How Indigenous kids survived 40 days in Colombia's jungle after a plane crash
BOGOTÁ, Colombia — The rescue last week of four Indigenous children, including a baby, after 40 days lost in the Amazon jungle was made possible by a combination of modern technology and Indigenous knowhow, according to those involved in the search operation.
The children — ages 13, 9, and 4 plus an 11-month-old baby — survived a deadly plane crash that killed their mother.
Then, led by the eldest, a girl named Lesly, they managed to find food, water and shelter in the rainforest until Colombian special forces who had teamed up with Indigenous guides finally found them.
"We were convinced that they were alive and that's what kept us going," Lt. Col. Óscar Garzón, a Colombian Army officer who advised the rescue team, tells NPR.
The children — Lesly, Soleiny, Tien and Cristin — are members of the Huitoto Indigenous group. They were traveling from the southern town of Araracuara to San José del Guaviare with their mother aboard a single-engine Cessna to visit her husband, the father of two of the children.
He told reporters that he had fled the area after being threatened by a guerrilla group that he feared would try to recruit his children.
The search team vowed not to leave until they'd found the children
The Cessna developed engine trouble and disappeared May 1. It's currently the rainy season in the region and due to cloud cover and constant downpours, it took the army reconnaissance aircraft two weeks to locate the crash site. There, they found the dead bodies of all three adults aboard the plane, including the children's mother, Magdalena Mucutuy, 33.
The one positive sign was that the children were missing. They had been seated in the rear of the aircraft, which may have helped them survive the impact of the crash.
"Once the aircraft wreckage was found and there was no sign of the children, there was an objective: to find those children," Garzón says. "We were not going to leave that place unless we found them."
Alfredo Acosta, one of dozens of Indigenous volunteers who worked together with Colombian troops, says the children probably abandoned the crash site to get away from the dead bodies, which could attract dangerous animals, and also to look for food and water.
The children had vital knowledge and skills to survive in the jungle
They were well-prepared to forage because they were raised in the jungle, says Consuelo de Vengoechea, a Colombian anthropologist and linguist who, over the past 30 years, has studied the Huitoto culture and language — and, for part of that time, lived with the children's family near Araracuara, becoming close friends with their deceased mother.
"This was the family that opened their door to me" for doing research, de Vengoechea says.
While there, she says youngsters were constantly climbing trees, gathering edible fruit and taking part in Indigenous ceremonies in which they sang and celebrated the bounty of the jungle.
"They are taught from a very young age how to take care of themselves," de Vengoechea says. "Their parents and grandparents are all the time teaching these children what they can eat and why."
Relatives told her that while lost in the jungle, the kids consumed an Amazonian fruit known as juan soco, which is similar to passionfruit, as well as seeds from the milpesos palm tree, which are like tiny coconuts and contain oil and vitamins. They also came upon a box of food airdropped by the military.
The kids had found an 11-pound bag of yuca flour in the airplane and kept baby Cristin alive by feeding her the flour dissolved in water. De Vengoechea says that Lesly used a leaf to drip the mixture into the baby's mouth.
Cristin turned one during their time in the jungle, and Tien, her older brother, turned five.
The kids had a mosquito net and a plastic tarp, on top of which they piled banana leaves to bunk down at night and stay warm. This was key because even in the tropical rainforest, the temperature rapidly drops after sundown. And in the constant rain, their clothes were always wet.
Indigenous guides relied on traditional knowledge during the search
The Colombian military used reconnaissance flights, infrared sensors, satellite imagery and other technology in the search for the children, and deployed 110 special forces on the ground. But the jungle was so thick that it was very slow going, Garzón says.
The forces received a huge boost from the Indigenous guides — but even they found the surroundings challenging, says Acosta.
"It was virgin jungle. You look in any direction and all you see are huge trees. It's very easy to get lost," Acosta says.
