Indigenous Upbringing and a Mother's Sacrifice: How 4 Kids Survived the Amazon

Four siblings, aged 13, 9, 4, & 11 months, were found alive in the Amazon forest 40 days after their plane crashed.

6 min read

Video Producer: Aparna Singh

Video Editor: Karuna Mishra

Seeds, roots, and plants served as a saving grace for four Colombian siblings – all under the age of 13 – who managed to stay alive for 40 days deep inside the Amazon rainforest before being rescued on Friday, 9 June.

Lesley (13), Solecni (nine), Tien (four), and Neryman (11 months) were travelling with their mother from the Amazonian village of Araracuara to San José del Guaviare in Colombia on 1 May when their plane crashed in the forest due to an engine failure.

Everybody on board the plane was killed on the spot except the kids and their mother, who suffered life-threatening injuries and died days later.

Four siblings, aged 13, 9, 4, & 11 months, were found alive in the Amazon forest 40 days after their plane crashed.

Lesley, Solecni, Tien, and Neryman with rescue officials. 

(Photo: Twitter/@FuerzasMilCol)

Soon after news of the crash came to light, the Colombian government ordered rescue teams to set out in search of the family on board, though hope to find survivors was extremely dim.


How the Kids Survived in the Wilderness

It is said that the love a mother has for her children is unmatched in this world. It was, perhaps, this force that urged Magdalena Mucutuy to ask her children to abandon her in the hope that their chances of being rescued would improve.

"My daughter has told me that their mother was alive for four days," Manuel Ranoque, the father of the children, told the media after his children were rescued.

Because of her serious injuries, Mucutuy would have become immobile.

"Before she died, she said to them: 'Maybe you should go. 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'," Ranoque said.


The eldest of the children, 13-year-old Lesley, knew what was edible in the forest owing to her indigenous upbringing and the knowledge that her mother had passed on to her. Mucutuy was a leader of the Huitoto Indigenous community – which dwell in forests between the Putamayo and Caqueta Rivers in southern Colombia.

It was largely because of Lesley that her siblings, Solecni, Tien, and Neryman, stayed alive.

The "children of the bush," as their grandfather called them, survived by eating seeds, fruits, roots, and plants, Luis Acosta of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (NIOC) told news agency AFP.

They also ate yucca flour, which was aboard the ill-fated aircraft.

"When the plane crashed, they took fariña (flour), and with that, they survived," the children's great-uncle Fidencio Valencia said while addressing the press. "After the fariña ran out, they began to eat seeds."

Four siblings, aged 13, 9, 4, & 11 months, were found alive in the Amazon forest 40 days after their plane crashed.

Colombian officials nursing the rescued children. 

(Photo: Twitter/@FuerzasMilCol)

However, hunger was not their only enemy.

The wild is home to some of the most dangerous animals and poisonous insects and snakes. However, some indigenous leaders say that the children are imbued with a "spiritual force" and that is what helped them live.

"We have a particular connection to nature," Javier Betancourt of the NIOC was quoted as saying by AFP. "The world needs this kind of special relation with nature, to favor those like the indigenous who live in the jungle and take care of it."


A Rescue Op That Brought About Unlikely Alliances

When news of the plane crash came to light, it became increasingly obvious that there had to be a painstaking and wide-ranging operation to locate and rescue the survivors. However, Colombia's forest areas are home to several rebel groups opposed to the government. Hence, no operation which hoped to be successful could be conducted without the support of the rebels.

Hence, a humanitarian quest did what years of political back-and-forth could not. A cease-fire agreement was inked between President Gustavo Petro and the National Liberation Army rebel group.

Shortly after this, Petro announced the collaboration of the military and indigenous groups to locate the children – in a rescue effort fittingly dubbed "Operation Hope."

Several helicopters flew over the forest dropping boxes of food – hoping that the children would be able to find them. Planes flying over the area also fired flares to help rescue teams on the ground at night.

