Elizabeth/ Elsa Chyrum: Human Rights Activist (Eritrea)

On 20 June 2009, Elsa Chyrum, a human rights activist and advocate forEritrean refugees all over the world, has received a DistinguishedMedal Award of Excellence from the Eritrean Community For Human Rightsand Refugee Protection in a symposium organized by Eritrean GlobalSolidarity in recognition of her human rights crusade, in general, andher tireless work with refugees, in particular.

Without exaggeration, Elsa Chyrum is a one-womaninstitution. First and foremost, she is the one person who has beenhandling the plight of Eritrean refugees from all over the worldsingle-handedly, be it from stranded Eritreans in Khartoum in imminentrisk of their lives, detained and abused refugees in a prison in Libya,traumatized refugees in fear of perishing in the Mediterranean highseas, terrified refugees soon to be deported from Egypt, or refugeeswho have reached their destination but afraid of rejection by theirhost country. Calm and reassuring at times of emergency, she is knownto have turned hopeless seeming cases into happy endings at the 11th hour.

Second,through her years of compassionate work, Elsa has been able to build aformidable array of connection in the NGOs world of the humanitariantype. Some of those humanitarian groups with whom she has been workingare Amnesty International, UNHCR, Reporters Without Border, HumanRights Watch, CSW, Eritrean Civic Societies, etc. Impressed by herdedication, hard work, perseverance and knowledge on her subjectmatter, these organizations have not only been very helpful in raisingconsciousness on the humanitarian plight of Eritreans in the homelandand all over the world, they have also depended on her for the richmaterial she has meticulously compiled during her years of work and forthe knowhow she has perfected on the subject matter.

Third,Elsa hasn’t shied away from walking the corridors of powers to be whenthe urgency of the matter demands it. She has been a regular visitor tothe EU headquarters in Brussels and to the UN headquarters in Genève onan awareness mission to enlighten parliamentarians and policy makers onthe humanitarian crisis in Eritrea, in the desperate hope that theywould take the necessary measures against the authoritarian regime inAsmara. She has been teaching, lecturing, pleading, begging, crying,shouting, lobbying … It is at times like this that we see both the softand iron side of Elsa. As she relates the plight of her people to aprofessional crowd very hard to sway, she is known to have chocked intears in the middle of her speech. But our iron lady is not known forgiving up: she is also known for sternly berating higher officials whenshe cannot bear their indifference anymore.

Andfourth, she is the only Eritrean who has had the guts to go after aPFDJ criminal who resides outside Eritrea. Even though there are manyformer criminals residing in the free world, to date, there hasn’t beena single case brought to the court of law. Among these patheticDiaspora population that cannot stand up for their rights even in thefree world, Elsa stands out as the exception. She has been relentlesslygoing after Naizghi Kiflu, a notorious criminal who has beeninstrumental in butchering many innocent prisoners. In this, she hasnot only set a precedent for other Eritreans to follow, she has alsostruck terror at those who have committed humanitarian crimes inEritrea and are now living in the free world.

Itis only when we realize that Elsa is a full time employee, a dedicatedwife and a loving mother of a 6 years old child that we understand howmuch she is sacrificing to help others, for everything that she does,she does it at her spare time.

Below, we will let a short biography of Elsa Chyrum as a human rights activist speaks for itself.

A short bio of Elsa Chyrum

Elsa(Elizabeth) Chyrum is an Eritrean human rights activist based inLondon, UK. Although she is known to be involved in manycommunity-based activities, much of her time and energy went intoworking to raise awareness of the human rights abuses of Eritreanssince 1998 when the border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia led to theforcible and inhuman deportation of over 70,000 Eritreans andEthiopians of Eritrean origin to Eritrea.

Elsaand other concerned Eritreans in the UK and the rest of Europe formedan organisation called Network of Eritrean Professionals in Europe(NEPE) in 1998, to highlight the horrific situation their compatriotswere subjected to. At the UK branch, Elsa was assigned to work with thehuman rights task group to raise awareness in the internationalcommunity of the plight of the illegally deported Eritreans.

Duringher visit to Eritrea in the summer of 2001, she witnessed the torture,mistreatment and imprisonment of over 2000 Eritrean University Studentsand the subsequent death of two of them due to harsh prison conditions.On her return to the UK, she vowed to speak for the voiceless inEritrea and has since been actively campaigning for the rule of law,justice and respect for human rights in Eritrea.

Elsais one of the founding members of the Eritreans for Human andDemocratic Rights in the UK (EHDR-UK). She is also a founding member ofthe East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project (EHAHRDP),and she is the focal person for Eritrea. Elsa is also the founder ofHuman Rights Concern Eritrea (HRCE).

Elsaoperates through her extensive network of human rights activists acrossEurope, Africa, USA and Canada. She also works as a full time employeewith a big refugee organisation in the UK which provides support andaccommodation to refugees and asylum seekers from all over the world.Outside her work and family commitments, she is passionately driven tocampaign against the suffering of her people. Her spare time iscompletely devoted to raise awareness of the injustices suffered byfellow Eritreans inside and outside Eritrea. To this end, she workswith many respected human rights organisations in the UK and othercountries.

