Four Indigenous children who had been missing for more than a month in Colombia’s Amazon rainforest were reunited with their relatives on Saturday, bringing a happy finale to a tense drama that gripped the country.
The siblings were recovered following an arduous rescue mission involving sniffer dogs, helicopters, and aircraft. They had been walking alone in the bush after surviving a small plane crash.
According to AFP journalists on the scene, the children, who appeared pale and sickly, were flown by army medical plane to a military hospital in Bogota. Defense Minister Ivan Velasquez, who accompanied President Gustavo Petro to the hospital, said they are improving but cannot yet consume solid food.
The youngest two children, now five and one, spent their birthdays in the jungle, as Lesly, the oldest at just 13 years old, guided them through the ordeal.
“It is thanks to her, her value and her leadership, that the three others were able to survive, with her care, her knowledge of the jungle,” Velasquez said.
General Pedro Sanchez, who led the search operation, credited Indigenous people involved in the rescue effort with finding the children.
“We found the children: miracle, miracle, miracle!” he told reporters.
‘A joy for the whole country’
Members of the Huitoto Indigenous group, the children — aged 13, nine, five and one — had been lost in the jungle since May 1, when the Cessna 206 in which they were traveling crashed.
The pilot had reported engine problems only minutes after taking off from a deep Amazon area known as Araracuara on the 350-kilometer (217-mile) journey to the town of San Jose del Guaviare.
The bodies of the pilot, the children’s mother and a local Indigenous leader were all found at the crash site, where the plane sat almost vertical in the trees.
Officials said the group had been fleeing threats from members of an armed group.
“They are happy to see the family… they have all their senses,” the children’s grandfather, Fidencio Valencia, told reporters shortly after visiting them.
“They are children of the bush,” Valencia said, adding that they know how to survive in the jungle.
They “survived at first by eating a little flour (which was on board the plane), then seeds,” he said.
At the request of their father, General Sanchez will be made the youngest child’s godfather.
“For me, it is an honor,” the visibly moved officer told lcoal television, placing his hand on his heart.
A massive search involving 160 soldiers and 70 Indigenous people with intimate knowledge of the jungle was launched after the crash, garnering global attention.
Army chief Helder Giraldo said rescuers had covered over 2,600 kilometers (1650 miles) in total to locate the children. “Something that seemed impossible was achieved,” Giraldo said on Twitter.
Petro posted a photo on Twitter showing several adults, some dressed in military fatigues, tending to the children as they sat on tarps in the jungle. One rescuer held a bottle to the mouth of the smallest child, whom he held in his arms.
He heralded the success as a “meeting of Indigenous and military knowledge” that had demonstrated a “different path towards a new Colombia.”
The area is home to jaguars, snakes and other predators, as well as armed drug smuggling groups, but clues such as footprints, a diaper, and half-eaten fruit led authorities to believe they were on the right track.
Worried that the children would continue wandering and become ever more difficult to locate, the air force dumped 10,000 flyers into the forest with instructions in Spanish and the children’s own Indigenous language, telling them to stay put.
The leaflets also included survival tips, and the military dropped food parcels and bottled water.
Rescuers had also been broadcasting a message recorded by the children’s grandmother, urging them not to move.
According to the military, rescuers found the children about five kilometers (three miles) west of the crash site.
The children’s grandmother Fatima Valencia said 13-year-old Lesly kept her younger siblings safe with her “warrior” spirit.
But the search is not completely over: the army announced Saturday it would continue looking for Wilson, a rescue dog that went missing during the search.
“No one is left behind,” the army said in a tweet containing a video of the six-year-old Belgian Shepherd Malinois.
The dog was key to finding some of the items left behind by the children in the jungle, and may have at one point — while straying from the Army — tagged along with the kids. They recounted a dog following them, but it’s unclear if it was Wilson.
News of the children’s rescue came as Petro returned home from Cuba, where he signed a six-month truce with Colombia’s last active guerrilla group, the ELN.
On Friday, he praised “the effective coordination between the military and the Indigenous people” during the search, saying it was an “example of an alliance for the country to follow.”