South Sudan’s Ambassador to Uganda Simon Juach Deng (photo by Isaac Nuwagaba)

Meet Simon Juach, a diplomat and ex-child soldier

South Sudan’s Ambassador to Uganda, Simon Juach Deng, worked with international organizations before he was appointed an ambassador.

South Sudan’s Ambassador to Uganda, Simon Juach Deng, worked with international organizations before he was appointed an ambassador.

He is a former child soldier who gained his first taste of education under trees during the second Sudanese civil war.

Radio Tamazuj sat down with him and sounded him out about diplomatic ties between South Sudan and Uganda, the situation of South Sudanese refugees, and his achievements as a Foreign Service officer, among other things.

Below are edited excerpts:  

Q: Ambassador Juach, could you tell our audience about yourself?

A: I am Simon Juach Deng. I was born before the formation of the SPLA, so the movement found me when I was still a young boy. So Simon Juach walked for three months from the west of the country to Dima in Ethiopia, where I underwent basic military training and was commissioned as a sergeant. We, the young children, were called the Red Army. I did my primary education in Boma, where I learned Basic English in the bush.

Slightly after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), I attained a Master’s Degree in International Relations and worked with international organizations and with the United Nations in Somalia, Iraq, and South Africa. So I have experience internationally.

About four years ago, I was called from my international posting to take up a position as an ambassador based in Juba. Before being deployed to Kampala as the head of mission, I served for a few months as the deputy ambassador in Ethiopia. So, in brief, that is me.

I will use my time in Uganda to unite the South Sudanese community in Uganda, where we have one of the largest populations outside the country.  

Q: Have you settled in Uganda, and how is work progressing?

A: I have been in Kampala for almost six months now. When I arrived, I tried to reach out to the South Sudanese community, mainly in Kampala, because I found that our people were fragmented and not living as one community. So, I met them and told them that we have to live as one because what affects one community in Uganda affects all of us and asked them to bring the challenges they face to the attention of the embassy. The people I found organized are the South Sudanese women, especially in Kampala, and I appreciate them because they work together for the welfare of the community.

I also reached out to elders and some opinion leaders and told them that we need to have one association that is representative of South Sudanese.

For example, in February and March, I was informed that our students were demanded to pay an amount of $100 for a student pass to allow them to study in Uganda for one year. But I said that is not correct because we are members of the East African Community and this should not be allowed to happen.

So now, we are doing some advocacy. We reached out to the government department concerned and people were worried because they did not know it was happening. We are really working to address that.

The other challenge we find also, there are some protocols with our immigration and the Ugandan immigration. For example, we have a visa-free arrangement now between the East African member states, but you only get it for ninety days, and after ninety days, you are required to extend if you want to stay long. So most families are affected. There are families here who have brought children to school, so you would find you are required to spend ninety days and these children are in school for twelve months. So this is something that we are working on.

Q. Have you raised these concerns with the South Sudanese government?

A: No, we have primarily raised these concerns with the authorities in Uganda. However, I believe it is essential for both the South Sudanese and Ugandan governments to sign a memorandum of understanding to ensure reciprocal treatment for citizens of both countries. This would facilitate visa arrangements, such as granting six-month visas for Ugandans visiting South Sudan. The process of negotiation and signing such agreements takes time but is currently being handled.

Q: When can we expect these agreements to be finalized?

A: Negotiating such agreements is a process that requires careful consideration. It cannot be done hastily. Proposals are made, and then committees sit down to negotiate the terms. While I cannot provide an exact timeframe, I assure you that this matter is being actively addressed.

Q: Could you share some statistics on the number of South Sudanese students currently enrolled in different learning institutions in Uganda?

A: We have education attachés who handle student files, and while I don’t have the precise figures, we estimate that there are not less than 80,000 South Sudanese students in Uganda. During the last school leaving certificate, we had between 10,000 to 20,000 South Sudanese students sitting for primary and secondary exams across Uganda. This indicates the significant student population we have. Furthermore, we have a strong South Sudanese students association in Uganda, mainly representing universities in Kampala and other districts like Gulu. Additionally, we also have a significant population of refugees, totalling nearly one million people, as reported by the UNHCR and the Office of the Prime Minister.

