The Burundi Robotics Team: the real reason they went missing

Dave Proffer

The recent disappearance of six Burundian teenagers at a robotic challenge in the US opens up questions as to how effective US leadership and engagement could support Burundi (and neighbouring DR Congo) at a time when the situation demands active international diplomacy.

“I prayed that God may keep us safe on this trip,” Burundi Youth Robotics Coach Canesius Bindaba prayed. Surrounding him were six Burundi teenagers and their families at the Bujumbura International Airport. Bindaba being the only one completely unaware that the families were mumbling prayers that their children reach another destination safely.

On 18 July, the six teens, Don Charu Ingabire, Audrey Mwamikazi, Richard Irakoze, Kevin Sabumukiza, Nice Munezero, Aristide Irambona, ranging from 16-18 years old, went missing from their Trinity University dorm rooms in Washington, D.C. The Burundi robotics team had attended the three-day FIRST Global Challenge that kicked off on 16 July. The event focused on the celebration of global community through math and science, bringing together competitors from more than 150 nations. This was the first time that Burundi would be competing. The competition had already received attention after a team of girls from Afghanistan were denied multiple times from obtaining visas. It was not until President Trump intervened that they were able to attend.

On Thursday 20 July, Police reported that two of the six students were seen crossing the Canadian border and were reported safe with friends or relatives. The other four were said to be safe, according to police officials. US Citizenship and Immigration Services, which receives asylum applications, and Canadian immigration authorities have declined to comment on whether the teens sought asylum.

Bindaba stated that he was disappointed in the actions of the teenagers. He had hoped that the success of the team would be a great way to bring some positivity to Burundi which is experiencing a tumultuous conflict.

The conflict in Burundi, a country in central Africa, has caused twenty-five hundred thousand people to flee their country by any means necessary. In 2015 Burundi was plunged into crisis when President Nkurunziza announced he would stand for a third term in the upcoming elections. This decision rippled into a political division and much opposition from the citizens of Burundi. Since then, reports have emerged of mass killings, recruitment of youth into militia groups, targeted assassinations, arrests without charge, torture and sexual violence used as a weapon of war. Due to a media blackout (radios and newspapers have been largely shut down, and journalists kidnapped) there is limited data and reports of what exactly is going on in the country.

Peace Direct has worked diligently to support local peacebuilding in Burundi for nearly a decade now. Peace Direct works directly with a civil society network of 23 local peacebuilding and human rights organizations across Burundi to develop reports on the situation. These weekly reports are shared with governments, journalists, and UN and INGO representatives around the world. The civil society network is important because it is able to identify early warning signs of conflict, negotiate for the release of those wrongly detained, and organize peacebuilding activities to promote tolerance. Slowly but surely they are rebuilding and teaching peace in their communities.

While FIRST Global President Joe Sestak, a former Congressman, stated that he has a “…very clear understanding of the challenging circumstances they face in their nation,” as reported, US policymakers could do much more to address the reasons these young people felt they had to flee their homes and families to allegedly seek safety and refuge elsewhere.

Two critical high-level positions for US engagement with Burundi now stand vacant in the State Department: Assistant Secretary of State for Africa and US Special Representative for the Great Lakes Region . These positions are vital for ensuring effective US leadership and engagement in the region at a time when the situation in Burundi (as well as in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo) demands active international diplomacy.

This month Peace Direct joined with twenty other organizations calling on President Trump to swiftly nominate a new Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, and we have urged Members of Congress to press for the appointment of a new US Special Representative for the Great Lakes, a congressionally mandated position. Helping end the crisis in Burundi and supporting a better future for young people in the country is the best way to respond to the flight of the Burundian students.

We should also acknowledge that these Burundian teens are in fact still children. Children who are so fearful of returning to chaos and violence in Burundi, that they were willing to risk their lives to reportedly seek asylum. This situation is not the first nor will not be the last if we continue to ignore the conflicts that are taking place in Burundi elsewhere around the world.

 

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