How a miracle unfolded in the Colombian jungle

By Sergio Held in Bogota | China Daily Global | Updated: 2023-06-21 07:34
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A soldier and a rescue dog check a pair of scissors found in a forested area of Solano, Colombia, on May 17. [Photo/Agencies]

Dogs aid hunt

Some 120 soldiers were deployed along with a group of 40 indigenous people. They combed 2,625 square kilometers of jungle for more than three weeks until the children were found on June 9 some 6 km from the crash site.

Four search and rescue dogs were key to finding traces of the children, including a pacifier, scissors and a diaper.

Engels Cortes, a psychological expert in crisis situations and an international evaluator of search and rescue dogs, said: "The dogs have very good capabilities. They fulfill three tactical objectives — reducing operating time, cost and risk. In other words, dogs make a search faster, more cost-efficient, and fewer personnel are required. A well-trained dog and its owner can cover a lot of ground quickly and reduce risks."

In Colombia, there are 20 to 30 internationally certified teams comprising dogs and their handlers, Cortes said.

Juan Sora, a volunteer and dog handler for search and rescue work at the Civil Defense Force in Colombia, said: "We were activated on May 30, because the last traces of the children were discovered — a footprint that rekindled hope of finding them. From that moment, more resources were invested and the search was intensified."

Sora and his golden retriever Akhela were on one of the two Civil Defense Force teams in the search.

"Entering this terrain is tricky because of the vegetation, humidity and other factors. In addition, the heat and constant rain made it exhausting work," Sora said.

Even though the children were found, the operation was not complete, as Wilson, a Belgian Shepherd dog, was missing in the jungle. Sora said he was one of the last people to see the dog.

"The operation is not over until Wilson shows up, as he was an important part of this mission. The loyalty that dogs show in the work area, in daily life and during training is indescribable," Sora said.

Joint Special Operations Commander, Army General Pedro Sanchez, who coordinated the search efforts, said the jungle is so thick in that area that the searchers sometimes got to within 20 to 50 meters of the children but did not see them.

"My job was to conduct inspections in 1-square-kilometer quadrants. Although it may not seem much, in the jungle, 5 meters is a considerable distance. To avoid getting lost, my objective was to have the dog search in a radius of approximately 5 meters. The work was very tiring, as we had to zigzag, which meant we walked for about 10 to 15 kilometers a day in the jungle," Sora said.

In a video recorded at a military hospital in Bogota after the children were found, their maternal grandfather Narcisco Mucutuy said that at times they had seen the searchers just 10 meters away, but they kept quiet and in hiding, as they feared being punished.

"When they heard the helicopter, they hid under a palisade out of fear, and when peasants and the army were looking for them, Lesly, the eldest child, said the rescuers passed as close as 10 meters to the children," Narcisco Mucutuy said.

"The children kept still, and Lesly covered the little one's mouth to keep him quiet. When the indigenous searchers called out to the children, they never answered, because they thought that if they were found, they would be whipped for hiding."

Cortes, the psychologist, said there have been other cases in which fear poses an additional challenge to finding children in distress.

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