Ziggy “The Flagman” Berisha (4/24/1942 – 12/25/2018)
Ziggy became an American citizen on July 4th he said it was the “greatest day of my life.”
Story and Photographs By John Murray
Ziggy the Flagman was impossible to ignore. In 1999 Zeqir Berisha began waving the American flag through downtown Waterbury shouting “USA, USA, USA” and overnight he became the most recognizable (and loudest) man in the city. Dressed from head to toe in stars and stripes he burst onto the scene as an evangelist for America, a champion of freedom.
Who was he? Where did he come from?
Day after day Ziggy paraded through the streets of downtown Waterbury snapping an American flag and shouting as drivers honked their horns, gave him a thumbs up and called out encouragement. Each honk sent Ziggy into a patriotic frenzy, which led to more honks and hours of Ziggy standing on street corners snapping the American flag in a man-made hurricane.
Ziggy harpooned the complacency many Americans feel about citizenship, and about the United States, with joyous celebrations of democracy and freedom. The mere presence of Ziggy challenged us to think about what it means to be an American.
Ziggy was a sight to behold, and as a journalist I had to know more about him. Why was he waving the flag in pouring rain, in zero degree temperatures and in the middle of a nor’easter? What was driving this patriotic one-man band? In December 1999, after driving past Ziggy a dozen times, I finally stopped my car, introduced myself, and made arrangements to interview him the following day over a cup of coffee at the East Gate Luncheonette.
One cup of coffee turned into five as Ziggy careened through his life story, and I occasionally had to remind myself to breathe. He shouted, he pounded his fist on the table, he jabbed his fingers into the air, he snarled, he laughed, and at critical moments he leaned in close and whispered.
Ziggy was a passionate man and digging out his story was a challenge as he spoke Albanian, Serbo-Croatian, German, Italian, English and Spanish, sometimes, it seemed to me, all in one sentence. Our first interview lasted several hours and the fire that drove this man was an intense hatred of communism. Ziggy was an ethnic Albanian born in the Kosovo region of Yugoslavia in 1942, and had suffered under communism. Albanians in Kosovo experienced sub-human treatment at the hands of Yugoslavian leader Marshall Tito, a communist dictator. Ziggy’s mother died when he was three years old and he said he’d had a “Hell of a time” during his childhood.
Ziggy was segregated with other Albanians and taught in ill-equipped schools in Serbo-Croatian, and learned only Serbian history.
“In school they brainwash us,” Berisha said, “they give us candy and ask, ‘Are mother and father talking about government last night?”’
If students provided damaging information, and many unwittingly did, Ziggy said the police would beat the family, and sometimes shoot them.
One farmer had the audacity to name his workhorse, Tito, and when Serbian authorities found out they bludgeoned him into a coma, and Ziggy said the farmer died the following day.
Tito’s secret police were called UBDA and they often stormed into Albanian homes unannounced to seize whatever they pleased. Ziggy said the UBDA came into his house many times and took goats and robbed his family.
At the age of twenty Ziggy was drafted into the Yugoslavian Army, an event that made his father cry. Ziggy and other ethnic Albanians were forced to perform backbreaking labor in the army, and when they were exhausted, the overtures began. “They wanted me to spy on Albanian soldiers,” Ziggy said, “and they wanted the others to spy on me.”
It was an insidious way to divide and conquer, to keep Albanians on edge working against each other. And like the candy bribes in school, the Albanians were offered good jobs if they provided useful information on each other.
“Albanians were trying to set up Albanians,” Ziggy explained, “it was a miserable game and I didn’t know who to trust.”
And that distrust continued to haunt Ziggy when he reached America. Throughout his life he was always suspicious of who was working whom?
Were they KGB agents, “comunista”?
After two years in the Yugoslavian Army Ziggy went to work on a dairy farm in Switzerland where he said he milked and fed cows from 3 am to 9 pm. When Ziggy learned his wages were being sent back to the Yugoslavian government he fled over the border into Austria and sought political asylum. Ziggy lived in Austria for four years working at a steel factory, and then a paper factory.
In 1968 Ziggy returned to Yugoslavia to visit his family and was arrested in Belgrade and thrown into jail. “I swore allegiance to communism and talked my way out of jail,” Ziggy said, “and then I escape back across the border.”
Berisha eventually ended up in Rome where he ate at soup kitchens for four months before the Free Albania Organization helped Ziggy gain entry into the United States.