Q: What is the population of urban refugees from South Sudan in Uganda?

A: As I have been in office for only six months, I haven’t had the opportunity to gather precise data on the population of urban refugees. Establishing the South Sudanese community association in Uganda is one of our priorities, and through this structure, we aim to gather accurate statistics. The number of urban refugees is estimated to be around 20,000, but a more detailed assessment is required.

Q: Have you visited different refugee camps during your time in office? How is the situation for the people living there?

A: As an embassy, we work as a system, and we have various government departments represented here. In February, we conducted a tour of refugee camps and even visited prisons to understand the situation of South Sudanese populations. We wrote to the prison authorities in Uganda to gather statistics on the number of South Sudanese individuals in prisons across the country and the nature of their crimes. Our aim was to assess the situation and explore potential extradition arrangements to allow South Sudanese prisoners to serve their remaining sentences in their home country. In terms of the refugees, we collaborate with local Ugandan authorities and UNHCR, who are responsible for their welfare. During our visits, we found that many South Sudanese refugees are willing to return home voluntarily and contribute to the peace process. We encourage those interested in returning to contact the office of the Prime Minister and UNHCR for assistance with travel documents. Our country cannot be at peace and yet most of us are living in foreign lands.

Q: There have been tensions between refugees and host communities in Uganda, with allegations of armed groups being hosted by refugees. How are you addressing these issues?

A: Tensions and conflicts can arise when people live together, and it is our responsibility to resolve them. In my language, there is a saying: “The only good person is the one you meet on the road. But as long as you stay with somebody in the same place, you are bound to have issues but you must resolve them.” We know about the problems between refugees and host communities. We know about reports of some armed groups that are active in refugee camps. We have officers, including a consul in Gulu, who engages with various agencies, both civil and military, to address these issues. The challenges faced by host communities are not exclusive to South Sudanese refugees but also affect the Ugandan government, as they are responsible for the protection of refugees in their camps in coordination with UNHCR. As the embassy, we are committed to helping resolve these issues and maintain cordial relations between communities. While there are occasional challenges along our long border, especially with neighbouring communities sharing common languages, we handle them carefully and strive for peaceful resolutions.

Q: South Sudanese opposition members in Uganda have expressed concerns about their security, claiming to be hunted down and even killed. Do you have mechanisms in place to ensure the safety of all South Sudanese in Uganda?

A: I do not have detailed information on the specific cases you mentioned, but it is important to note that any armed groups in Uganda are under the protection of the Ugandan government.

Q: Let us discuss the relationship between South Sudan and Uganda in social, economic, and political terms.

A: I would like to emphasize that the relationship between South Sudan and Uganda extends beyond just government-to-government interactions. It is a relationship between people. Historically, Uganda has been a safe haven for South Sudanese seeking refuge during various periods, such as the Anyanya movement in the 1950s and the liberation struggle in the 1980s and 90s. Uganda has also provided significant support for South Sudan’s liberation and independence. Additionally, there are strong cultural ties between our countries, as seen in shared ethnic groups like the Kakwa, Madi, and Acholi. While challenges may arise along our borders, it is essential to focus on the positive aspects of our people-to-people relations. By building on these positive foundations, we can strengthen government-to-government relations and address any issues that arise. For example, last year, I was in Torit and I went up to Pajok in Magwi County. As I was crossing the bridge, someone came and said he was going to the border. I asked him, where is the border? He told me it was still in Pogge. And he was a South Sudanese citizen. So, I said you people are the problem. During our liberation struggle years, Pogge was not the border. Now if you are a South Sudanese and yet you are pointing at a part of your land as a border point, so what will Ugandan citizens say? For me, our citizens also need to play a key role here. There are some allegations that some people used to cross the border and stay with their relatives who invited them to come and cultivate, but after staying there for two years, they claim the land belongs to them. So we have those situations which need us to have some coordination. Our citizens should be aware and the government should also play its role. This is a call for coordination between state governments and the national government. For example, the recent border conflict happened and some officials from the local county say we need to go and meet with the district Commissioner in Uganda to discuss the border issue. And this is an international border. If there is any border conflict, it is the national government in South Sudan to discuss with their counterparts in Uganda, but not at district level. So we really need to do some work there. But our relations are cordial at people to people level as well as at the government-to-government level.

