Ciham Ali Abdu was born in the United States, but moved to Eritrea as a child. Ciham’s father was a minister in the government. He was forced to flee from the country after a falling out between himself and the government. Ciham also attempted to escape Eritrea, but she was captured and imprisoned in 2012. Ciham was not given a trial, nor she was formally charged or convicted of a specific crime. Despite not being charged of anything, Ciham was imprisoned. Ciham was 15 years old at the time that she was first imprisoned and on April 3 she will be turning 22. She has spent the last seven years in prison. Ciham’s family has not seen or heard from her since 2012. Injustices like this are commonplace in Eritrea.
Since Eritrea became independent from Ethiopia in 1993, Isaias Afwerki has served as the president of Eritrea, making him one of Africa’s longest serving presidents. In Eritrea there are no elections, no freedom of press, and no freedom of speech. Journalists are routinely arrested in Eritrea and last year Eritrea ranked among one of the worst countries in the world when it came to press freedom.
There is also compulsory military service in Eritrea, although many Eritreans have described military service as slavery. This compulsory military service was the very thing that Ciham was trying to escape from. For years the practice of compulsory military service was justified by the need to protect Eritrea for Ethiopian aggression. Many Eritreans hoped that the peace deal that was signed with Ethiopia would finally put an end to the compulsory military service, but this has not been the case thus far.
Much of the repressive measures undertaken by the government of Eritrea have been defended by the need to protect Eritrea from foreign threats. The result is that Eritrea has become a highly militarized and very repressive state in which citizens have little freedom. Ciham’s story is not unique. In Eritrea many citizens have been imprisoned without trial for years.
Vanessa Tsehaye is a human rights advocate from Eritrea. In 2013 Tsehaye founded a human rights organization named One Day Seyoum, in honor of her uncle Seyoum Tsehaye, who has been imprisoned in Eritrea since 2001. Last year Tsehaye organized a 17 minute silent protest against the abuses that are being perpetuated in Eritrea. Tsehaye explained:
We ask questions because 17 years on, Eritreans, home and abroad have tried everything and do not know what else to do.
We ask questions because my cousins deserve to see their father. We ask questions because my cousins are far from the only ones.
We ask questions because enough is enough. The indefinite national service program is robbing Eritrean youth of their future.
They face the stark choices of a life without a future in Eritrea or being killed or severely traumatized as they try to flee the country.
In honor Ciham’s birthday, Tsehaye and others have organized a #happybirthdayciham campaign to demand Ciham’s release. This campaign includes organizing protests outside of Eritrean embassies around the world.
The government of Eritrea and its supporters has often defended its abuses and suppression of human rights on the grounds that Eritrea must protect itself from potential foreign threats, especially Ethiopia. The reality is that the Eritrean government’s policies are more so designed to protect Isaias Afwerki’s regime than to protect the average citizens of Eritrea. The citizens of Eritrea have been made to pay a very high price for Afwerki’s desire to remain in power indefinitely.
Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.