“I swore I was against communism,” Ziggy said, “and one month later I was on a plane to New York to breathe free air.”
After a brief stint in NYC he made his way to Waterbury and started working at Scovill Manufacturing. During an English class for immigrants at the old Crosby High School in downtown Ziggy met Blanca Guitierrez from Colombia. They married and had five sons together. Ziggy and Blanca were married for 45 years until she passed away in 2015.
All five of Ziggy and Blanca’s sons signed up to serve America. Abdul spent seven years in the U.S. Army, Ali worked for the U.S. Border Patrol, Alex was a U.S. Marine, Richard served in the U.S. Army and the National Guard, and Jeff (who is deceased) was in the Marine Reserves.
“They all served this great country,” Ziggy said, “but when I started wearing these clothes and waving the flag my own family laughed at me and called me clown. I got mad and challenged them, then they all support me.”
In the 1970s Ziggy became a self-employed laborer and a construction worker for local union #390. Ziggy was strong as an ox and over the years he was hired several times to single-handedly demolish a home with nothing more than a sledgehammer. Instead of paying a $25,000 demolition fee, developers would pay Ziggy $5000 and let him tear the house down. Ziggy would start at the top of the house and bust it apart with mighty swings and cart the debris away piece by piece in his truck.
While visiting friends in NYC in the 1970s Ziggy met three men in an Albanian coffee shop and they asked him for a ride to the Bronx. He was heading back to Connecticut, so he agreed. Before reaching the Bronx the car was surrounded by police officers with guns drawn.
It turns out that Ziggy’s passengers were under police surveillance and were smuggling machine guns in their bags. Ziggy was arrested.
“I tried to tell them I was a worker and a family man,” Ziggy said, “but they found the guns in my car and thought I was guilty.”
Berisha said he was locked up for two weeks and brought to trial where he received four months in prison.
“Judge don’t buy my story,” Ziggy said. “I was angry, but it was my fault. In my country they would shoot me for this. Make me love America more.”
In 1980 Ziggy wrote President Jimmy Carter a letter and volunteered to go to Iran and free the hostages. In 1984 Ziggy sent President Ronald Reagan a telegram wishing him a happy birthday and telling him he was doing a good job.
Ziggy was enjoying his life in America, working hard, raising his family, and was always on guard against the communists.
The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union raged on through the 1970s and 1980s, and Ziggy said that during these years some Albanians living in America were continuing to spy on each other, and report back to communist authorities in Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania to gain favors for their family and friends back in the Balkans.
The cloak and dagger game, according to Ziggy, was alive and well in Waterbury.
“The Communists trained us to infiltrate and spy,” Ziggy said. “They believed they could dominate America without ever firing a shot.”
And during Ziggy’s five decades living in America he never stopped his war with the “comunista”, and celebrated democracy with more intensity and joy than seemed possible.
“I was born to be free,” Ziggy said. “ In America I am a free eagle. I love this country.”
When the Soviet Union splintered and Yugoslavia broke apart, the province of Kosovo – Ziggy’s home – continued to be dominated by Serbia. Kosovo was an island of ethnic Albanians surrounded by Serbs who oppressed and persecuted them.
In 1998 Albanian rebels known as the Kosovo Liberation Army launched a war against Serbia to halt an oppression that had morphed into war crimes and ethnic cleansing. When NATO (led by the United States) launched airstrikes on Serbian forces, Ziggy took his patriotism to the streets of Waterbury waving the American flag through heat and cold and rain and shouted “USA” until his throat was hoarse, and his shoulders ached from hours of snapping the flag back and forth.
When Ziggy began waving the American flag on streets corners throughout downtown Waterbury he initially ran into problems with the Waterbury PD who saw his celebration as a safety hazard to motorists. The issue was quickly resolved, but Ziggy said, “if anyone try to take my flag they will have to kill me.”
It was the Kosovo War that transformed him into Ziggy the Flagman, but in reality Ziggy had been speaking out against communism three decades before that.
Ziggy had protested loudly when Jane Fonda came to Waterbury in 1988 to film Stanley and Iris. Fonda had visited Hanoi during the Vietnam War, a move that made her a traitor to many Americans. Ziggy was photographed at a rally holding up a sign that said, “Stanley and Virus” and had a bumper sticker glued across his forehead saying, “I’m not Fonda Hanoi Jane.”