Q: Have you encountered any challenges in identifying South Sudanese citizens who reside along the Uganda-South Sudan border, such as the Acholi, Madi, and Kakwa?

A: We have not faced significant challenges in identifying South Sudanese citizens residing in border regions like the Acholi, Madi, and Kakwa communities. During the recent Independence Day celebration, we witnessed the participation of Acholi and Madi groups from both South Sudan and Uganda, demonstrating the unity and shared cultural heritage among these communities. And within the audience, there were Acholi from Uganda and they joined the dance since it was just a dance. The same to the Madi as well. While challenges may exist, it is crucial to focus on the positive aspects of our people-to-people relations.

Q: There was a reported standoff at the Elegu border involving maize flour. Can you explain what happened in detail?

A: The standoff at the Elegu border involving maize flour occurred due to an increased testing capacity by our Bureau of Standards in South Sudan. In May, during testing, some consignments of maize flour destined for Juba were found to contain high levels of aflatoxins. As a precautionary measure, our Bureau of Standards conducted tests on numerous trucks carrying maize flour, which resulted in delays. These tests required additional time as some samples were sent to a third country for further analysis. Consequently, trucks were stuck at the border for approximately one and a half months, leading to protests by the affected businesspeople. The situation has since been resolved, and we have emphasized that no traders should transport goods to South Sudan without testing and certification from the Ugandan Bureau of Standards. We also conduct random tests on goods at our border to ensure food safety. We have established mechanisms to address such issues going forward, focusing on the coordination between South Sudan’s and Uganda’s Bureau of Standards.

Q. We have heard that some samples were taken back to Uganda for testing; how long is that going to take before a decision is made?

A: There was no sample taken to Uganda. The samples that were in question were kept so that the Bureau of Standards in both countries can keep some samples for reference. Those trucks that returned to Uganda are those that were released from the South Sudan side. There is no way a sample tested in South Sudan and have questions and we bring them back to Uganda to test them. This information is not correct.

Q: Some people have raised concerns about possible sabotage from business people in South Sudan or Uganda regarding the maize flour issue. Do you have any insights into this matter?

A: At this time, I do not possess any information or evidence regarding possible sabotage by businesspeople in either South Sudan or Uganda. I cannot comment further on this issue.

Q. What challenges are facing you as an ambassador of South Sudan to Uganda?

A: I think the large border and the porous border can be a problem but it is also an opportunity. It is an opportunity if all of us South Sudanese, especially those armed groups who have still not joined the peace process. I implore them to come to the peace table and share their grievances as the previously armed groups who have joined the peace process have done so in Juba. These road ambushes on trucks and attacks on innocent traders really do not help anybody. It only delays our development. If we have political differences, come to the table, let us discuss, we may disagree now but we will agree later because we all know that when South Sudanese are united, nobody can defeat them. And we know through the liberation struggle of both Anyanya movements, SPLA and even as recently as 2012 with the experiences of Panthou when we were standing together. We became a force to be reckoned with. But when we are divided, we all fall. I am appealing to all the armed groups to join the peace wagon. Let’s come back home and talk.

Q: Is there anything you would like to add at the end of this interview?

A: I would like to address the media and appeal to them to portray South Sudan in a positive light. While negative news may attract more attention, it is important for our media to promote the positive aspects of our country. There is much progress happening, such as construction projects in Juba, road development in various regions, agricultural activities, and the potential of Boma National Park. Our media should be proud advocates of our nation, highlighting the good news and contributing to a positive image of South Sudan.

For example, I am active on Twitter and our website, the official Facebook page of the embassy is all busy. We have tried to show what we are doing and engage with our people. Two days ago when the UN released that there is a likely of collapse in Sudan, they ended up saying this was in South Sudan. But they mean Sudan. But when I was watching what South Sudanese on Twitter were saying, people were quiet. I made the protest, but nobody even wanted to talk. So I said, what is wrong with our people? Why do we hate our country to the extent that we cannot defend it? People are not talking about all the positive developments happening in our country. For example, roads leading to Luri, Terekeka, Bor. I encourage all South Sudanese citizens to take pride in their country and actively participate in its development. Together, we can build a peaceful and prosperous South Sudan. Thank you.