"Milagro" - miracle, with this word the soldiers radio the redeeming success. After weeks of intensive search, the four children missing in the Colombian rainforest have been found alive. A double miracle, because the siblings aged 13, 9, 4 and one year not only survived a plane crash, but also 40 days in the dense jungle.
A search party from "Operation Hope" made up of special forces from the military and indigenous people from the Putumayo department finally found the four children, as the General of the Armed Forces, Pedro Sánchez Suárez, explained at a press conference after the children's arrival in Bogotá.
The children were discovered about five kilometers as the crow flies from the crash site. The newspaper "El Tiempo" reported on this distance, citing the armed forces of the South American country. Using the objects and traces found, the soldiers were able to reconstruct the children's path. Accordingly, they initially removed from the crash site four kilometers to the west. Then they apparently met an obstacle and turned north.
"A joy for the whole country. The four children who have been missing in the Colombian rainforest for 40 days have been found alive," wrote Colombia's President Gustavo Petro on Twitter. He also published a photo of soldiers and indigenous people in the jungle who fed and supplied the children with water.
"The joint efforts have made this joy possible for Colombia," said the commander of the armed forces, General Helder Fernan Giraldo Bonilla. Military photos showed the children, the smallest on a soldier's arm, the other three sitting on plastic sheeting on the ground. Later, Aviation Authority video showed the children being lifted into a helicopter.
The family was reunited on Saturday. "I visited them. They are very exhausted, the poor ones," grandfather Filencio Valencia told the newspaper "El Tiempo" on Saturday after visiting his grandchildren in the military hospital in Bogotá. "They are sleeping. They are malnourished. They are thin, very thin."
Grandmother Fátima Valencia also visited the siblings in the hospital. "I weep with joy. The children are exhausted, but I have my daughter's flesh and blood back." The children's mother died in the plane crash.
Father also in the hospital
The father of the siblings aged 13, 9 and 5 years and one year also took part in the search. After the children were found, he accompanied them to the military hospital in Bogotá. "I've also been admitted. I'm sick," said Manuel Ranoque. "I have a high fever. I've been fighting for 40 days to find my children."
President Petro also visited the children in the hospital on Saturday. The head of state informed himself on site about the state of health of the siblings. "The children are recovering. They are drinking liquids. But they cannot eat yet," Defense Minister Ivan Velásquez said after the visit.
Military doctor Carlos Rincón Arango said the children had a number of minor injuries and were malnourished. Given the circumstances, they are in an acceptable condition. A series of pediatric investigations would now be carried out. It is also important to let the children regain their strength. He expects a hospital stay of two to three weeks.
However, after the children were rescued, one person was missing: the Belgian shepherd Wilson, who, according to media reports, had tracked down tracks and made a significant contribution to the success of the search, had not returned to the emergency services. The search for Wilson will continue, the armed forces announced.
How did the accident happen?
On May 1, the siblings and their mother were on their way to Bogotá in a Cessna 206 propeller plane. According to media reports, the family had been on their way to the father, who had fled the region after constant threats from a splinter group of the guerrilla organization FARC. However, the machine crashed, presumably after problems with the engine, in the Caquetá department in the south of the country.
According to a preliminary report from the aviation authority, the light aircraft collided with treetops and then fell vertically to the ground. The children's mother, the pilot and an indigenous leader died in the crash. It is believed that the collision with the trees slowed the impact so much that there was little damage to the rear of the cabin, which is why the children survived.
While the wreckage of the plane was found, the four children remained missing. Traces of the large-scale search brought to light by the military suggested that the children survived. Soldiers found shoes, diapers, hair ties, purple scissors, a baby bottle, a shelter built from leaves and branches, and half-eaten fruit.
Using the objects and traces found, the soldiers were able to reconstruct the path the children had taken so far. But the rainforest in the region is very dense, which made the search for the missing people much more difficult. In addition, it rains almost non-stop. The children also apparently did not remain in one place, but moved around, which made the search even more difficult. The military dropped food and relief supplies from the air over the jungle, and a message from the grandmother was played over loudspeakers in the children's indigenous language.
Indigenous knowledge may have helped the children
As part of an indigenous community, their good knowledge of the region and the rainforest may have helped the three girls and the boy to survive. Her grandmother had trusted her eldest daughter above all. "She was always like her mother, she took the others to the forest," she said recently on the radio station La FM. "She knows the plants and fruits. We indigenous people learn from an early age which ones are edible and which ones aren't." The children had fed on wild passion fruit and mangoes in the jungle, the armed forces said at a press conference in Bogotá on Saturday morning.
The children's survival is reminiscent of the case of German-Peruvian Juliane Koepcke, who survived a plane crash in the Peruvian rainforest in 1971 and was rescued ten days later. Since her parents were biologists doing research in the Amazon region, the then 17-year-old was familiar with the area and was able to make her way to a river, where she was finally found by forest workers.
Head of state Petro praised the strength of the children on Friday. "They were alone, but they set an example of survival that will go down in history," he said after returning from Cuba, where he announced a ceasefire with the left-wing guerrilla organization ELN. "This is how these children are today, the children of peace, the children of Colombia."
Although the security situation has improved after the 2016 peace agreement between the government and FARC, parts of the South American country are still controlled by illegal groups. Above all, indigenous people, social activists and environmentalists are repeatedly targeted by the criminal gangs - possibly including the father of the four children.