Colombia: the story of the 40 days during which four children lived alone in the jungle before being rescued

Baptized “Hope”, the rescue operation which made it possible to find, Friday, June 9, four children, lost in the Colombian jungle after a plane crash, has everything from a film script. Aged 13, 9, 4 years and 11 months, these members of an indigenous community survived for forty days in the thick vegetation, without any adults.

It all begins on May 1, when Lesly, Soleiny, Tien Noriel and Cristin board a small plane, a Cessna 206, belonging to the company Avianline Charters, to flee the guerrillas. On board the aircraft are also their mother, an indigenous chief and the pilot. The plane takes off from a jungle area known as Araracuara for a 350 km journey to San José del Guaviare, one of the main cities in the southern Colombian Amazon. But a few minutes after takeoff, the captain reported a problem with the engine. The plane disappears radars.

The carcass of the plane on board which the four children were, photographed on May 19, 2023, in Colombia.  (COLOMBIAN ARMY / ANADOLU AGENCY / AFP)

Fifteen days later, between May 15 and 16, Colombian soldiers found the plane in the south of the department of Caqueta. The camera is planted vertically, the nose crushed to the ground, in the middle of dense vegetation. The lifeless bodies of the pilot, the native chief and the mother of the family are discovered. Research is intensifying around the device.

Leaflets and survival kits dropped by helicopter

A sniffer dog finds the first sign of the children’s life, a baby bottle, near the crash site. On May 17, soldiers come across a makeshift shelter made of branches, and a dog discovers a pair of scissors and a hair band, which revives the hope of being able to rescue the children. In a rush, Colombian President Gustavo Petro announced on Twitter that the siblings had been found alive, before retracting and deleting his message the next day.

A dog and a Colombian soldier identify a pair of scissors found in the forest, on May 17, 2023, in Colombia.  (COLOMBIAN ARMY/AFP)

More than 100 soldiers are then deployed in the area. Dozens of natives from nearby villages, accustomed to moving through a jungle where thunderstorms are frequent and home to snakes, jaguars and other wildlife, join the search. The area to be surveyed is approximately 323 square kilometres.

Helicopters are requisitioned to drop thousands of leaflets, written in the children’s language, to ask them to stop moving forward. Survival kits containing water and food are also thrown from the aircraft. On land, shoes, clothes and freshly chewed fruit are found.

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A freshly chewed fruit, found during search operations, May 30, 2023, in Colombia.  (COLOMBIAN ARMY/AFP)

Three weeks after the accident, two diapers and a pair of shoes were discovered, which reduced the search area to around twenty square kilometres. The army claims to have passed within 100 meters of the children. During an interview on May 19, the children’s grandfather called on the emergency services not to abandon the search. According to him, for sure, “the children are alive”. They “are very good at moving” through the jungle, and the 13-year-old “is very intelligent, very active and strong”, he believes. On May 26, the military forces organize a symbolic party to celebrate the first birthday of Cristin, the youngest of four children.

A miracle, after 40 days of research

On June 8, when the search had been going on for a month, the search operation took a back seat in the media. Wilson, the sniffer dog who found the bottle, is missing. Six-year-old German Shepherd would have been “disoriented” due to “complex terrain”, announces the army. In search of the four children, is added that of Wilson. The soldiers find footprints that seem to belong to the dog near those of the children, giving rise to the hypothesis that the dog is with them.

The four children and the soldiers who found them, after 40 days of operation, on June 9, 2023, in Colombia.  (COLOMBIAN MILITARY FORCES / ANADOLU AGENCY / AFP)

The next day, miracle. The Colombian President announcement Friday on Twitter that the children were found alive, five kilometers from the crash site. His message is accompanied by a photo showing them surrounded by soldiers and natives. Their faces are emaciated, but their lives are no longer in danger. According to the president, “they were alone, they got out of it on their own”. Around 9 p.m., the Ministry of Defense specifies that the children are transferred by helicopter to San José de Guaviare, the nearest town, so that their state of health can be assessed. The dog Wilson was not with them and has not been found.

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