Skip to main content
Amnesty International UK
Log in

You can’t photograph the disappeared

In 1972, the photograph of nine year old Phan Thị Kim Phúc running naked, screaming in pain from burns, showed millions the dire effect of napalm bombing and helped change history.

After a decade of drownings in the Mediterranean, the photo of a lifeless four-year-old Alan Kurdi on a Turkish beach awakened the world.

And now, after years of obscene devastation in Syria, a little five-year-old boy – Omran Daqneesh – has been photographed sitting dazed, alone and bloodied, causing international outrage.

Given the effect a photo can have, from the bottom of my heart, I hope that a photograph is not the only way to achieve effective action because, sometimes, there can be no photograph.

Disappeared without trace

Below are old photos of Dawit Isaak and Aster Fissehatsion with her small son but these photos are both far from new and they don’t show the awful truth of what has happened to the people in them.

It is almost fifteen years since Aster and Dawit were ‘disappeared’ – forcibly taken by the Eritrean Government and held without anyone telling their loved ones where they are. 

Aster was a politician peacefully demanding greater democracy in her country and state transparency. Dawit was a journalist reporting on these political events. Neither was charged with any offence or faced any trial.

Since September 2001, no friend or family member has seen Aster or Dawit – nor has any one with a camera. So there will be no shocking photo from Eritrea to go viral.

Eritrean government admits to holding their citizens

Few governments admit to ‘disappearing’ their citizens. Even the most callous and cruel usually blame stooges or the unknown. Not so the Eritrean Government. They admit that they have ‘disappeared’ Dawit and Aster and many other journalists and politicians but regard it as an internal Eritrean matter and steadfastly refuse to make any meaningful or reassuring comment.

However, on June 1st 2015, the Eritrean Ambassador to France wrote to a UNESCO official strongly asserting that no journalists had died, contrary to reports published by Reporters Without Borders.

In June of this year, Osman Saleh, the Eritrean Foreign Minister stated that all the reformists and journalists were alive and “in good hands”. He also said that, because they are “political prisoners”, they are not subject to the normal judicial process and will be put on trial only when the Eritrean Government decides.

I used to work with Osman Saleh when he was Minister of Education and always regarded him as an honest and able man committed to the political and social progress of his country and that included struggling against what was seen as the neo-colonialism of many NGOs and western governments.

Eritrea has consistently trodden its own path, frequently spurning huge offers of cash if that could be seen as kowtowing to foreign governments and agencies. Amnesty International has been dismissed as a paid agent of the CIA interpreting ‘human rights’ through its capitalist eyes. We always have to be aware of the possibility of being among the unco guid (1) and so let us take Mr Osman Saleh at face value and invite him to progress Dawit’s case. You could copy or rephrase the attached letter (2) and send it to the Minister – and if there is no response, you could resend it ... and resend it. And then, maybe – just maybe – there can be new, beautiful photographs of Aster and Dawit with their families.

Alex Jackson, Country Coordinator for Eritrea, AIUK

(1) The ‘unco guid’ are the over-self-righteous and is the title of Robert Burns’ masterpiece which begins:

‘O ye, whaa are sae guid yourself,

Sae pious and sae holy,

Ye’ve nought to do but mark and tell

Your neebour’s fauts and folly.”


(2) Hon Osman Saleh,

Minister of Foreign Affairs,

PO Box 190,




Your Excellency,

Since their ‘disappearance’ in September 2001, there had been little official news about the condition of Dawit Isaak and Aster Fissehatsion until your statement on June 20th that they are alive and in good hands. You also stated that their freedom or otherwise should be determined by the Eritrean Government.

We urge you, as a senior member of that Government, to work for the release of Aster and Dawit. We also urge you to ensure that the torture being suffered by Dawit, Aster and their families is immediately stopped by letting it be known where they are being held and to allow access to them by lawyers and international observers. 

We look forward to a speedy response.

Yours sincerely,


Cc: Ambassador Estifanos Habtemariam Ghebreyesus,

Embassy of the State of Eritrea,

96 White Lion Street


N1 9PF

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
View latest posts