James Berisha in his plane. All photos courtesy of James Berisha
James Berisha wants the world to accept Kosovo's independence. So, instead of circulating a bunch of pointless "Facebook awareness" macros, the Albanian pilot decided to single-handedly fly to every country that hasn't accepted Kosovo's independence and talk directly to them about it.
The Kosovo War ended in 1999, after a harrowing year and a half of bloodshed and the systematic ethnic cleansing of the Albanian population by the ruling Serbs. Nine years later, in 2008, Kosovo was granted its independence, but that status remained unrecognized by many countries. For example, Russia—an ally of Serbia—kicked up a fuss, declaring that the declaration of independence was illegal—a fuss they still don't want to drop.
So it's unlikely that Berisha is going to budge the entrenched hearts and minds of the Russian government any time soon. But that hasn't stopped him from flying to more than 100 countries to spread his message elsewhere.
I met James about a year ago in Sudan after he'd crashed his plane in the middle of the Sudanese desert. At first, I wasn't sure that his strategy would have much, if any, effect on global politics—I mean, how much can one pilot do to affect the foreign policy of an entire country? But after following his progress, I'm starting to change my mind. James visited Egypt last December, and on June 29 they became the latest country to recognize Kosovo's independence—probably the last policy enacted before millions of protesters took to the streets and ousted Mohamed Morsi's government from power.
I gave James a call to see how he's doing.
James in the Republic of the Congo.
VICE: So, James, what possessed you to fly to every country that hasn't accepted Kosovo's independence?
James Berisha: All Albanians are very attached to their homeland and where they grew up. I lived in Kosovo for the first 16 years of my life and suffered a lot from Serbian propaganda. The Serbs called the Albanians illiterate and stupid. They also said that we had tails like animals. Those kinds of things create a lot of resentment. The Serbs tried to eliminate our language, ban our books and religion. They wanted to destroy our families. My vision is this: to go to each and every country on the planet and deliver the message that Kosovo should be free from Serbia in the most efficient and cheapest way possible.
Where were you when the war broke out in 1999?
I was training to become a pilot in Florida, but returned to Kosovo when the Serbs killed my father. He was 47 years old.
Was he a civilian or fighting in the war?
A civilian. I grew up on a farm in a village. He was feeding our cows. He didn't do anything.
Where did you begin your mission?
I purchased my plane when I was in Texas. At the time, I only wanted to do the Western hemisphere. I thought I would try to raise as much awareness as I could by talking to radio stations and newspapers. At this stage I didn't know that the mission would become extremely powerful and that I would become a hero for the people of Kosovo. After I had finished the Western hemisphere, people were encouraging me to continue. I asked my family and thought, OK, no problem! I decided to go to Africa because, in many ways, Africa has suffered from the same problems as Kosovo. It was colonized, and the people therefore understand the importance of independence.
James's plane in the Sudanese desert.
Let's talk about some of the stuff that's happened to you along the way. You managed to crash your plane into the Sudanese desert at one point, right?
Yeah. I was at 8,500 feet when I heard an explosion and everything started going crazy. The plane was vibrating, oil was spilling all over the place, and my engine had completely stopped working. I turned off everything and managed to send a message to a commercial plane flying above, letting the pilot know that I was about to crash.
Were you freaking out?
No. For the first two seconds, I was a little bit scared, but then after that, not at all. All I was thinking about was surviving and saving the plane. If I couldn't rescue the plane then I at least wanted to make sure that I survived. I flew for ten to 15 minutes without an engine – like a glider—before spotting a small gravel road. I used it as a runway and landed the plan. It was actually pretty good—I managed to save myself and the plane.
Is your plane safe to fly?
No, not very safe.
Right. What else has happened to you on your travels?
I was in jail.
I didn't know that. How did that happen?
After I crashed my plane, I decided to go to Eritrea on a commercial flight to do some mission work there. I had no problems when I arrived in Eritrea; I stayed there six days and tried to do the same stuff that I've done around the world—talking to newspapers, doing television interviews, etc. I soon realized that I wasn't going to get much done in Eritrea. It's one of the worst countries in the world as far as freedom of speech is concerned.
The newspapers are controlled by the government, and it's pretty much impossible to campaign for anything at all. As I was leaving the country, ten minutes before my plane was scheduled to depart, a police officer came over and asked to talk to me. I was taken to a room and questioned about my documents. I didn't have a visa because, as a pilot, I'm technically permitted to travel on my pilot documents. They wanted to see a visa, which I didn't have, and I was told that I should have never been allowed to enter the country. I ended up spending three days in a detention center at the airport before being taken to jail and being put in a cell by myself for 156 days.
Jesus... 156 days?
I never saw a lawyer or a judge and wasn't allowed to talk to my family. They had no idea where I was. I was treated like a camel and completely isolated from the outside world. I thought I was going to die. If it wasn't for the kindness of the other inmates who gave me food, I would be dead today.
So your family had no idea where you were?
No. The government of Eritrea lied to my family and friends and said that I wasn't in the country. The last email I sent was from Eritrea, so my family knew that I was still there. In the end, 20 countries intervened to get me out. France, Belgium, USA, Qatar, Sudan, Kosovo, Albania—you name it.
What do you think your mission has achieved?
I have delivered Kosovo's message to the world. If I go on Al Jazeera, the ninth largest channel in the world, it means that the message has been delivered. If I go to every single country in Africa and deliver an official letter stating, "Please recognize Kosovo's independence," the message has been delivered.
I've heard that Egypt has just accepted Kosovo's independence. Do you think you influenced that decision in any way?
I spoke to many people who supported Kosovo's independence. The people are so important. Egypt recognized Kosovo's independence because there was a lot of pressure to do so from ordinary citizens.
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