Ziggy’s protests were not isolated to Waterbury and every few months he traveled to the United Nations to hand out pamphlets detailing atrocities in Kosovo.
Ziggy traveled to Detroit to protest against the Yugo car and went to demonstrations in New York and Washington D.C. where he burned the Yugoslavian flag.
In addition to working construction and raising five sons, Ziggy volunteered at Holy Land USA and helped Atty. John Greco repair his crumbling miniature Jerusalem. Ziggy poured concrete, chain sawed fallen trees and picked up rubbish left by tourists. Ziggy also drove the nuns on local errands and as far away as New Jersey.
“Holy Land means something to people with no money,” Ziggy said. “People who can’t afford to go to the real Holy Land, come here.”
For many years Ziggy lived a few houses away from Holy Land on Pemberton Street, and one night the nuns called to say vandals were marking up the front gate. Ziggy called the Waterbury police and rushed into the night. When the police arrived they found Ziggy with a shotgun in his hand patrolling the area in his pajamas. Whatever he did, Ziggy did with intensity. The vandals got away, but Ziggy was arrested.
“I called police for help and they arrest me for firing gun in the air,” Ziggy said, with a go-figure shrug.
In 2000 I talked to Albanian community leaders in Waterbury about Ziggy, and several of them agreed that spying had existed in the 1960s and 1970s in Waterbury, but the practice died with the end of the Cold War. They said Ziggy’s personal war against communism in 2000 was too much and that he was trying to slay a dead dragon. The community leaders asked to remain anonymous because they didn’t want to engage Ziggy in public debate.
Ziggy said they were cowards. “Don’t like America?” he said. “Get out.”
The Waterbury Observer published a cover story on Ziggy in May 2000, and it was one of the fastest moving issues we ever published. Everybody had seen him, but Waterbury wanted to know who he was and why he’d been waving a flag every afternoon for the past 300 days.
And with that story began an 18-year friendship between Ziggy and The Waterbury Observer. He would stop in our office on Bank Street as he made his way through downtown, and he would stop at my house unannounced several times a year for a surprise visit. I would see Ziggy at every major event and parade in Waterbury and he always asked about my daughter, Chelsea, and my parents who he met one day inside The Connecticut Store.
Besides freedom, Ziggy was all about family.
One time I hired Ziggy to scrape bumper stickers off 40 plastic circulation boxes I had purchased from a failed newspaper in Hartford. Ziggy told me to buy him a few gallons of cleaning solvent and he would donate his time and energy to remove the bumper stickers.
I gave Ziggy the key to the office and expected that he’d clean a few on the sidewalk in front of the office every day. My mistake. This was the man who demolished houses with a sledgehammer, and Ziggy tackled the entire project in one burst by lathering the boxes with gallons of solvent and scraping them with a wire brush. The office used to be a shoe store, and had a storefront tucked beneath Howland-Hughes. When Hank Paine, our landlord, arrived the next morning 120,000 square feet of Howland-Hughes was filled with the pungent smell of solvent.
Hank walked through his building trying to discover the source of the smell, and after an hour he opened the front door to the Observer and was socked in the face by a torrent of toxic fumes. He placed a large industrial fan in the doorway, and with flashlight in hand, entered the office, afraid of what he might find. Hank said the fumes were so strong that he expected to find someone unconscious and possibly dead in the backroom.
Hank called me to make sure I was alright, and asked what had happened. I called Ziggy, who told me he had wanted to get the job done fast. He had used all three gallons of the solvent in a closed space, removed all the bumper stickers, and staggered lightheaded out of the office before he passed out. It was classic Ziggy; edgy and 100% committed.
For many years Ziggy was denied American citizenship due to the legal problems he encountered from the gun charges in NYC in the 1970s. Eventually, and with dogged determination, Ziggy became a naturalized American citizen on July 4th, 2006 in what he described as “the greatest day of my life.”
Ziggy loved American democracy, but he never fully accepted that dissent was an integral part of the process. When the Iraq War broke out a group of mild-mannered protestors stood on the Green in Litchfield to challenge American aggression, and when Ziggy found out he drove to Litchfield every weekend to protest the protesters. He stood across the street from the protesters shouting “USA” for several years.
We used to have long conversations about American politics and the role of the United States around the world. Our politics and our starting points in life were different, but we could have passionate and respectful discussions, and always ended up laughing.
