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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Colombian children rescued in jungle had been fleeing for their lives

Colombian Air Force personnel giving medical attention to one of the four children who survived a plane crash in the jungle.

By Julie Turkewitz and Genevieve Glatsky

The four children who survived an almost unfathomable 40 days in the Colombian jungle after their tiny plane crashed in the Amazon rainforest had boarded the plane because they were fleeing for their lives.

Manuel Ranoque, the father of the two youngest survivors, explained in an interview that an armed group that forcibly recruited children by threatening violence had seized control of their home region in southern Colombia.

Fearing their family was next, relatives had tried to fly the children out of the territory, to a city where they could live safely.

Then the children’s escape plane crashed, killing their mother and two other adults and sending the quartet on a traumatic weekslong survival journey in the Amazon jungle. The oldest of the children, Lesly, 13, played the role of guide and mother to her siblings, helping them navigate the forest.

“I was very scared the children would be recruited,” said Ranoque, who like others spoke by phone. He added that the country’s armed groups “have no respect — they are capable of recruiting a child as young as 2.”

The rescue of the children last week has provided a rare moment of unified celebration in a deeply divided nation, with broad swaths of society, from left to right, praising the work of the search team. Gustavo Petro, the country’s leftist president, called the rescue “magical,” and Iván Duque, his conservative predecessor, called it “a miracle.”

But the story of the children — Lesly, Soleiny, 9, Tien, 5, and Cristin, 1 — all from the Huitoto Indigenous group, is also a stark reminder of the dangers faced by thousands of rural Colombian children every day.

For decades, the country has been terrorized by armed groups, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. In 2016, the FARC agreed to lay down its arms. But the state never took control of many places where the rebels once flourished.

In the government’s absence, old rebels have united with new recruits, battling with criminal groups for command of rural territory, the cocaine industry and other illicit economies.

Trapped in the middle of these warring factions are Colombia’s rural civilians, and children are the youngest victims, suffering displacement, recruitment and the deaths and disappearances of family members and community leaders.

The Indigenous reserve where the children live, next to the small town of Araracuara in the department of Amazonas, is extremely remote, according to their great-uncle, Fidencio Valencia. “There is no sewage system; there is no electricity,” he said. “There is nothing. We are abandoned, all of us, by the state.”

Residents in and around Araracuara have been the target of violence in recent months, according to Colombia’s ombudsman, which tracks human rights violations and attributes killings and child recruitment in the area to a group of FARC dissidents who call themselves the Carolina Ramírez Front.

“People live in fear and are very afraid to speak out because you have to protect your family,” said one resident of Araracuara, a Huitoto woman who asked that her name not beused, out of concern for her safety.

At least two other armed groups operate in the region, she said.

The Carolina Ramírez Front occasionally issues statements via social media but has not commented on the case.

The head of the Colombia military, Maj. Gen. Helder Giraldo, said in a meeting with reporters Tuesday that officials were aware of Ranoque’s statements about the armed group and were monitoring the situation.

In the jungle, the effort to find the children after their plane crashed, called Operation Hope by the government, was led by the Colombian military and members of the Indigenous Guard, an unarmed civilian defense force made up of tens of thousand of people from various tribes. About 300 people participated in the search, according to the military.

Lesly helped her siblings by building shelter, finding food and lifting their spirits, said Luis Acosta, the national coordinator of the Indigenous Guard, who formed part of the search team and spoke with the group that eventually found the children.

Wild animals, venomous snakes and poisonous plants are all present in the Colombian Amazon. Officials have said that the children survived by eating wild fruit and cassava flour that came from the plane’s wreckage and from survival kits dropped by helicopters.

Brig. Gen. Pedro Sánchez, who led Operation Hope, said that in the jungle, trees can grow 100 feet or taller, blocking light and making it hard to see someone just a few meters away.

The search team dropped flyers from helicopters and played messages from the children’s grandmother in the Huitoto language telling them to stay put and wait for help.

Sánchez said the children had heard the messages and seen the flyers, but kept moving, making them difficult to find.

“Why were they moving?” he said. “Only they know.”

On June 9, four Indigenous members of the search team found the children less than 4 miles west of the crash site, Sánchez said. They found Lesly with the 1-year-old in her arms. The 5-year-old boy was lying under a mosquito net, he said, and the children explained that they were hungry. (The two youngest had birthdays in the jungle.)

After that, they reunited with the commandos, who gave the children first aid and fluids. Soon, a helicopter arrived to airlift them out of the jungle. As of Tuesday, they remained in a military hospital in Bogotá.

“The boy, when he saw the Indigenous people, said, ‘My mom is dead,’” Sánchez said. The rescuers tried to shift the conversation, saying, “Your grandmother is waiting for you and she is looking for you.”

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