By By Moriah Balingit
The Washington Post
Outside Bujumbura International Airport in the capital city of Burundi, six teenagers bound for Washington D.C. to compete in an international robotics competition locked hands with parents and relatives to pray one last time before boarding their flight. In Kirundi, their native language, Coach Canesius Bindaba asked God to bless their journey to the United States.
“I prayed that God may keep us safe on this trip,” Bindaba said.
When Bindaba uttered those words, he said he had no idea that the teens — likely with the help of their families — had orchestrated a secret bid to stay behind and possibly seek asylum in the U.S. and Canada. The squad — two girls and four boys who range in ages from 16 to 18 — went missing on Tuesday from the FIRST Global Challenge robotics after it ended at DAR Constitution Hall, and their disappearance set off a panicked search for them at Trinity University in Washington, D.C., where they were staying in dorms.
By Thursday morning, D.C. police said two of the teens — Don Charu Ingabire, 16, and Audrey Mwamikazi, 17 — crossed in to Canada and were with friends or relatives. Police on Thursday said the other four — Richard Irakoze, 18, Kevin Sabumukiza, 17, Nice Munezero, 17 and Aristide Irambona, 18 — were not yet with relatives but were still safe.disappeared.
Bindaba said he saw few signs that the teens had hatched a secret bid for possible asylum in the U.S. or Canada. They appeared nervous, Bindaba said, but he chalked that up to the competition and their new surroundings.
“Before, I thought they were acting a bit strangely,” Bindaba said, speaking from Bujumbura. “I thought maybe it was their first time to be there, to see the big buildings that we don’t have here.”
Before closing ceremonies, Bindaba saw the teens onto the floor of the auditorium once more. They carried tiny flags and joined the throng of other competitors whistling and whooping, the ecstatic close to an exhilarating three-day competition. From the highest seats, Bindaba said, it was impossible to see the teens.
He said he planned to decompress with the team over pizza and coke after the competition, a reward for the hard work that earned them a 73rd place finish out of about 160 teams.
Police said this is when at least some of the team members slipped away, taking advantage of the noise and the chaos surrounding the competition’s end to disappear. At least one team member, Aristide, stayed behind. He helped Bindaba load the team’s robot onto a school bus that would take them back to their dorms at Trinity University. Then, Aristide carried the robot to Bindaba’s room and told the coach that he was going to take a shower.
As Bindaba unloaded his bag, he noticed something peculiar: the other five team members had apparently secreted their name tags and room keys in to Bindaba’s bag. For the coach, it was a deeply unsettling discovery.
“I knew something nasty was happening,” Bindaba said.
He then rushed to Aristide’s room: he was not there. He checked the other rooms, too: the teens had still not returned.
“I cannot really describe what I felt over there, but it was really scary for me,” Bindaba said.
Bindaba also began sending panicked messages to the teen’s parents back in Burundi. But their replies made Bindaba suspicious: one child’s uncle told the coach that perhaps the children were nearby; another’s mother told him to “cool down,” that perhaps the team was out having fun.
“I am not seeing the kids,” Bindaba said. “How can I cool down?” Just after midnight Wednesday, about 17 hours before the teens were set to depart from Dulles Airport, Sestak called police to file a missing persons report.
Bindaba, who was unable to afford another plane ticket and had been assured the students were safe, headed home. The following morning, when Bindaba was still en route, police would announce two of the teens had made it to Canada.