Wearing low-slung ripped jeans, a silver cross and diamond-studded earrings, Marshan Mai cursed as he stepped off the aircraft back on to the land he left years ago.
He was in the second group of South Sudanese migrants who arrived at Juba airport on Tuesday after being deported from Israel and who face an uncertain future back in their war-torn and impoverished country.
“I don’t want to be here. I didn’t want to come back. I have nothing to do here,” Mai said, as migrants carried laptops, toy cars, huge plasma screens and a guitar off the plane. “They said, ‘Go back to your country, you are black people’.”
The South Sudanese are a tiny community in Israel, making up only a few hundred of the 60,000 African migrants who have entered across the porous desert border with Egypt in recent years, Reuters reports.
Israel launched weekly airlifts this month to send back the South Sudanese, as part of a crackdown on the African migrants – the majority of whom, Israel says, came illegally to work and threaten to upset the demographic character of the Jewish state.
Israeli humanitarian organisations say the migrants should be considered for asylum and it is legally questionable whether the majority – about 50,000 migrants from Eritrea and Sudan – can be deported.
Many of the South Sudanese migrants being expelled had stable jobs in the service sector, waiting tables in restaurants or scrubbing hotel toilets.
They return to a land ravaged by neglect and civil war for half a century, with some of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world and where just a quarter of the adult population can read.
South Sudan split from Sudan a year ago under a peace deal that ended decades of north-south civil war, but the fledgling state is struggling to build up basic institutions, end corruption and confront widespread rebel and tribal violence.
Akec Kuol, a hotel janitor who arrived in Israel five years ago, said he got a knock at the door at 5 a.m. and was taken to immigration. They told him he could go to jail or volunteer for repatriation, he said.
“If I was staying there now I would be in jail, I would die in jail,” he said.
Others said they returned voluntarily after being given $1,300 at Tel Aviv airport and were less pessimistic about their return. One shouted the old southern rebel war cry “oyee” while flourishing a small flag of the new state.
On seeing her independent homeland for the first time, one woman ululated before erupting in tears and falling to her knees on the airport tarmac.
George Eyenyori, wearing a Jewish skullcap, said he was away from South Sudan for 27 years and had converted to Judaism in Israel. He now plans to start practising the religion in South Sudan, which sits at the intersection of broadly Christian sub-Saharan Africa and the continent’s mainly Muslim north.
An Israeli court rescinded the de facto refugee status of the South Sudanese migrants this month, and the new nation’s government, sympathetic to the Jewish state, was happy to take them back.
Attempts to return migrants to Eritrea or Sudan are unlikely to be met with similar cooperation.
South Sudan received clandestine Israeli help for decades before its secession from Sudan last year, and is counting on Israeli investment in its struggling agriculture and oil sectors.