The Colombian president's tweet Friday left no room for doubt this time. "The four children who were lost in the Colombian jungle were found alive," he wrote on Twitter. "This is joy for the whole country!". After previously breaking the hearts of his worried citizens when he published a hasty false announcement and had to admit that he was wrong, President Gustavo Petro announced what one cannot but call a complete miracle. Four siblings, the youngest of whom is less than a year old, were found alive and relatively intact, 40 days after their plane crashed in the heart of the Amazon.
This brought to an end an extensive search operation, which included army forces, sniffer dogs and even recorded messages from the children's grandmother, and was nicknamed Operation Hope. The Colombian people, who moved during these five long weeks between despair and hope, were awash with a wave of relief and happiness.
"The jungle saved them. They are children of the jungle, and now they are also children of Colombia," concluded Petro.
The children, ages aged 13, 9, 4 and 1, survived a May 1 plane crash that killed their mother and two other adults. They were rescued by the army near the border between the provinces of Guabiara and Cacate, not far from where the plane crashed. The area where the children disappeared is infested with jaguars, snakes and other dangerous animals, and armed gangs of drug smugglers operate there. Miraculously, although they suffer from malnutrition and bites, none of them are in serious condition, and they are recuperating in a hospital in Bogotá.
"They will tell their stories and you will hear them," said Manuel Ranoque, the father of the 1-year-old and 5-year-old siblings, after visiting them on Sunday at Bogota's military hospital.
"It's not easy to ask them because the children went 40 days without eating well, so I have not been able to get information from the oldest child," Ranoque told reporters.
The children are expected to remain in the hospital for two weeks.
Mother survived for 4 days after crash
Ranoque also told reporters the children's mother had survived for four days after the crash, an account disputed by another family member who also spoke to journalists.
Ranoque said that, before she died, the mother told them: “Go away,” apparently asking them to leave the wreckage site to survive. He provided no more details. Authorities have not said anything about this version.
Details of what happened to the youngsters, and what they did, have been emerging gradually and in small pieces, so it could take some time to have a better picture of their ordeal, during which the youngest, Cristin, turned 1 year old.
Henry Guerrero, an Indigenous man who was part of the search group, told reporters that the children were found with two small bags containing some clothes, a towel, a flashlight, two cellphones, a music box and a soda bottle.
He said they used the bottle to collect water in the jungle, and he added that after they were rescued the youngsters complained of being hungry. “They wanted to eat rice pudding, they wanted to eat bread,” he said.
Fidencio Valencia, a child’s uncle, told the media outlet Noticias Caracol that the children were starting to talk and one of them said they hid in tree trunks to protect themselves in a jungle area filled with snakes, animals and mosquitoes. He said they were exhausted.
Soldiers in helicopters dropped boxes of food into the jungle, hoping that it would help sustain the children. Planes flying over the area fired flares to help search crews on the ground at night, and rescuers used speakers that blasted a message recorded by the siblings’ grandmother telling them to stay in one place.
The indigenous children's familiarity with the rainforest’s fruits were key to their survival.
Before the happy ending, huge depression
The happy ending was preceded by a huge depression. About three weeks ago, the Colombian army published a photo showing a footprint in the search area, which appeared to belong to one of the missing. A few days later, the Colombian president announced that the children were found alive, but then had to admit that he was wrong and that the search continued. On Friday he finally got to correct the cruel mistake.
The beginning of the affair was the crash of a Cessna 206 light aircraft in an isolated area of the Amazon on May 1. It took off carrying the four siblings, their 33-year-old mother, Magdalena Mucutuy, another woman and the pilot traveling from the Amazonian village of Araracuara heading to the town of San Jose del Guaviare. The plane disappeared on May 1, after the pilot reported a problem with the engine, but the crash site was found only 15 days later. Inside it were discovered the three adults, all dead; The four children were gone.
In the searches conducted by the rescue teams around, they found clues that at least some of the children survived the crash and tried to find shelter. Among other things, a kind of makeshift camp made of sticks and branches was discovered, as well as shoes, a hair band, a pair of scissors, diapers, a bottle of milk which was probably used by the baby, and a partially eaten fruit. However, the children were nowhere to be found.
Extensive search operation included recorded message from grandmother
More than 160 soldiers participated in the extensive search operation, and they were assisted by sniffer dogs, three helicopters and 70 native Colombians, who know the area. An announcement device was installed in one of the helicopters from which recorded messages were played from the children's grandmother. In the messages, she was heard urging them to stay where they were so that they could be found. In the forest where the four disappeared, there are trees up to 40 meters high and torrential rain falls most of the day. All this made the search very difficult.
The children's grandfather, Fidencio Valencia, prior to their rescue that he had not lost hope that his grandchildren would be found alive, because according to him they are used to staying in the jungle. The children's grandmother said that the oldest girl, 13, used to take care of her sisters and brothers when their mother was at work and fed them bread and fruit. The members of the indigenous group to which the four belong are known to be accustomed to jungle life and gifted with hunting and fishing skills, but it had not been clear how long they would be able to survive, due to their young age.
The Colombian army announced that it continues to search the jungle, this time to find Wilson - a sniffer dog that participated in the search for the children and got lost in the field, and is believed to have spent several days with the children. "The search is not over. Our principle is to leave no one behind," the Colombian military's Twitter page said. "The soldiers continue the operation to find Wilson."