You have probably heard on the News that 4 Indigenous Colombian children survived 40 days in the Amazon jungle after their plane crashed in the Colombian Rainforest. Here is the story of how they survived and how they were rescued
A hero dog, a drug-fuelled hunt, and how four children survived 40 days in the jungle
Ed Cumming and Matthew Charles tell the story of the perilous search for the siblings lost in the Colombian rainforest
Wilson, the sniffer dog, finally picked up the scent on the night of June 9. The team of four indigenous rescuers were exhausted. Along with a team of crack Colombian commandos, they had been combing the jungle for six weeks. They had used every trick in the book, even taking ayahuasca as part of the ritual. But their quarry eluded them still. This is one of the most hostile environments on Earth, a land of snakes, jaguars, mosquitos, sweltering heat and 100 per cent humidity.
But the six-year old Belgian shepherd led his handlers on, through thick Amazonian rainforest, deep in impenetrable and rain-soaked undergrowth. At last, the group came to a small clearing in the jungle. There they found who they were looking for: four children from the Huitoto indigenous group: Lesly, 13, Soleiny, 9, Tien, 4, and Cristin, 1. The plane the children had been travelling in, on a flight from Araracuara Airport to San José del Guaviare, had crashed in the jungle in Caqueta province on May 1, an unthinkable 40 days earlier. And yet although the four were dehydrated, malnourished and suffering from insect bites, all four were very much alive. It was, as the rescuers shouted into their short-wave radios to transmit the news, “Miracle! Miracle! Miracle!”
The good news brought the country to a halt. Nobody had expected the children to be alive.
The four had been with their mother, a family friend, and the pilot in a Cessna 206 light aircraft. They were flying to meet Manuel Ranoque, the father of two of the children, an indigenous mayor in the remote Amazonas region in southern Colombia. He had decided to move his family away from their home on an indigenous reserve, near a town called Araracuara, after receiving threats from local guerilla groups, who were recruiting children under the threat of violence.
For decades, Colombia has been riven by violence relating to the drugs trade. Farc (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the most prominent of these groups, agreed to lay down its arms in 2016, but the areas where they were most active, particularly more faraway parts of the country, remain lawless. Locals near Araracuara have been targeted by a group called the Carolina Ramirez Front, led by former Farc members.
“I was very scared the children would be recruited,” Ranoque told the New York Times earlier this week, adding that the groups “have no respect – they are capable of recruiting a child as young as two”.
What Ranoque could not have anticipated was the alternative. Early on May 1, an hour or so after they had taken off, the single engine of the Cessna failed, and the plane crashed into the undergrowth.
The family friend and the pilot are believed to have been killed instantly. The children’s mother, Magdalena Mucutuy, 33, was badly injured but it seems – although reports vary – that she was, initially, still alive. Speaking outside the hospital earlier this week, Ranoque said Lesly, his eldest daughter, had told him that her mother had urged her children to leave her behind so that they might live.
“[Lesly’s] mother was alive for four days,” he said. “Before she died, she told them something like, ‘You guys get out of here. You guys are going to see the kind of man your dad is, and he’s going to show you the same kind of great love that I have shown you’.”
There was already a suggestion that resilience ran in the family: Ranoque said his sister had once survived for a month in the jungle. His children would need that same resilience now.
At 7.34 am local time, the pilot made a distress call reporting engine failure, and radio contact was lost shortly after. The Colombian Air Force sent out craft to search the area – a Basler BT-67 and Bell Huey helicopter. This precipitated a manhunt, initially involving 70 members of the army. A search team found the plane on May 16 in a thick patch of the rainforest and recovered the bodies of the three adults but the children were nowhere to be found.
As General Pedro Sanchez, commander of Operation Hope said, “the jungle is arduous. Trees can grow 100 feet or taller, blocking light and making it hard to see. Visibility is never more than 20 metres, so it was really hard. It is so easy to get lost and lose a trail.”
To assist in the search, President Gustavo Petro appealed to indigenous communities. Members of the Siona, Nasa, Huitoto, Sikuani, Misak, Murui and Koreguaje peoples were flown down to help.
“Some did not eat animals for 40 days as an offering to the forest,” Flavio Yepes, a member of the Sikuani community, told The Guardian. “Not even a snake until the kids appeared.”
A breakthrough reportedly came on June 8, after a ceremony in which some of the Murui took yagé, a psychoactive drug.
“Some people become anacondas during these ceremonies, some tigers, others large birds,” Yepes said. “I don’t know what animals the Murui transformed into that night but it is what brought them to circle back towards the crash site, where they found the kids.”