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 taken control of their home region in southern Colombia.
Fearing their family was next, she said, relatives had been trying to get the children out of the territory, to a town where they could live in safety.
Then the children’s escape plane crashed, killing their mother and two other adults and sending the foursome on a traumatic weeks-long survival journey into the Amazon jungle. The eldest of the children, Lesly, 13, played the role of guide and mother to her siblings, helping them navigate the forest.
“I was very afraid of the children being recruited,” said Mr. Ranoque, who like others spoke by telephone. 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 children last week provided a rare moment of unified celebration in a deeply divided nation, with large swathes of society, left to right, praising the work of the research team. Gustavo Petro, the country’s left-leaning president, called the bailout “magic” 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 thousands of Colombian children face 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 their arms. But the state has never taken control of many places where rebels once flourished.
Caught in the midst of these warring factions are Colombia’s rural civilians, and children are the youngest victims, suffering the displacement, recruitment, and death and disappearance of family members and community leaders.
The indigenous reserve where the children live, near the town of Araracuara in the Amazonas department, 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 all abandoned by the state”.
Residents of and around Araracuara have been subjected to violence in recent months, according to the Colombian ombudsman, who tracks human rights abuses and attributes the killings and recruitment of children in the area to a group of FARC dissidents who call themselves Carolina Ramírez front.
“People live in fear and are very afraid to speak out because you have to protect your family,” said a resident of Araracuara, a Huitoto woman who asked that her name not be used, concerned for her safety.
At least two other armed groups operate in the region, he said.
But a Carolina Ramirez Front commander, who uses the pseudonym Danilo Alvizu, said her group did not threaten children, according to voice messages sent via SMS to the Times Wednesday. “This is totally false,” he said of Mr. Ranoque’s statements.
“Like all Colombians, we are delighted that the four children who survived last May’s plane crash have been found alive,” the group said in a separate statement released to media.
Colombian army chief Maj. Gen. Helder Giraldo said in a meeting with reporters on Tuesday that officials were aware of Mr. Ranoque’s statements about the armed group and were monitoring the situation.
In the jungle, the effort to find the children after their plane crashes, dubbed Operation Hope by the government, has been led by the Colombian military and members of the Guardia Indigena, an unarmed civilian defense force numbering tens of thousands from various tribes. About 300 people participated in the search, according to the military.
Lesly helped her siblings by building shelter, finding food and boosting morale, said Luis Acosta, the national coordinator of the Indigenous Guard, who was part of the search team and spoke to the group that ultimately found the children. .
Indigenous children in the region are taught at home and at school how to understand the jungle both practically and spiritually from an early age, said Mr. Acosta, who is from another tribe, the Nasa. Lesly would most likely have been ready to take care of her younger siblings.
“From the age of 13 we already take on adult roles,” she said, “because we have to in the territory. In life, we’ve had to do it this way.
Wild animals, venomous snakes, and poisonous plants are all found in the Colombian Amazon. Officials said the children survived on wild fruit and cassava flour that came from the wreckage of the plane and from helicopter-dropped survival kits.
Mr Acosta said the search team slept in hammocks near the crash site for 20 nights and would travel in groups during the day to search for the children.
For sustenance, members of the research team ate a cracker-like bread known as casabe, as well as canned food, river fish and mojojoys., a type of larvae found in palm trees.
Every time they found a trace of the babies — a footprint, a diaper — that suggested signs of life, they were emboldened, she said. Whenever it rained too heavily to search, they were disheartened.
Brig. General Pedro Sánchez, who led Operation Hope, said trees in the jungle can grow 100 feet or more, blocking light and making it difficult to see anyone a few feet away.
The search team dropped flyers from helicopters and played messages from the children’s grandmothers in the Huitoto language telling them to stay put and wait for help.
General Sánchez said the children heard the messages and saw the leaflets but kept moving, making them hard 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 four miles west of the crash site, General Sánchez said. They found Lesly with the 1-year-old in her arms. The 5-year-old was lying under a mosquito net, he said, and the children explained they were hungry. (The youngest two celebrated birthdays in the jungle.)
Later, they were reunited with the commandos, who provided the children with first aid and fluids. A helicopter soon arrived to transport them out of the jungle. Until Tuesday they remained in a military hospital in Bogota.
“The boy, when he saw the indigenous people, said: ‘My mother is dead,'” said General Sánchez. Rescuers tried to shift the conversation, saying: “Your grandmother is waiting for you, and she is looking for you.”
Federico Rios contributed report.