Among other human rights issues,her focus has been on Eritrean asylum seekers, political prisoners,prisoners of conscience, prison conditions and torture.

Here is a partial summary of what she has achieved in the last 10 years:

  • Assistedin the release of Eritrean refugees who were languishing in Libyanjails. They were released in April 2004, after almost two years ofunlawful incarceration. Had it not been for the intervention of humanrights organisations such as Amnesty International and the efforts ofElsa, the prisoners would almost certainly have been deported. Elsafought for their resettlement and 8 of them were resettled in Sweden,the Netherlands and Denmark.
  • Togetherwith other concerned local and international human rightsorganisations, she fought for the release of 105 Eritrean asylumseekers who were detained in Maltese prisons. They were all releasedand granted humanitarian protection.
  • Advocatedfor resettlement programme of 234 ex-Malta deportees who had beenforcibly deported from Malta to Eritrea, in September and October of2002. They were imprisoned, tortured and detained in Eritrea andescaped for the second time to the Sudan. So far over 200 have beenresettled in Canada, Denmark, Holland, Sweden, the UK and Australia.The programme is still continuing.
  • Hasbeen raising funds from family, friends, and organisations to assistex-Malta deportees, the 75 Eritreans who hijacked a plane to stop theirforcible deportation from Libya to Eritrea, Eritrean journalists indanger and other individuals in dire need of support.
  • Advocatedfor the resettlement of 28 Eritrean asylum seekers who were detained ina Saudi Arabia detention centre – some for up to 5 years. They were allresettled in Sweden in October 2008.
  • Hasbeen advocating for the release and resettlement of Eritrean detaineesin Libya. So far, about 250 have been resettled into differentcountries and the programme is continuing.
  • Financedand directed a documentary `Eritrea: Voices of Torture’ and it waslaunched on 18 September 2006, at the Amnesty International publicmeeting on Eritrea. The documentary is available on DVD in Tigrinya,English and Italian. It has been used as an advocacy tool by Eritreansand friends of Eritrean human rights defenders.
  • Has beenpublishing testimonies of ex-prisoners of conscience on Eritreanwebsites and wrote reports on human rights abuses in Eritrea.
  • Researched and wrote short life-stories of prisoners of conscience.
  • Gave talk on the human rights situations in Eritrea at different public meetings and gatherings.
  • Hasbeen broadcasting about the human rights abuses in Eritrea on Voice ofDelina (a Satellite radio programme) aired from South Africa.
  • Presenteda paper on the general human rights situation in Eritrea, at theEuropean Parliament (EU) hearing on Eritrea in Brussels on the 18thSeptember 2008.
  • Participated in a panel discussion on the human rights situation in Eritrea, on the 19th September 2008, during the 9th Session of the United Nation Human Rights Council in Geneva.
  • Lobbiedand campaigned for respect of human rights in Eritrea with some membersof British Parliament, friends of Eritrea and other Eritrean humanrights organisations in Europe, USA, Canada and Africa.
  • Closelyworks with Amnesty International, UNHCR, Reporters Without Border,Human Rights Watch, CSW, Eritrean Civic Societies and otherorganisations to raise awareness of the human rights situations inEritrea and to assist Eritrean asylum seekers who are threatened withdeportation. This part of her work is not only for those in the UK butinvolves working for Eritrean asylum seekers detained in Malta, SouthAfrica, France, Sudan, Italy, Libya, Zimbabwe, USA, Canada, Egypt,Ethiopia, Sweden, Saudi Arabia, etc.
  • Has assisted and signposted hundreds of Eritrean asylum seekers in the UK, Europe, Africa and in other places.

Whenasked why she gets involved with the helpless, Elsa says to console thetraumatized, to embolden the fearful, to give hope to the desperate, tostudy the victim case thoroughly, to speak for the voiceless and toalert those in power of their situation.

Finally, it has to bementioned that all Elsa’s dedicated work and activities to promote andprotect human rights in the last ten years are self-financed.


Perhapsthe best way to end this brief bio of Elsa Chyrum as a human rightsactivist is by looking at the various ways her supporters, detractorsand the indecisive middle perceive her. To the likes of Naizghi Kiflu,and the whole PFDJ crowd, she is the nightmare that wouldn’t go away.Used to getting away with any kind of humanitarian crime, she is theEritrean that they are afraid to meet – least of all, because othersmight emulate her.

For the majority of DiasporaEritreans, who prefer to straddle in the middle and watch from adistance, she is the one that disturbs their conscience. Their choiceto remain on the sidelines at a time when horrendous humanitariancrimes are committed are time and again challenged whenever a singleact from the likes of Elsa Chyrum makes all the difference that thereis in one Eritrean human life.

Understandably, it is amongthose refugees who have been directly helped by her that we find hermost enthusiastic supporters. Many of them simply call her by thatendearing name “mother”, with all the loving and caring connotationsthe term carries in the Eritrean context.

And then, of course,there are those of us who lack the guts or the dedication to do whatshe is doing but nevertheless are grateful that such an individual isin our midst – a testimony that the Eritrean spirit lives on.

CongratulationsElsa for having won such a well deserved prize! And our thanks goes tothe Eritrean Community For Human Rights and Refugee Protection in DCthat have identified her work for what it is and went to the lengththat they did to honor her with this prize.