At the bottom of the steps a woman fell to her knees and kissed the ground before rising, dramatically flinging her head back and pressing her palms to her eyes. “I’m so happy to be home”, she told the assembled journalists, politicians, police and aid workers meeting the plane.
Behind her, a woman in a leopard print shirt didn’t look so overwhelmed with joy.
Most of these people had jobs in the hospitality industry and were saving money and raising their children in Israel.
This was the homecoming of nearly 150 South Sudanese deported from Israel. They join more than a hundred others, deported a week before, and will soon be followed by another 400 or so as Israel seeks to purge itself of its African immigrants.
This has been called a “voluntary repatriation” but some would argue with this definition of voluntary. One woman told me she had been offered the choice of imprisonment in Israel as an illegal immigrant or a free flight back to South Sudan. She chose to return to the country of her birth, but she hesitated to call it 'home'.
Most of the people being deported would have entered Israel illegally through its porous border with Egypt and the government is keen to discourage more from coming through in this manner.
Some of the people being sent back to Juba haven’t been to South Sudan for decades and many of them have children who have never been here at all and who don’t speak the local language of Juba Arabic.
It is not just a case that that they are unfamiliar with their country; their country is unfamiliar with them.
South Sudan is extremely underdeveloped – barely a third of the people are literate and there are few proper roads in the country. The people getting off the plane in Juba were dressed in modern clothes, contrasting starkly with the second hand outfits of the people who live here.
The returnees arrived with ipads and flat screen TVs and their children’s buggies, designed for carefully levelled pavements, which will soon be making an appearance on Juba’s dirt streets. In short, these people look like they have been living in the modern world, and they have arrived in a place that is far from modern.
These stylishly dressed, multilingual and educated people are now dispersing across the country, and outside Juba many will be lucky to find enough electricity to power their devices, never mind find jobs to accommodate their skills in the country’s fledgling hospitality industry.
I interviewed a government spokesman about their return which he assured me was entirely voluntary, saying they have come to help build their new nation a year from gaining independence.
But the Israeli government has been telling a different story and I put this to him, to which he replied that reports of deportations are merely a media fabrication.
These people wanted to leave well-paid jobs and return to South Sudan, and journalists are liars, he was “sorry to say”.
The first anniversary of independence is next month and despite the challenges facing this country, most of its citizens are overwhelmingly proud that they have achieved separation from the north. South Sudan currently lacks a middle class, the powerhouse of an economy, and these skilled workers could make a valuable contribution to its development.
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|Timothy V. Gatto|