6 years after Eritrea imprisonment, teenager still missing

6 years after Eritrea imprisonment, teenager still missing

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.

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