They came across deer, tapirs, oncillas — which look like small tigers — and poisonous snakes. They were constantly attacked by mosquitoes, flies and ants, and sometimes ran out of food. The rain never seemed to let up.
"We were wet all the time," he says.
Rather than modern technology, the Indigenous guides leaned on tradition. Every day, they held ceremonies to ask permission of the spirits to enter the jungle. Some of them took ayahuasca, a psychedelic brew made of jungle plants, in the hopes that the hallucinogenic visions would point them in the right direction.
"They are so good at understanding this spiritual dimension and that was the best addition to the search team," Garzón says. "That's what fills the gap between what you can and cannot see in the jungle."
As the search dragged on, the fate of the children became a national obsession in Colombia.
Manuel Ranoque, the father of the two youngest children, insisted that all four were still alive and pointed out that one of his sisters was once lost in the jungle for a month but survived.
John Frank Pinchao — a Colombian policeman who in 1998 was kidnapped by Marxist guerrillas and then escaped into the jungle and was rescued after 17 days — also insisted the kids had a fighting chance, as long as they avoided mosquitoes transmitting malaria. But in a radio interview, he also warned: "There are piranhas, tarantulas and all kinds of snakes."
A rescue dog named Wilson helped locate the children — but is missing now
During the third week of the search, President Gustavo Petro announced on Twitter that the kids had been rescued — but quickly admitted that he had received erroneous information and deleted the tweet.
The main challenge in finding them was the fact that the children spent much of their time in the jungle hiding. De Vengoechea, the anthropologist, says they were probably spooked by the sound of the helicopters and were conditioned to avoid strangers in the jungle.
"They might have thought the guerrillas were coming after them," says Garzón, who points out that the troops came across an abandoned rebel encampment near the crash site.
To convince the kids to show themselves, their grandmother recorded a message for Lesly in Huitoto that was broadcast into the jungle. In it, she said: "Lesly, this is your grandmother. I am asking you a favor. You must remain calm and stay put."
In the end, it was a Belgian Shepherd rescue dog named Wilson, from the Colombian Army, who first came across the children.
"The kids, they were telling us they were joined by the dog. And it was a good sign for them because they said: 'Someone is here,'" Garzón says. (Wilson, however, has gone missing and a formal search is underway to find him).
Mientras nuestro Comandante #GeneralGiraldo, visitaba y recibía reporte del avance de salud de los pequeños que se recuperan en el @HOMILCOL, y les entregaba algunos detalles; Lesly y Soleiny le entregaron unos dibujos hechos por ellas para él amigo de Wilson. (1) pic.twitter.com/fsU0ZBb2os— Fuerzas Militares de Colombia (@FuerzasMilCol) June 12, 2023
The children are gradually regaining their strength after a dramatic rescue
Finally, last Friday — the children's 40th day in the jungle — the search party found them about 2 1/2 miles from the crash site. Photos and videos of that moment show them sitting on the jungle floor, looking weak and emaciated, their clothes in tatters. Soldiers quickly wrapped them in space blankets.
"It's not just a miracle to have found them. It's a miracle they were still alive," Gen. Pedro Sánchez, the commander of the search and rescue team, told reporters.
But they were stranded in a patch of rainforest so thick there was no place for the rescue helicopter to land.
Instead, as a chopper hovered overhead, troops rappelled down to the jungle floor and then hoisted the children back up to the aircraft. Once on board, doctors treated them for dehydration and malnutrition.
"A kid from the city might get scared in the jungle. But they didn't get scared," Acosta says. "They knew how to move around. They understood the jungle because of their ancestral knowledge. That allowed them to survive."
Now the kids are being treated at the Central Military Hospital in Bogotá.
Their great-uncle, Fidencio Valencia, says they're still weak but that the color is returning to their faces.
As for Lesly, the heroine who carried her baby sister through the jungle and kept all her siblings alive, she still has a bruise on her forehead from the airplane crash.
Valencia says: "I tell her: 'Don't worry. All this will be over soon, and you will again be very beautiful."
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