That is until I went to Cuba in 2015. When I wrote an article that explored the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Cuba’s thawing relationship with the United States, Ziggy believed I had gone to the dark side.
Ziggy found me one day inside the Brass Mill Mall in August 2015 while I shopping for a suit for my daughter’s wedding. I was standing outside a clothing shop looking at suits when I heard, “comunista.”
I turned and faced a snarling Ziggy. “You comunista now,” he said.
“No,” I said. “Writing about communism does not make me a communist.”
“Comunista,” he repeated.
And then we argued – loudly – standing outside that clothing store. I challenged his beliefs, and he challenged mine. Ziggy believed America could do no wrong, and I believed America could do better.
Two hours later we were drinking tea in the middle of the mall and Ziggy had agreed he would have fought with the Cuban rebels in the 1950s to topple an oppressive dictator, and I had agreed that the Cuban revolution had lost its way and morphed into an oppressive communist dictatorship. I thought we’d made peace.
But for the next three years whenever I saw Ziggy he continued to call me a “comunista”, and then quickly added, “but I like you anyway.” And then he would laugh.
With Ziggy everything was black or white, right or wrong; shades of gray were for weaklings and cowards.
When Ziggy got an ugly infection earlier this year he was hospitalized and ended up having a portion of his foot amputated. The infection lingered and Ziggy was in and out of St. Mary’s Hospital frequently as he fought through complications. His son Ali reached out to the Observer with news of Ziggy’s health problems and we posted the information on our Facebook page. The community showered Ziggy with love and gratitude. The first post reached 150,000 people and thousands of readers wrote comments of support and love to Ziggy the Flagman.
Ziggy told me he read every comment and the love he felt gave him strength to fight, and “reason to live.” School children sent Ziggy get well cards and we published a photo of a bearded Ziggy reading cards from his hospital bed on the cover of the April 2018 issue of the Observer.
Ziggy’s twenty-year crusade through downtown Waterbury had touched tens of thousands of people, and every year he received strong support in our annual Best of Waterbury readers’ poll for Person of the Year, the Best Thing in Waterbury, and Hero of the Year.
His relentless determination to wave the American flag, his unwavering support of active military and veterans, and his work to educate children how to respect the flag transformed Ziggy into a Waterbury icon, and arguably the most popular person in the city.
This past May his family rigged a wheelchair onto to a trailer so Ziggy could wave his flag during the Memorial Day parade in Naugatuck. Ziggy was sick but he insisted on “thanking all the men and women who died so he could breathe freedom.”
I visited Ziggy a few times this past summer and seeing him in a wheelchair, housebound, was like visiting a lion in a jail cell. Ziggy wanted his freedom and hoped to wave the American flag again. Ziggy was subdued now, and softer around the edges. At the end of one visit he said I was “no comunista”, and apologized for calling me one.
Coming from Ziggy it was perhaps his greatest compliment, and I thanked him. The last time I saw Ziggy was in St. Mary’s Hospital in October. A series of infections had nearly taken him and a few days earlier doctors had used an emergency procedure to keep him going after he had stopped breathing.
When I got to Ziggy’s room he was in a deep sleep. It was the first time I had ever seen Ziggy still. Even in his wheelchair he had been waving his arms around talking passionately about veterans, freedom and his unabashed love of America.
Ziggy died of heart failure on Christmas night, and as news of his death swept across the community an outpouring of love and respect flowed from Waterbury to Ziggy the Flagman.
There have been calls for a city street to be named after him and for a bronze statue to be placed on the Green in his honor. These are wonderful thoughts, but Ziggy hasn’t been buried yet, and his family and this city are currently grieving the loss of a Waterbury icon. There is plenty of time in the future to decide how Waterbury might officially honor Ziggy, but there is an unofficial way to signal respect and gratitude to this man by standing along his funeral route Monday morning, December 31 and wave an American flag in his honor.
Ziggy’s Mass of Christian Burial will take place at 9:30 a.m. on Monday, December 31, 2018 at St. Francis Xavier Church. The funeral procession leaving church will begin at roughly 10:30 a.m., Monday morning. The procession will go from St. Francis Xavier Church, 625 Baldwin Street and turn left onto Washington Street, right on South Main Street.left onto Grand Street. right onto Meadow Street, right onto West Main Street past the Green, and continuing along East Main Street to Calvary Cemetery at 2324 East Main Street.
Tomorrow is Ziggy’s final ride across Waterbury. Let’s send him home in style.