April 3rd is the birthday of Ciham Ali Abdul, an American-born Eritrean, and aspiring fashion designer. This year she’ll turn 23, but, like for the past eight years, she’ll spend her birthday in prison.
Ciham was born in Los Angeles in the United States, but moved to Eritrea as a child. Despite being an American citizen, the American government has shown little interest in getting her released. Ciham’s parents were part of Eritrea’s liberation force and helped to fight for Eritrea’s independence in 1993. Her father later became Minister of Information in the government in Eritrea, and advisor to the president. However, after a fall out with the president, he was forced to flee the country.
He tried to get the rest of his family out, including 15-year-old Ciham, who was captured and imprisoned in 2012. She was never given a trial, nor was she formally charged or convicted of a specific crime. At the age of only 15 years old, her life was permanently put on hold and thrown into indefinite detention, where she still remains now, eight years later. Her only crime is being the daughter of a man who fell out with the regime.
The current situation in Eritrea goes heavily under-reported, and so does her case. This is the reason why the American government has not yet felt compelled to intervene on Ciham’s behalf. Unless sufficient awareness is raised, she will be doomed to lose her adulthood as well as her teenage years in prison.
So what is the current situation in Eritrea?
After a 30-year war with Ethiopia, in 1991 the people of Eritrea had finally won their freedom and voted overwhelmingly to become an independent nation. Having fought long and hard for autonomy, many Eritreans looked forward to self-rule and democracy. However, the prosperous future imagined by the Eritrean people never arrived. Isaias Afwerki became the country’s first president, where he still remains in power, being one of Africa’s longest serving presidents.
Isaias was careful to consolidate his power in increments – saying that it takes time to build a democracy, so the people gave him time. In 1998, a war broke out with Ethiopia over disputed territory, ending in stalemate in 2000, with Ethiopia refusing to withdraw its troops and demarcate the border. The end of the active conflict encouraged Eritreans to openly call for the democratic reforms which had been ‘put on hold’ by Isaias’s regime. However, after crushing student protests in April 2001, costing several students their lives, on September 18th that year, under the cover of the global furore surrounding the 9/11 attacks, Isaias doubled down on authoritarianism – and permanently silenced opposition, effectively establishing a dictatorship. He shut down the free press and imprisoned those within the country calling most loudly for democracy: a group of journalists and politicians.
The imprisonment of the group without trial, without charge, without contact with their loved ones and held indefinitely is a practise still taken by the Eritrean government, as seen with Ciham’s case. There are still no elections, no freedom of press, and no freedom of speech in the country. Journalists and other freedom fighters are routinely arrested, and Eritrea routinely ranks among the bottom countries for freedom of press. Eritrea’s national service is harsh, pays close to nothing, and goes on indefinitely, so young Eritreans must either accept a life of forced labour or flee.
When Eritrea signed a peace deal with Ethiopia in July 2018, after a 20-year standoff, Eritreans were filled with hope, as president Isaias had used the conflict with Ethiopia as the reasoning behind the enforced national service. There was belief that political and religious prisoners were about to be freed and that the indefinite conscription of anyone aged between 18 and 50 would end. Sadly, this was not the case, and Eritreans are still subject to the authoritarian regime.
Ciham’s case is not unique, but we have a real chance of saving her life, and setting an example for other people in her situation. After eight years, she is still languishing in a prison in the worst conditions a young woman could find herself in.
“One Day Seyoum”, an organisation founded by SOAS alumni Vanessa Tsehaye, actively advocates for Ciham’s case, drawing attention to it through a social media campaign using the hashtag #Purple4Ciham. Purple was Ciham’s favourite colour, and they aim to paint the world in her favourite colour to inform people of her case and pressure the US government to fight for their citizen.
The main objective of the social media campaign is to bring Ciham’s case to the attention of her Senator, Kamala Harris, and engage Harris’s support in securing Ciham’s freedom.
To get involved and support the campaign;
- post a picture of yourself in anything purple (clothes, jewellery, make-up, etc.)
- use the hashtag #Purple4Ciham
- tag Ciham’s senator Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris)
- challenge three people to do the same
- Change your profile picture to the colour purple
- Add a purple heart emoji to your social media bio
- Sign the Amnesty International Petition
One Day Seyoum was founded in 2013 by SOAS alumni, Vanessa Tsehaye to raise awareness for all those unjustly imprisoned in Eritrea. Her uncle, Seyoum Tsehaye, was one of the journalists imprisoned in 2001, and the organisation continues to fight for his and his colleagues release and continue their mission to give the Eritrean people a voice.
- Rut Einarsdóttir is a SOAS Digital Ambassador and Operations Manager for SCRAP Weapons, a project for global disarmament in the CISD Department at SOAS, currently pursuing a MSc in Violence, Conflict and Development.
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