Photograph — Reuters

What could six Burundian teenagers be running from? As the world reports them missing, do they care? Do they want to be found? These are some of the questions on the minds of people as six Burundian teenagers were declared missing in Washington DC on Wednesday, July 19, 2017.

The teenagers, Audrey Mwamikazi, 17; Don Ingabire, 16; Nice Munezero, 17; Kevin Sabumukiza, 17; Richard Irakoze, 18; and Aristide Irambona, 18, were in the United States from Burundi to take part in an international robotics competition. But by the time the contest was wrapping up on Tuesday, the teenagers were nowhere to be found.

The chaperone is said to have looked in the college dorms where the kids had been staying but he found that their bags were packed and they were gone. Authorities issued and posted missing person photographs of the six teenagers on Wednesday. And on Thursday, the police reported that two of the six teens were seen crossing into Canada and that they have no indication of foul play.

“Two of the Burundians – Audrey Mwamikazi, 17, and 16-year-old Don Ingabire – were spotted crossing the United States border into Canada, District of Columbia”, a police spokeswoman, Margarita Mikhaylova said. However, the police did say that they had no information about how they were spotted or the nature of the border crossing. Both the US and Canadian immigration authorities have declined to comment.

Organisers of the robotics event also said their disappearance may have been self-initiated. “There were indications that the student’s absence may have been self-initiated, including leaving all their keys in their chaperone’s bag and the removal of students’ clothes from their rooms,” the competition organisers, FIRST Global, said in a statement. Its president, Joe Sestak, was the first to put a call through to the police when they learned that the team’s chaperone could not find them.

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The FIRST Global International Robotics Competition, which attracted teams of teenage students from over 150 countries, is designed to encourage youths to pursue math, science and tech related careers. The organisation said that the security of the students is of paramount importance and that students were always supposed to be under the supervision of their mentor.

The chairman of the United Burundian-American Community, Oscar Niyiragira, described the teens’ departure as disappointing, saying that such an incident tarnishes the reputation of Burundi by exaggerating fears of political violence. According to him, it is economic impoverishment that drives many Burundians to flee and seek asylum from the country, not political persecution.

When contacted, the Burundi Embassy in Washington said it did not know about the robotics contest or whether a Burundian team was attending. According to the police, each teenager had one-year visas.


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