Ciham Ali Ahmed, an Eritrean-American girl, was imprisoned by the government of Eritrea at the age of 15 although she was never convicted of any crime. Since then, Ciham, who is now 22-years old, has been held incommunicado for 6 years and even her family doesn’t know where she is exactly or how she is doing.
Born in California to Eritrean parents, Ciham grew up in Eritrea where her father Ali Abdu formerly served as the minister of information under President Isaias Afwerki. In 2012, her father fled to Australia fearing for his life after a rift with the president.
Ciham’s father then reportedly negotiated with smugglers to get his daughter out of the country because he thought the government would take retribution on him through his daughter.
Eritrea has a policy of forced national military service for young people starting at the age of 18. The conscription should last for only 18 months but he feared the government would have his daughter face a life of permanent conscription instead.
However, Ciham was arrested on December 8, 2012 while attempting to cross the border to Sudan to escape.
Not only Ciham tried to leave the country in fear of never coming out of conscription. The UN refugee agency UNHCR said there were 459,430 Eritrean refugees around the world by the end of 2016.
Ciham, described by her family as caring and compassionate, never faced trial and wasn’t charged with any crime. Yet she remained in prison and her whereabouts are still a mystery even to her family.
Since then, her family tried to find out where she is but her uncle, Saleh Younis, told CNN they were only told that “her case is being personally handled by the President and nobody knows anything about it.” Her family also tried to seek help from the US government.
“Because she is US born… I really thought the government of the United States would scream bloody murder but no one is speaking for her. It’s very, very disappointing. She is a United States citizen but because she grew up in Eritrea and because her parents are Eritreans, then I guess she is not fully American,” Younis said.
Recently, several organizations are drawing attention to Ali Ahmed’s disappearance. A group called One Day Seyoum took her story to social media sites for a campaign using the hashtag #happybirthdayciham. The Amnesty International is also urging people to sign the petition to call on the Eritrean government to release her.
“Granting Ciham Ali Abdu unconditional release would signal that there is hope for a new era of reform to begin in Eritrea,” said Felix Horne, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government has already deprived Ciham of her adolescence; she now deserves to spend her adulthood as a free woman.”