Apart from that, loud messages were blared from loudspeakers by the children's grandmother, asking them to stay in one place.

A rescue team found the doomed plane on 16 May in a thick patch of forest and recovered the bodies of the deceased adults. However, the children were nowhere to be found.

Four siblings, aged 13, 9, 4, & 11 months, were found alive in the Amazon forest 40 days after their plane crashed.

The Colombian Army then stepped up efforts and flew 150 soldiers and rescue dogs into the thick of the jungle, covering an area of more than 323 sq km. Hundreds of volunteers joined in the efforts as well, including the children's father.


'Miracle': The Word an Entire Nation Was Dying To Hear

Several clues related to the children, including small footprints, a baby's bottle, nappies, and pieces of fruit that looked like they had been bitten by humans, sustained the hope for their rescue.

"Miracle, miracle, miracle, miracle," despondent army radios finally blared with fervour on Friday, 9 June. It was the army code for a child found alive. Repeating it four times meant that all four of them had been found alive.

The children were found around 5 km away from the crash site in a small forest clearing, said General Pedro Sánchez, who led the rescue effort.

Although malnourished and covered in insect bites, none of them were in a life-threatening situation. "The minor children were already very weak. They were only strong enough to breathe or reach a small fruit to feed themselves or drink a drop of water in the jungle," General Sanchez said, as per The Guardian.

The children also had rags wrapped around their feet to protect them while they walked through muddy surfaces.

It is said that a rescue dog named Wilson played a massive role in the recovery of the siblings. After being rescued, the children told officials that they had spent time with a dog in the forest, a Belgian Shepherd, who later went missing. The dog is believed to be Wilson.

The rescue team followed the tracks left behind by the dog and that is what led them to the children.

However, Wilson is yet to be found.

Meanwhile, the military tweeted pictures of soldiers with the children, who were wrapped in thermal blankets and fed. The 11-month-old infant, who turned one year old in the forest, was also seen being fed by a soldier with a milk bottle in one of the pictures.

Four siblings, aged 13, 9, 4, & 11 months, were found alive in the Amazon forest 40 days after their plane crashed.

'I'm Hungry' & 'My Mom Is Dead': The First Words the Kids Said After Being Rescued

Rescue officials, in a televised interview, described their first interaction with the children after they were rescued. They said that the first heart-wrenching words that the children told them were "I'm hungry" and "My mom is dead."

"The eldest daughter, Lesly, with the little one in her arms, ran towards me. Lesly said: 'I'm hungry,'" Rescue official Nicolas Ordonez Gomes told public broadcast channel RTVC.

"One of the two boys was lying down. He got up and said to me: 'My mom is dead,'" he added.

Gomes said that they tried to pacify the children with positive words, saying that they were friends sent by their family.

Meanwhile, Colombian President Gustavo Petro said that the survival of the children was a testament to the human spirit. "They've given us an example of total survival that will go down in history," he said, adding that it was a "joy for the whole country."

Petro also visited the children in a hospital in Bogota, where they were airlifted and will receive medical treatment for at least two weeks.

Four siblings, aged 13, 9, 4, & 11 months, were found alive in the Amazon forest 40 days after their plane crashed.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro meeting the rescued children in the hospital. 

(Photo Twitter/Gustavo Petro)

Four siblings, aged 13, 9, 4, & 11 months, were found alive in the Amazon forest 40 days after their plane crashed.

Expressing gratitude to all the people who contributed in the rescue efforts, the children's grandfather Narcizo Mucutuy told Caracol TV:

"I thank the president for his help and the Indigenous people who collaborated in the search for our children. I don’t know how to thank them, because the word 'thank you' is not enough."

President Petro, meanwhile, said that the siblings were now the children of the entire country.

"The jungle saved them. They are children of the jungle, and now they are also children of Colombia."
President Gustavo Presto

(With inputs from AP, AFP, and The Guardian.)

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Topics:  Colombia   Amazon Forest 

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