what year. I was about 10 years old.
I also saw a photograph of myself as a Serbian soldier
in the Yugoslav National Army. The photo was dated 25.10.1964.
I also saw a photograph of my cousin, Toli Dimitrios,
dressed as a Greek ‘Evzon” guard.
At my request, my cousin, Vasili Tolis, took me to
the monastery Sv Luka, where there are the graves of
my relatives, including that of my grandfather Hristos
Strezos, who died in 1975. The family believes this
was from beatings by Greek agents whom the Macedonians
call “andarti”. We believe the reason is that he received
a letter from Australia which was addressed to Risto
Strezovski and not Hristos Strezos, the Greek version
of his name.
also saw the graves of my cousin Hristos Tolis and his
wife Fane Filippoi, for whom I lit candles.
Again, in this monastery also, I could see no writing
to indicate its name.
In the village cafe, I met with a group of Macedonians
who spoke in Macedonian. I joined the group and they
accepted me. I told them I was born in the village but
had left as a baby and this was the first time I had
come back in 59 years.
asked to see my passport and when they saw written the
word “Neret” they were surprised and said how good it
was that I could successfully enter Greece. I told them
the story of the taxi driver.
They mentioned that even a letter which has Macedonian
script or names and surnames is not delivered. They
believed such letters are returned to sender but I believe
they could be kept by the Greek authorities or even
After three days the time came for me to leave for
Bitola. Around 5 pm I said my goodbyes to my relatives,
and my cousin Vasili took me to the border at Medzitlija.
On the way my cousin said he would bring me to Lerin
to see my grandfather’s old shop where he practised
as a tailor. My father also worked there as a boy before
he became a musician. The shop has been closed since
the late 1920s or early 1930s when my grandfather travelled
to Australia to look for work. The shop looks as it
was then and I took several photographs.
started again for Bitola and my cousin said to me “Oh
cousin, Tanase, if you had stayed here instead of emigrating
you would have a house in Neret, a farm in Neret, and
a shop in Lerin. Because your family was not here your
grandfather Hristos gave everything to us and made us
promise we would not sell the shop to anyone.” I did
not have a comment to this, except to say “Good luck
to you for your inheritance and may you have a happy
life. If I have another chance in my life time I will
come back again. All I want is for us to be healthy
At the border, I wanted to make my farewells and to
continue alone, in case there was some problem at the
check point which I did not want my cousin to suffer.
But my cousin said he would take me to the Macedonian
At that moment I had a feeling that something unexpected
But my cousin insisted with the words “Don’t worry.
I was an evzon guard here and everyone knows me.”
When I gave my passport to the Greek official, he opened
it and carefully read every part. He looked aghast and
said “Selo Neret”.
As he said the Macedonian word “Selo”, which is nowhere
in the passport, I immediately realized that he may
be of Macedonian background. The possibility that he
could be reminded me of a “Janichar”, a Turkish word
from the Ottoman period that meant a Macedonian child
who had been confiscated from their parents and raised
as a soldier to kill Macedonians.
I got a feeling that I would have a problem. I was
mostly worried about my cousin Vasili as I would be
returning to Australia but he would remain there.
The official asked me in Greek “What is Neret?” and
what is “MKD?”. I shrugged my shoulders and as I do
not speak Greek I answered to my cousin in Macedonian
so that he could translate “I do not know”, even if
I did know.
rolled the passport nervously in his hands. He made
a phone call and looked up some books, ostensibly to
find out what “Neret” and “MKD” mean, although I believe
he already knew what they meant. I waited for about
an hour at the counter. Meanwhile a number of people
with Greek passports passed through trouble-free at
the same window. As I waited on my feet I began to feel
I was being punished. The officer held his head with
both hands and looked as if he could not believe what
he was reading. I wondered how a person including myself
could have passed the check point and not have been
checked properly. Clearly there had been some sort of
“error” by the officer who had allowed me to enter Greece.
I felt that the officer could get into serious trouble
for allowing me in, and I felt sorry for him as what
he had done was right from a humanitarian point of view.
Meanwhile the officer I stood before still could not
believe what he saw and continued to fidget with the
passport. Finally he asked me when and how I entered
Greece and who had let me in? My answer through my cousin
who translated was that I did not know which officer
it was but that I passed through the same road on which
I now wished to leave. I told him the date and the time
and that now two days later I am waiting patiently to
leave as relatives of mine were on the Macedonian side
of the border with a car.
The officer seemed exhausted from asking me the same
questions over and over and did not know what else to
ask me. Finally he gave back the passport. I thanked
him and quickly left the building.
As I opened the car door and was about to sit, I saw
an officer, a large man with a uniform, coming towards
me. Unlike the other officer, he had a pistol on his
hip. He spoke in rapid Greek, of which I could only
understand the word “passport”. Immediately I understood
the problem and gave him the passport. He entered the
checkpoint office from which I had just left.
I waited on the footpath for about seven minutes. The
large officer then returned and gave me the passport.
I thanked him in English.
We entered the car and left immediately for the Macedonian
I wondered why the large officer had taken my passport
when the first officer has already cleared me to leave.
As we were driving I opened the passport to see if there
had been any changes. I saw that the stamp for my entry
into Greece had been badly smudged with blue ink so
that the Greek words were no longer identifiable. There
was also some new handwriting - the word “AKYION”, presumably
a Greek word.
I also noticed that there was no stamp for my exit.
those moments I asked myself what all this meant? Whether
that by destroying my entry stamp it made it look as
if I had entered Greece illegally, perhaps by jumping
the fence or crossing some farmland or bush etc, rather
than having passed through the checkpoint? Was that
the reason for defacing the passport - to destroy the
evidence that I entered Greece legally? However I did
not believe that they could fully destroy the evidence
of my legal entry as surely the information would have
been entered in their computer system?
I decided I would take action to make these events
known to various Macedonian human rights organizations
in Bitola and Sydney and to the Australian Department
of Foreign Affairs in Canberra.
A year later I am still asking myself - what is the
real problem? Is it that I entered Greece under my original
Macedonian name and surname; is it that I entered Greece
under the original Macedonian name of my village - Neret,
instead of the Greek Polipotamos as they have renamed
it; or is it that I entered Greece with the international
abbreviation for Macedonia - MKD. I think it is that
any or all three of the above would signify official
recognition for the Macedonian people and country.
Sydney, June 30, 2004
See also: Photo: Strezov