JUBA, South Sudan.
The Kibbutz movement is dying? Don't tell that to Emmanuel Logoro. "I have a dream," he says, sitting in his hut near a plastic Christmas tree he brought home from Eilat, and taking out a briefcase filled with diagrams about kibbutz structure. "I have plans."
Logoro, 29, tall, muscular and talking a mile a minute in perfect Hebrew -- complete with all the requisite slang -- was one of the very first Sudanese asylum seekers to cross the border into Israel from Egypt, back in January of 2006. He knew nothing about the country, he says, except that which he had read in his bible.
After nine months in detention in Ketziot, he was released to Kibbutz Eilot, where he proceeded to spend four years -- working in the food hall and maintenance, learning Hebrew, playing in a rock band and making countless friends along the way. When he left, he says, they threw a goodbye party, and he had tears in his eyes. "I could have stayed there my whole life. I was lacking nothing," he attests.
Emmanuel loves the kibbutz, plain and simple. His wife Sara, who he met at a refugee camp in Egypt, does too. She misses her friends, with whom she worked at the Magic Sunrise Club Hotel in nearby Eilat. Their eldest, nine year old daughter Cindy, born in a camp in Khartoum, misses her classmates from school in Yotveta. Cindy brings out an old report card. "A very good student and good girl," she reads out loud in Hebrew to her two younger brothers, who have heard it all before.
The Logoro family loved Israel -- but came back to south Sudan. "This is our home, after all," explains Emmanuel to his son Logoro, a Sabra born at Yosseftal hospital, sitting on his lap. "We are about to be an independence country and there are things for us to do here."
Like, for example, start a kibbutz.
"And why not?" asks Emmanuel. "We have the land, the rain, the people. It will unite us and take us forward, just as the Jews of Europe came together to pray, eat, work and develop their land... What is better than a kibbutz, I ask you?"
Even before he left Israel last April, together with a group of about 50 others, Emmanuel was in touch with people in Juba, telling them about his idea. Sara had returned a year earlier, together with a smaller group of ten, to pave the way. And soon he had scored a meeting with the Agricultural Minister, who, says Emmanuel, was very enthused about the kibbutz scheme.
Emmanuel's uncle offered a plot of tribal land, and the bank agreed to a loan. All he needs now, the young pioneer reckons, is about 30 families who might want to come together and create Sudan's very own Dgania Alef.
What about the fact that Sudan, like much of Africa, is a society built on networks of extended family and tribe- completely unaccustomed to cooperatives outside kin? "This will be a new model," retorts Emmanuel. The fact that no agricultural produce whatsoever is grown in south Sudan? "We will start with Mangoes and Papayas." That most people don't have money to put in, nor at ethic of organized labour? "This can be overcome." Each potential pitfall has a solution, as far as this optimistic would-be-pioneer is concerned.
Emmanuel, who was separated from his family and fled south Sudan to the north when he was eight, is not the only refugee coming home these days. As independence approaches, tens of thousands of south Sudanese, having escaped decades of brutal civil war and scattered out across the world -- are making their way back.
They are an eclectic bunch. Some have been in refugee camps in Uganda or Kenya and don't speak a word of Arabic anymore; Others have learnt to Salsa in Cuba. Some have spent time in detention in northern Sudan; Other have had military training in Libya. Some have been working as nurses in Australia; Others, have been nomads in Ethiopia. And some, like Emmanuel, have been on Kibbutz.
These returnees have a lot to offer us," says Elijah Meen, a civil servant, who picked up his younger brother Gordon at the airport last month after having not seen him in 18 years, since their family too was torn apart by the endless war.
Gordon, 29, like Emmanuel, had been an asylum seeker in Israel -- smuggled across the border by Bedouins after years of bouncing from one refugee camp to another in Kenya, Uganda and Egypt. "I knew nothing about Israel, but they are a friend to south Sudan more than other countries. We have been facing the same Arabs," he says.
His experience was mixed. "I thought I would find a life in Israel and get to study and work... maybe even join the army -- but it was difficult," he says. Gordon spent three years between Eilat, Tel Aviv and Hedera, looking for odd jobs and usually coming up short. "I was not from Darfur. I was not favored. I never had the right papers," he complains.
