How Indigenous kids survived 40 days in Colombia’s jungle after a plane crash

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — The successful rescue of four Indigenous children, including a baby, who were lost in the Amazon jungle for 40 days last week, was attributed to a combination of modern technology and the knowledge of the Indigenous people 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.

Finally, the special Colombian forces, led by the eldest girl named Lesly, found Indigenous guides who teamed up with them in the rainforest to find shelter, water, and food.

Lt. Col. Óscar Garzón, a Colombian Army officer who provided guidance to the rescue team, informs NPR, “That’s what sustained our motivation, and we firmly believed that they were still breathing.”

The husband of their mother is the father of two of the children. Lesly, Soleiny, Tien, and Cristin, who are members of the Huitoto Indigenous group, were traveling from San José del Guaviare to the southern town of Araracuara with their mother on a single-engine Cessna.

He told reporters that after fleeing the area, he feared that his children would be recruited by a group of guerrillas.

The search team promised to stay until they had located the kids.

Magdalena Mucutuy, aged 33, the mother of the children, was found dead along with three other adults on the plane. It took the army’s aircraft reconnaissance team two weeks to locate the crash site, as the constant downpours and cloudy conditions in the rainy season made it difficult to find. The Cessna, which encountered engine trouble, went missing on May 1st.

The consequences of the accident might have aided their survival, as evidenced by the fact that the kids were nowhere to be found. They had occupied seats in the back of the plane, which was a glimmer of hope.

Garzón states, “We had no intention of departing from that location unless we located them.” The goal was to locate those children, after the discovery of the airplane debris and the absence of any indication of the children.

Alfredo Acosta, one of the dozens of Indigenous volunteers who worked together with Colombian troops, states that the crash site, where water and food could also attract dangerous animals, is likely abandoned and children should stay away from the dead bodies.

The kids possessed crucial information and abilities to endure in the wilderness.

According to Consuelo de Vengoechea, a Colombian anthropologist and linguist who has extensively researched the Huitoto culture and language for the past three decades, including a period of living with the family of the children near Araracuara and developing a strong bond with their late mother, the children were adept at gathering food from the jungle due to their upbringing.

“This was the family that welcomed me into their home” for conducting research, de Vengoechea explains.

Youngsters were present as they sang and participated in Indigenous ceremonies, celebrating the abundant resources of the jungle, gathering edible fruit, and frequently ascending trees.

De Vengoechea states, “From a very early age, children are instructed on how to care for themselves.” “Their parents and grandparents are constantly teaching them about what they can consume and the reasons behind it.”

While lost in the jungle, the children also stumbled upon a crate of provisions air-dropped by the military. They devoured a tropical fruit called juan soco, resembling passionfruit, and also ingested milpesos palm tree seeds, which resemble miniature coconuts and are rich in oil and vitamins. Her relatives informed her about this.

Lesly Vengoechea says that she used a leaf to drip the mixture into the baby’s mouth, keeping the baby alive by feeding her dissolved flour in water. The kids found an 11-pound bag of yuca flour dissolved in water.

During their time in the jungle, Cristin celebrated her first birthday, while Tien, her elder sibling, celebrated his fifth birthday.

They always wore wet clothes in the constant rain. This was key because the temperature dropped rapidly after sundown, even in the tropical rainforest. The kids stayed warm and slept on top of a pile of banana leaves, under a plastic tarp and a mosquito net.

Native guides depended on ancestral wisdom during the search.

The Colombian military deployed 110 special forces personnel on the ground in the thick jungle, but progress was slow. They used other technologies such as satellite imagery, infrared sensors, and reconnaissance flights to search for the children.

The forces received a significant boost from the Native guides — but even they found the environment challenging, according to Acosta.

Acosta states, “It’s very easy to get lost. You can see huge trees in every direction you look. It was a pristine jungle.”

The precipitation never appeared to cease. They were incessantly assaulted by mosquitoes, flies and ants, and occasionally depleted their food supply. They encountered deer, tapirs, oncillas — resembling diminutive tigers — and venomous serpents.

“We were soaked throughout the entire duration,” he remarks.

Some Indigenous guides relied more on modern technology than tradition. Every day, they held ceremonies to ask permission from the spirits before entering the jungle. In the hopes of receiving hallucinogenic visions that would guide them in the correct direction, they consumed a psychedelic brew made from jungle plants called ayahuasca.

Garzón states, “The most valuable inclusion to the search team was comprehending this ethereal aspect, they excel at it.” “In the wilderness, that is what bridges the divide between what you are able to perceive and what you are unable to perceive.”

As the search continued, the destiny of the children became a nationwide fixation in Colombia.

Manuel, the father of the youngest two children, Ranoque insisted that all four of his sisters were still alive, despite one of them getting lost in the jungle for a month.

John Frank Pinchao, a Colombian police officer who was abducted by Marxist guerrillas in 1998, managed to escape into the jungle and was eventually rescued after 17 days. He emphasized that the children had a reasonable chance of survival as long as they could prevent mosquito bites, which transmit malaria. However, during a radio interview, he also cautioned about the presence of dangerous creatures such as piranhas, tarantulas, and various types of snakes.

A dog in need of rescue named Wilson aided in finding the children — but is currently absent

During the third week of the search, President Gustavo Petro announced on Twitter that the kids had been rescued, admitting quickly that the tweet was deleted and the information received was erroneous.

The kids, who were the main difficulty in locating, spent a great deal of their time concealed in the jungle. De Vengoechea, the anthropologist, suggests that they were likely frightened by the noise of the helicopters and trained to steer clear of unfamiliar individuals in the forest.

According to Garzón, who highlights that the soldiers discovered a deserted rebel camp close to the location of the accident, “It’s possible they believed the insurgents were pursuing them.”

A message was transmitted into the jungle addressed to Lesly in Huitoto, which was recorded by their grandmother with the intention of persuading the children to reveal themselves. Within the message, she stated: “Lesly, I am your grandmother. I am making a request of you. It is essential that you remain composed and stay in your current location.”

In the end, it was a Belgian Shepherd rescue dog named Wilson, from the Colombian Army, who first came across the children.

According to Garzón, “There is someone present,” as they mentioned it was a positive indication for them. They accompanied the dog while informing us about the children. An official investigation is currently in progress to locate him, but Wilson has disappeared.

The kids are slowly recovering their energy following a remarkable rescue

Soldiers, weak and emaciated, sat on the jungle floor, wrapped in tattered clothes and blankets. Videos and photos from the site crash, located about 1/2 a mile from the search party, captured the moment of them sitting there.

Reporters informed Gen. Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the search and recovery squad, “It’s truly remarkable that they were still breathing. It’s not merely an extraordinary event to have located them.”

Nevertheless, they found themselves stranded in a portion of rainforest so thick that there was no space for the rescue helicopter to land.

Doctors addressed dehydration and malnutrition upon boarding. The children were lifted back up to the aircraft, while troops descended to the jungle floor as a helicopter hovered above instead.

They didn’t get scared. A kid from the city might get scared in the jungle. “They understood the jungle because of their ancestral knowledge, which allowed them to survive. They knew how to move around,” Acosta says.

Currently, the children are receiving medical care at the Central Military Hospital in Bogotá.

Their great-uncle, Fidencio Valencia, mentions that they are still feeble but the color is gradually coming back to their faces.

Lesly still bears a mark on her forehead from the airplane accident, as she bravely guided her infant sibling through the dense forest, ensuring the survival of all her brothers and sisters.

Valencia declares, “I assure her: ‘Do not worry. This will all conclude soon, and you will once more recover your attractiveness.”