Born in California but raised in Eritrea, Ciham Ali Abdu was only 15 years old when the authoritative Eritrean government imprisoned her. Ciham is in incommunicado detention– meaning her family hasn’t seen or heard from her in over 7 years. This is the case of Ciham Ali Abdu.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Eritrea is the world’s most censored country surpassing North Korea, Turkmenistan, and Saudi Arabia. “The list is based on CPJ’s research into the use of tactics ranging from imprisonment and repressive laws to surveillance of journalists and restrictions on internet and social media access” (Official CPJ website)
Eritrea doesn’t make world news headlines often, and when it does, it probably has something to do with its authoritative government or conflict with its residing neighbor, Ethiopia. Due to the country’s political unpopularity, many western audiences might not have heard of it or even mistake it for Ethiopia. Thus, I thought it would be best to give a quick context of what makes Eritrea the country it is today.
10 years after the creation of the Federation of Ethiopia and Eritrea, growing resentment towards the Ethiopian rule led to the launch of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) in 1961. As a result, Ethiopia annexed Eritrea in 1962. A 30- year war with Ethiopia then followed, and it wasn’t until 1993 that the people of Eritrea gained independence.
The war wasn’t over; it was long from over as border clashes between Ethiopia and Eritrea took the lives of more than 70,000 people between 1998 and 2000. The United Nations Peacekeepers then negotiated a ceasefire. Despite an international agreement on border segregation in 2002, Ethiopia’s government rejected the deal and refused to leave the territory that was deemed to be Eritrean land. Following the disagreement, the UN enforced years of sanctions on Eritrea due to claims of terrorism, and it wasn’t until July 2018 when peace was officially negotiated between both countries. That same year, the UN ended its sanctions on Eritrea.
So, where does this leave Eritrea? Well, unfortunately, in the hands of its only president and all-time dictator, Isaias Afwerki.
Born in 1946 in Asmara, Eritrea, which was under the control of the United Kingdom at the time. Isaias Afwerki would go to study engineering in Ethiopia at the University of Addis Ababa. But in 1966, Isaias would leave his education and join the growing revolution ignited by the ELF. In 1970, he would go on to co-found the Eritrean People Liberation Front (EPLF). There weren’t any significant differences between the two liberation movements. Both parties would use propaganda and nation-building techniques to build their reputations within the people of Eritrea. Isaias would quickly build a reputation for himself as he charted through the ranks and was given the role of secretary- general in 1987.
The EPLF would then defeat Ethiopian troops in the capital of Asmara in 1991, and shortly after, the provisional government crowned Isaias as it’s elected president in 1993. Now, President Isaias Afwerki would have control of the presidency, but he was also given power as chairman of the National Assembly. This would have him control not just the executive branch of the government, but also the legislative branch as well. For any rising dictator, this was a dream come true.
Isaias wouldn’t hesitate to control his power, he would go on to cancel the 1997 elections and would do it again in 2001. Furthermore, he would go on to refuse to implement the constitution that would’ve protected the liberty of the people. He consolidated his power even more by closing down the national press. This is when Eritrea would earn its name as the “North Korea of Africa.”
In 2008, Al Jazeera would go on to interview Isaias as the country celebrated 17 years of its independence. When Isaias would be asked about when elections would be held, his answer was, “What elections?” He would go on to explain that the country will have to wait 3-4 decades for an election… maybe more.
In the last 5 years, Isaias has continued to dictate the country into the worst possible living conditions. The UN reports released in 2015 and 2016 accused crimes against humanity against Isaias government. “Crimes of enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, torture, persecution, rape, murder and other inhumane acts have been committed as part of a campaign to instill fear in, deter opposition from and ultimately to control the Eritrean civilian population since Eritrean authorities took control of Eritrean territory in 1991”, the report detail.
Despite peace talks and lifted sanctions, the future for Eritrea’s people looks grim as its current government holds hostage of its people’s freedoms and, more importantly, their potentials. This brings us to the case of Ciham Ali Abdu, a 15-year-old who has been imprisoned in detention camps for the last 7 years of her life.
Born in Los Angeles, California. Ciham Ali Abdu moved to Asmara with her family due to her father, Ali Abdu Ahmed, taking up the position of information minister. His role was to provide information about the country and communicate policies set by Isaias government to the world. Despite being a high-ranking government official and a trusted source to Isaias, a life-threatening dispute led to Ciham’s father fleeing to Australia to seek asylum in 2012.
Shortly after her father’s defection, Ciham was arrested on December 8th, 2012, after trying to flee the country by crossing the border into Sudan. Ciham’s father had arranged for smugglers to get his daughter out of the country as he feared Isaias government would take action against her. Heartbreakingly, his fear would become a reality as Ciham would be imprisoned at the age of 15 despite not being charged for any crime. It should be noted that anyone caught crossing the Eritrean border is usually detained for approximately six months (Amnesty International).
Ciham is in incommunicado detention, which means that the individual being imprisoned is denied access to family members, an attorney, and independent medical doctors. Indefinite detention is an everyday norm in Eritrea as those that question the government or raise any suspicion may be detained for the rest of their lives. In the case of Ciham, her fate remains uncertain as the Eritrean government has refused to provide information about her condition to Human Rights Organizations and the US government. Eric Whitaker, the former Charge d’Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Asmara, told Voice of America that Eritrean officials do not acknowledge that Ciham is a U.S. citizen. “We’ve asked for consular access repeatedly and not been granted it. We are concerned regarding the case,” he said. “The answers we get are typically vague or note that such individual is an Eritrean citizen.”
Ciham’s uncle, Saleh Younis, is disappointed to hear about the US efforts on pressuring the Eritrean government as her Grandfather Abdu Ahmed Younis and his brother Hassen Abdu Ahmed were also all arrested after Ciham’s father fled to Australia. Currently, Ali Abdu still resides in Australia and has continued to fight for his daughter’s freedom. He has also been reported to be suffering from insomnia, heart pains, and suicidal thoughts as he continues to live in fear of his daughter’s safety and his own.
Due to the lack of media attention, social media platforms have helped raise awareness on the case of Ciham. For her 23rd birthday, a campaign invoked in the color purple has been trending on social media with the hashtag #PURPLE4CIHAM. “We are painting the world in her favorite color purple to inform people of her case and pressure the US government to fight for their citizen” (One Day Seyoum). The diaspora group, One Day Seyoum, has led a social media campaign to raise awareness around the world for the release of Ciham. They have pressured US Senator Kamala Harris to advocate in the case of Ciham through Twitter and peaceful protests. As of recently, Kamala’s office has released a statement claiming that they are “going to do all they can for Ciham.”
As each day goes by, Ciham’s situation deteriorates even more. Her family, friends, and those supporting her can only hope that international awareness forces US officials to act. I do wonder if it wasn’t for the color of her skin or her mother’s tongue, would Ciham have got the attention she needed? As I finish writing this article, I can only wish that journalists around the world report on stories like Ciham, for Ciham. We not only have a responsibility to do so, but we can be the domino effect that sets off the change. For those reading this story, you too can be the one to ignite the pattern for change, raise awareness through your social media channels. Tell your friends and family about the 15-year old who has been imprisoned illegally. After all, it only takes one person to make a difference. Will that person, be you?
To learn more about what you can do for Ciham, click here.
To contact Mohamed Eltayeb, you can reach him through Twitter or send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org