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How Children Survived 40 Days in Colombian Jungle

On Friday, in the dead of night at the heart of the Colombian jungle, army radios crackled to life with the message the nation had been praying for: “Miracle, miracle, miracle, miracle.”

The military code revealed that four children missing in the jungle for 40 days had all been found – alive.

The youngsters, all members of the indigenous Huitoto people, had been missing since the light plane they were travelling in crashed into the Amazon in the early hours of 1 May.

The tragedy killed their mother and left the children – aged 13, nine, four and one – stranded alone in an area teeming with snakes, jaguars and mosquitos.

Rescuers initially feared the worst, but footprints, partially eaten wild fruit and other clues soon gave them hope that the children might be alive after they left the crash site looking for help.

Over the next six weeks, the children battled the elements – and the odds – in what Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro called “an example of total survival which will remain in history”.

‘Children of the jungle’

If there were ever children well-prepared to tackle such an ordeal, the Mucutuy family were the ones.

Huitoto people learn hunting, fishing and gathering from an early age, and their grandfather Fidencio Valencia told reporters that the eldest children, Lesly and Soleiny, were well acquainted with the jungle.

Speaking to Colombian media, the children’s aunt, Damarys Mucutuy, said the family would regularly play a “survival game” together growing up.

“When we played, we set up like little camps,” she recalled. Thirteen-year-old Lesly, she added, “knew what fruits she can’t eat, because there are many poisonous fruits in the forest. And she knew how to take care of a baby”.

After the crash, Lesly built makeshift shelters from branches held together with her hair ties.

She also recovered fariña, a type of cassava flour, from the wreckage of the Cessna 206 plane they had been travelling in.

The children survived on the flour until it ran out and then they ate seeds, Edwin Paki, one of the indigenous leaders who took part in the search effort, told reporters.

“There’s a fruit, similar to passion fruit, called avichure,” he said. “They were looking for seeds to eat from an avichure tree about a kilometre and a half from the site of the plane crash.”

The fruit from the avichure tree, also known as milk tree, is rich in sugar and its seeds can be chewed like chewing gum.

Henry Guerrero, one of the indigenous people who was part of the search team that finally located the children, said they had also been eating fruits from the Bacaba palm tree known locally as “milpesos”, which are rich in oil and taste similar to avocados.

He said one of the young children had a seed from the tree in his mouth when they found him.

Astrid Cáceres, head of the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare, said the timing of their ordeal meant “the jungle was in harvest” and they could eat fruit that was in bloom.

But they still faced significant challenges surviving in the inhospitable environment.

Speaking to BBC Mundo on Saturday, indigenous expert Alex Rufino said the children were in “a very dark, very dense jungle, where the largest trees in the region are”.

And while there are leaves with which the children could purify water, he warned that “others are poisonous”.

“It is an area that has not been explored. The towns are small, and they are next to the river, not in the jungle,” he added.

In addition to avoiding predators, the children also endured intense rainstorms and may have had to evade armed groups said to be active in the jungle.

But Mr Rufino noted that a 13-year-old raised in an indigenous community would already possess many of the skills needed to thrive in such an environment.

John Moreno, leader of the Guanano group in Vaupés, in the south-eastern part of Colombia where the children were brought up, said they had been “raised by their grandmother”, a widely respected indigenous elder.

“They used what they learned in the community, relied on their ancestral knowledge in order to survive,” he said.

A dramatic rescue

As the search continued, officials in Bogota came under pressure over its slowness. President Petro faced criticism after his office falsely published a tweet saying the children had been found.

Authorities dropped 10,000 leaflets with survival tips written in Spanish and the indigenous Huitoto language, and helicopters blared messages from their grandmother from speakers to reassure the children they were being looked for.

But unbeknownst to the media, the army was coming increasingly close to finding the family. On several occasions rescue teams passed within 20 to 50 metres (66 to 164ft) of where the children were found, search commander Gen Pedro Sánchez said.

By the time the children were discovered, about 150 troops and 200 volunteers from local indigenous groups were involved in the operation, which was combing an area of more than 300 sq km (124 sq miles).

“This isn’t a search for a needle in a haystack, it’s a tiny flea in a vast carpet, because they keep moving,” Gen Sanchez told reporters during the hunt.

But on Friday, after a month-long search, specialist rescue dogs found the children.

The first words from eldest daughter Lesly, who was holding the baby in her arms, was “I’m hungry,” one of the rescuers told Colombia’s RTVC. One of the boys, who had been lying down, got up and said: “My mum is dead.”

It later emerged that the children’s mother had survived in the jungle for four days after the plane crash. “Before she died, their mum told them something like, ‘You guys get out of here'” said the children’s father, Manuel Ranoque.

A video shared by Colombia’s ministry of defence showed the children being lifted into a helicopter in the dark, above the tall trees. They have been flown to the nation’s capital, Bogota, where ambulances have taken them to hospital for further medical treatment.

The children’s family thanked the army for continuing their search despite the low odds of survival, and they urged the government to bring the children home as soon as possible.

“I never lost hope, I was always supporting the search. I feel very happy, I thank President Petro and my ‘countrymen’ who went through so many difficulties,” their grandmother told state media.

President Petro also hailed the efforts of the army and the volunteers, praising “the meeting of knowledge: indigenous and military”, adding that “this is the true path of peace”.

But he reserved special praise for the children and their relationship with the environment.

“They are children of the jungle, and now they are also children of Colombia,” he said.

While many in deeply Catholic Colombia have referred to the children’s rescue as a “miracle”, Mr Rufino, the indigenous expert, said the real story lay in their “spiritual connection with nature”.

“The jungle is not only green, but there are ancient energies with which the populations relate, learn and help each other,” he said.

“It is difficult to understand this, I know, but this is a good opportunity for society, human beings, to learn about the different worldviews that exist in the territories.

“The same mother, who became a spirit after the accident, protected them,” he said. “And only now is she going to start resting.”

Source : BBC