WASHINGTON — Ciham Ali Abdu has brown eyes and a broad smile. As a teenager, she found inspiration in art, fashion and language. Growing up in Asmara, Eritrea, she enjoyed time with friends, music and swimming.
In family photos, Ciham appears carefree. She poses casually for the camera, her hair pulled into a braided ponytail.
But other realities were just out of frame.
After a border conflict with Ethiopia ended in an uneasy truce, Eritrea was on a war footing, and the authoritarian government was prone to punish anyone who challenged the president’s grip on power.
That desire for retribution would thrust Ciham into the crosshairs, her family says.
Ciham was born in Los Angeles, California, but moved to Asmara, the capital, as a young child. Eritrea isn’t a rich country, but Ciham lived a comfortable life.
Her father, Ali Abdu Ahmed, was a high-ranking government official and trusted confidant to President Isaias Afwerki. In 2012, when Ciham was 15, her father was Eritrea’s information minister. He shared updates about the country with the world and articulated key policy points.
Suddenly, and for unknown reasons, Ali had a falling out with Isaias, setting off a chain reaction that would leave the top minister’s family broken.
In November 2012, Ali fled to Australia to seek asylum.
Weeks after his defection, Ciham attempted to cross the border into Sudan. She was apprehended, and her family has neither seen nor heard from her since.
Human rights groups, along with Ciham’s family, believe she has been languishing in prison.
Day after day, they wait anxiously for news: information about her whereabouts; clues about her health; a sign that she is still alive.
Six years later, they have heard nothing. The Eritrean government refuses to acknowledge Ciham’s American citizenship — or her mere existence. The U.S. government has been similarly non-committal, acknowledging only that they have seen “reports” about Ciham’s case.
For Ciham’s family, the total information blackout has added to the ongoing anguish.
“It is excruciating, and relentless grief and agony,” Saleh Younis, Ciham’s uncle, told VOA in an email response.
Ciham’s family believes the Eritrean government won’t release her without outside pressure. But the U.S. forfeited a major bargaining chip when U.N. sanctions were lifted without preconditions, Saleh said.
“I don’t understand how the U.S. gave up its sole leverage — sanctions — unilaterally, without demanding to know the whereabouts not just of Ciham Ali but its embassy employees.” Those employees have been missing even longer, Saleh added.
But the United States could still push for answers, he said, through its relationships with countries that influence Eritrea — Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates.
“[The U.S.] should consistently raise this issue just as it would if, say, an American religious leader was to disappear,” Saleh said.
Neither arbitrary arrest nor indefinite detention is uncommon in Eritrea, where the government treats dissent and perceived threats to its authority with swift, harsh justice. In a 2016 report, a United Nations commission of inquiry concluded that dissidents face systemic torture, enslavement and reprisals against family members.
But Ciham’s case is unique, Saleh said, because no reliable information about her whereabouts or well-being has emerged.
“My dad was frequently arrested, and my younger brother is arrested. In each case, we got information from people who used to be in prison with them, or saw them when they were being hospitalized. But with Ciham, she is just marking her sixth year in prison, and there is nothing.”
The rare communications the family receives from regime loyalists and unknown messengers involve upsetting details about what has happened to Ciham, but Saleh said it’s impossible to separate what might be legitimate from what he called “sadistic” messages designed to further punish Ciham’s loved ones.
Immediate and unconditional release
Ahead of a high-level U.S. delegation to Asmara led by Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy earlier this week, the international rights group Amnesty International called on the United States to request the release of Ciham and other prisoners detained without trial or legal representation.
“We are demanding that the U.S. envoy shall prioritize human rights, and shall not leave human rights concerns as expendable when dealing with political interests with the Eritrean government,” Fisseha Tekle, a human rights researcher with Amnesty International, told VOA.
“Assistant Secretary Nagy must make robust representations to push for the immediate and unconditional release of both Ciham and all those detained across the country solely for peacefully exercising their human rights,” said Joan Nyanyuki, Amnesty International’s director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.
Fisseha underscored that Amnesty’s concerns extend beyond Ciham.
“Including Ciham, there are so many people who have been arrested without trial, without charge, for so many years, and the condition of their arrest — it’s not even known,” he said.
On a conference call for media Thursday, Nagy didn’t address Ciham’s case, and neither the U.S. nor the Eritrean government responded to interview requests for this story.
With no leads to follow or diplomatic breakthroughs to draw hope from, Ciham’s family can, for now, only find comfort in their memories, and a collection of photographs that depict an innocent girl unaware of the upheaval that would soon engulf her.