James Berisha is flying to every country on the globe in an old, single-engine aircraft, small and fragile like his new country Kosovo, trying to persuade the whole world to recognise his homeland . Last month he was in South Africa where he made his case to the South African government which still has not recognised Kosovo’s secession from Serbia in 2008.
Undaunted, Berisha, who had already visited 75 countries before South Africa, in Europe, the western hemisphere and western and central Africa, soon took off again for Swaziland, Mozamibique and Zimbabwe and the latest reported stop on his lonely and rather epic voyage was Malawi .
His aim is personally to deliver Kosovo’s appeal for recognition to each of the 193 nations of the world (the 193rd being South Sudan, he says, although it will not be independent of the rest of Sudan until at least July 9 this year).
So far 75 nations have recognised Kosovo, mostly in the West, while Serbia’s main ally, Russia, and its friends have campaigned actively against it. It took a devastating Nato aerial bombardment against Serbia’s ethnic-cleansing of Kosovo’s ethnic-Albanian people to win its independence.
And so Berisha is in a sense continuing the campaign by his aerial ‘bombardment’ of the nations of the world with his message: “give us a chance”. His ‘weapon’, though, is just a 44-year-old, single-engine, 145-horsepower Cessna 172 – held together by duct tape and sheer force of will it seems – which underwent it nth repair at Lanseria airport, ready for Swaziland and beyond.
That single engine is understandably a worry for him. Last year he came very close to crashing into the freezing seas off Iceland when the engine’s alternator failed about 45 minutes short of landfall. He shut down all the electronics, leaving himself with just enough battery power to pump fuel from his reserve to his main tanks and set course by compass to land.
“I saw myself dying that day.”
The Cessna cost him $40 000 (R273 304) two years ago when he began his mission. After the end of his next leg, up east Africa, the Middle East and Europe back to his national capital Prishtina, he hopes to raise enough money to buy a twin-engine craft to complete the global journey through Asia and the Pacific.
“I can’t afford to lose my only engine, especially on one of those long journeys across the Pacific,” he said in Johannesburg. But he also acknowledges that the old Cessna has been a good marketing tool. “I am worried that if I arrive in a fancy twin-engine, people will say: ‘This guy is trying to sell us philosophy.’ When I fly in in my Cessna, they say: ’Let’s help this guy.’”
In the DRC, a South African and a Zimbabwean air mechanic did just that, fixing the Cessna for nothing, saving him about $2 000.
But Berisha is also buoyed by strong patriotic emotions. He was born in Kosovo in 1972. His father, a peasant farmer, was shot by Serbian soldiers in 1999 on Kosovo’s border with Serbia as he brought his cattle home from pasture, and left to bleed to death in the grass.
James was studying to be a professional pilot in the US when he got the news. In 2008, when Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia, Berisha was a professional pilot, flying corporate jets in El Paso, Texas.
“In 2009, a year after Kosovo declared independence, I saw the world wasn’t reacting fast enough to recognise its independence.”
He began raising awareness of the cause, mainly among Mexican newspapers in El Paso. The positive reaction inspired him to go global with his campaign.
So he bought the old Cessna and began the first leg of his mission by flying to all the countries of the Americans and the Caribbean. He found a lot more sympathy for his cause, although some smaller countries did not want to declare their support because they were too dependent on trade with Russia.
The next leg of his journey started in Prishtina and took him to some Mediterranean countries and then down through north, west and central Africa to South Africa.
“This has been the most difficult continent so far,” he said, recounting the immense red tape he has had to untangle and the disproportionate costs he has had to bear, to get himself and his aircraft into African countries.
“Landing at Lubumbashi (Democratic Republic of Congo) I nearly burst a tyre, the runway was so rough. And the airport service was miserable. But they still charged over $400 for airport fees. Most airports charge about $40.”
He also found most African countries demanded fees for permission to take his aircraft into their territories, something unheard of in the US or Europe. The only African country so far which had not exacted this fee was Botswana.
Berisha reckons that at least two countries, Honduras and the Dominican Republican, have recognised Kosovo specifically because of his entreaties. Others may yet do so when the time is right (the Caribbean nations plan to make a joint announcement, for instance).
Berisha was grateful that the head of the East European desk in South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation agreed to meet him at short notice to hear his case.
Though he didn’t say it, South Africa is believed to have some sympathy for Kosovo independence, but has withheld recognition because of pragmatic concerns that recognition would create a precedent for secession of ethnic minority territories in Africa – and would also offend Russia, especially now that South Africa has joined the Brazil, Russia, India, China forum of states.
But Berisha remains cheerful, exuding confidence that since his cause his right, the impediments will eventually evaporate.
You can follow his progress on flyingforkosovo.com - Sunday Independent