Gustavo Petro
"They are children of the jungle, and now they are also children of Colombia," President Gustavo Petro said. Photo by: AFP/Daniel Munoz

In the depths of the Colombian jungle, on a fateful Friday night, a burst of life echoed through army radios, bringing forth a message that had been fervently prayed for: "Miracle, miracle, miracle, miracle."

The coded military transmission revealed the long-awaited news: all four missing children had been discovered alive after enduring a grueling 40-day ordeal.

These youngsters, belonging to the indigenous Huitoto community, had vanished when their light aircraft crashed into the Amazon in the early hours of May 1.

Tragically, their mother lost her life in the accident, leaving the children—aged 13, nine, four, and one—stranded amidst a treacherous landscape teeming with snakes, jaguars, and mosquitoes.

Initially, rescuers held bleak expectations, but glimmers of hope emerged as they stumbled upon footprints, partially consumed wild fruit, and other signs indicating that the children had ventured away from the crash site in search of help.

Over the following six weeks, these resilient children defied the elements and defied the odds. Their journey, was hailed by Colombian President Gustavo Petro as "an example of total survival which will remain in history."

'Children of the Jungle'

The Mucutuy family proved to be remarkably equipped to face the harrowing challenge that awaited them.

As members of the Huitoto community, they had been ingrained with vital skills such as hunting, fishing, and gathering from a young age.

The children's grandfather, Fidencio Valencia, shared with reporters that Lesly and Soleiny, the eldest siblings, were intimately familiar with the ways of the jungle.

In an interview with Colombian media, the children's aunt, Damarys Mucutuy, revealed that the family had often engaged in a "survival game" as part of their upbringing, honing their abilities to navigate and thrive in challenging circumstances.

"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."

Lesly used hair ties to hold branches together as she constructed temporary shelters after the crash.

The wreckage of the Cessna 206 aircraft they were traveling in contained a sort of flour that she had found, called Fariña.

According to Edwin Paki, one of the indigenous chiefs involved in the search operation, the children subsisted on the flour until it ran out and then they ate seeds.

"There's a fruit, similar to passionfruit, called avichure," he said. "They were looking for seeds to eat from an avichure tree about a kilometer and a half from the site of the plane crash."

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.

They still faced many 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.

Not only did the children have to navigate the dangers posed by predators, but they also faced the relentless onslaught of torrential rainstorms and the potential threat of armed groups known to operate in the jungle.

In a particularly harrowing incident, President Petro revealed that the children had to muster their courage and fend off a wild dog, showcasing their extraordinary resilience and resourcefulness in the face of adversity.

"They used what they learned in the community, relied on their ancestral knowledge in order to survive," John Moreno, leader of the Guanano group in Vaupes said.

He said the children were raised, said they had been "raised by their grandmother", a widely respected indigenous elder, BBC reported.

A dramatic rescue

As the search efforts persisted, authorities in Bogota faced mounting pressure due to the perceived sluggishness of their response. President Petro himself drew criticism when his office mistakenly published a tweet claiming that the children had been located.

In an attempt to reach the missing children, authorities distributed 10,000 leaflets containing survival tips in Spanish and the indigenous Huitoto language. Helicopters also amplified messages from the children's grandmother through speakers, aiming to reassure them that they were being actively sought.

Unbeknownst to the media, the army was steadily closing in on the location of the family. Rescue teams, led by Commander General Pedro Sánchez, divulged that they had passed within a mere 20 to 50 meters (66 to 164 feet) of the spot where the children were ultimately discovered on multiple occasions.

At the moment the children were finally found, the operation to locate them had grown in scale and intensity.

Approximately 150 troops and 200 volunteers from local indigenous groups had joined forces, meticulously combing an expansive area spanning over 300 square kilometers (124 square 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.

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.

Colombia's Ministry of Defense shared a poignant video capturing the moment when the children, against the backdrop of towering trees, were gently hoisted into a helicopter under the cover of darkness.

Safely airborne, they were transported to the nation's capital, Bogota, where waiting ambulances swiftly conveyed them to the hospital for necessary medical care.

Expressing profound gratitude, the children's family conveyed heartfelt appreciation to the army for persisting in their search against all odds. They fervently appealed to the government, urging swift action to reunite the children with their loved ones at the earliest opportunity.

"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".

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

While many in the deeply catholic Colombia have referred to the children's rescue as a "miracle", 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."

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