Late last year, he decided to come home and contacted the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem (ICEJ), a little known - and controversial - group that has organized several flights for Sudanese in Israel seeking be repatriated. "I miss Israel," he says. "Many people were kind. But your country is your country. Israel is good -- but it is not my country."
He flew out in mid December, on a commercial Kenya Airways flight to Nairobi and onward to Juba, together with some 140 other Sudanese asylum seekers from Israel, arriving with a carry-on bag and his favorite suit. "After all those years outside of Sudan, I came back with nothing." he says. "I am a little confused now," he admits. "I don't know what to do."
His brother sees it from a different perspective.
"We were wishing he could come home with knowledge of school. But even without, these people have seen the world. They have been exposed," says Elijah. "Even if they don't know how to build a road, at least have seen what building a road looks like. They have seen good houses and good bridges and they can now help us here."
Deng Alor, the man slated to become south Sudan's first foreign minister upon independence in July, echoes this sentiment. "These returnees can be very helpful to us today. They bring back ideas and investments and language. They are an asset." All refugees are welcome here, says Alor -- even northerners, including Darfuris, who cannot return to their own regions, will be received with open arms.
But, he stresses, no one should force these people home. "It should be up to these individuals to make their personal decision. If they decide to come back, if they feel the situation is attractive for them here, they should come and we will do everything we can to help facilitate their return. But if they are in Israel, studying or working, and they want to stay -- they should be permitted to do so."
The ICEJ sponsored flights that brought back Gordon, the Logoro family and other asylum seekers from Israel, says the future foreign minister, confounded him. "No one knew they were coming. Even if we have no formal relations, such things must still be coordinated," Alor claims. A senior advisor to the President's office says the same: "We were totally surprised by their arrival. We had not been informed and they came without papers, without anything."
But these assertions seem to contradict an eyewitness account by a member of the security force at Juba airport, who says that south Sudanese government officials were at hand to receive the returning refugees. "It seemed secret," says the security man, who saw three separate arrivals over the last two years. "In the past we have never heard of anyone who had been to Israel. It was not allowed. But when these people came from there, they got a good welcome."
The ICEJ did not respond to requests for information about their program, and Gordon and Emmanuel both decline to discuss details of their return, although they insist they came voluntarily.
"My first dream was to study law at Tel Aviv university, and I had been saving money -- but when I found out I would have to pay 21,000 shekels for a year of Mechina, I realized I would not be able to afford it," says Emmanuel. "And so I decided to turn to my second dream - the kibbutz one. No once forced me."
Addressing concerns that ICEJ may have tried to frighten asylum seekers to accept the offer of repatriation, Emmanuel points out that he did not need anyone else to tell him that certain people in Israel didn't like him there. "[Former interior minister0 Eli Yishai said we had AIDS and Swine Flu!" he notes, by way of one example.
But just as there were those Israelis who told him to go home, there were others - an even greater number, he says - who made him feel he was at home. He still talks regularly to his friends on the kibbutz -bombarding them with questions about communal living as he muddles his way through the nascent bureaucracy here. And in the future, he hopes, they might even be able to come over and lend a hand, or he might go back for a visit.
Emmanuel's Sudanese friends who stayed behind in Israel talk of joining him, he says, but most are hesitant. "You start the Kibbutz and then we will come," they tell him.
Gordon's friends in Tel Aviv are not rushing here either -- but they are toying with the idea, he says. "They call me and want to know the situation," he says. "I tell them we are like Israel in '48. We are about to have a new state. And just like Israel pulled itself up with help of those who returned from outside, so we need to return and help our country."
Emmanuel is not upset by any one else's hesitancy or discouraged by the obstacles on the ground here. "I believe in what I am doing, and I have patience," he says. In the meantime, to make ends meet, he has some other plans up his sleeve. For example, teaching Hebrew. "Why not? It's a fab language," he says. In fact, he is already in negotiations with Juba University to begin next semester.
But, he never loses sight of his main mission. "As long as I am alive I will work to build this kibbutz," he concludes -- and then adds, with a wink and big smile: "And as [Theodor] Herzl said, if you wish it, it is no legend."