Children Survived on Fruit, Nuts, and Wits After Crash in Amazon Jungle

From a Wall Street Journal story by Juan Forero headlined “Colombian Children Survived on Fruit, Nuts, and Wits After Crash in Amazon Jungle”:

The four small children who survived 40 days in the Colombian jungle after the plane they were traveling in crashed made it on a small supply of food scavenged from the luggage as well as nuts and wild fruit found on the forest floor, relatives and the country’s army said.

The father of the two youngest children, Manuel Ranoque, said the eldest of the four children—13-year-old Lesly Jacobombaire—knew about food in the wild, like the fruit milpe and various seeds, and that helped her maintain strength and provide sustenance to her siblings.

In addition, the children had 3 pounds of yuca meal that had been carried on the plane, Narciso Mucutuy, the grandfather of the children, said Monday in a video provided by Colombia’s Ministry of Defense.

Days after the search for the children by the army and indigenous volunteers ended with success, family members of the children and the soldiers and officers involved in the search recounted how they were finally found in the rainforest and how they survived.

A major factor was that the children grew up in a tradition-bound indigenous village, said Ranoque. He and other relatives spoke of how their long-dead ancestors and the spirits of the forest itself had helped ensure the children’s safety.

“They survived with the power of the grandpas, a spiritual sustenance,” Ranoque said in an interview. “We are sons of nature, so we respect nature, because she gives oxygen and nutrients, and in her safety, we can rest.”

Ranoque said in an interview Monday he had earlier fled to the capital, Bogotá, from his family’s home in the southern state of Amazonas after being threatened by a cocaine-trafficking armed group. He said his wife and children were taking a flight to the small city of San Jose del Guaviare to eventually join him in Bogotá.

That the children survived the crash, which took place May 1 in a swath of virgin jungle in southern Colombia, has stunned people here. The country has been transfixed for weeks by the search.

When Colombian army commandos arrived at the plane two weeks after the crash—soon after indigenous trackers had found it—the scene was one of near-total destruction, soldiers who were there said.

The Cessna 206 had plowed through trees like a missile and slammed into the jungle’s soft earth. The aircraft’s single engine had been sheared off and was 30 feet away. And in the front of the aircraft were the lifeless bodies of the pilot, an indigenous leader and a young woman, Magdalena Mucutuy, mother of the children.

But as the soldiers inspected the crash scene, Capt. Ender Montiel said he noticed something hopeful.

“The tail of the plane was intact,” he said.

He said the rear 12 feet or so of the fuselage looked almost pristine—the half of the aircraft where three small children and a baby had been riding, according to a passenger’s manifest. And they were nowhere to be seen.

“We immediately said, ‘They’re alive. They’re alive, those kids,’” said Col. Gustavo Narvaez.

And that is how Operation Hope began, a broad search with 11 planes and helicopters, 113 commandos and 92 indigenous trackers that on Friday led to the rescue of the children. Malnourished and dehydrated after nearly six weeks in the jungle, the siblings—13-year-old Lesly; Soleiny Jacobombaire, a 9-year-old girl; Tien Ranoque, a 5-year-old boy; and Cristin Ranoque, a girl who turned 1 last month—were lifted out by helicopter and admitted to Bogotá’s Central Military Hospital.

Surrounded by relatives, the children are recovering, doctors said.

Nearly a month after the search for them began, family members of the children and the soldiers and officers involved in the search recounted in interviews how the children were found and how they survived.

The children not only are very young but also found themselves lost in an inhospitable environment, a swath of virgin jungle replete with poisonous vipers, jaguars, spiders and, in the not-so-distant past, some of Latin America’s most fearsome Marxist guerrillas.

But Ranoque said that though Lesly is only 13, in traditional indigenous villages she is already in some ways an adult—responsible for helping with cultivating a plot of land and looking after her siblings.

“In an indigenous community, the child who is a bit older, the parents always leave the small ones in their care,” he said. “The girl took responsibility, after seeing that her mother died and that there was no one else who could help. There was no other adult.”

The soldiers who had arrived at the plane and later were involved in the search said that the children collected a blanket, a flashlight, some snacks, some netting and part of a tarp. After waiting at the plane—possibly for as long as four days, the military said—the children decided to move.

Sgt. Luber Espinosa said that indigenous trackers who teamed up with the commandos said that children would likely move every day in the direction of the sun: west. The trackers had learned this is the direction the children had always been taught to walk if lost in the jungle.

As troops in 13 different teams crisscrossed the region—using imaginary quadrants that they would scour, often going over paths they’d taken—they found what they called signs of life: a baby bottle, a half-eaten wild passion fruit, a shoe and the footprints of a small boy.

From the skies, the military tossed out ready-to-eat meals from aircraft, in the hope that the children would find them, along with kits that include whistles, lighters, water, crackers and flour meal. Narvaez said at least one of those meals was consumed. Thousands of pamphlets were also thrown from aircraft, reading, “Stay near a creek, make noise, make smoke. We will save you. We are close.”

The military also had the help of the children’s grandmother, María Fátima Valencia, who recorded a message for Lesly. Military helicopters then played the message over loudspeakers in both Spanish and the language used by the Uitoto: “Lesly, I’m your Grandmother Fátima. I ask you a favor: You need to keep still because they are looking for you, the army.”

Espinosa, the sergeant, said that though soldiers covered lots of ground—well over 2,000 kilometers, or 1,240 miles, the military estimated, taking into account what each soldier walked—they feared they were bypassing the children because the jungle was so thick. “It was so dense, with 40-meter-high trees, and you couldn’t see more than 20, 30 meters in front of you,” said Espinosa (a meter is 3.3 feet). “You could easily lose yourself. The jungle is immense.”

The forest was full of surprises. The soldiers of one search party at one point were dismayed to detect an awful smell, like death, said Montiel, the captain. It turned out to be a certain species of mushroom.

Ranoque said that to help in the search he called a shaman from the forest on a satellite phone. He handed the phone to Montiel. “She said, ‘Captain, the children are alive. I see a camp,’” Montiel recounted. She directed the search party to head west by nearly 2 miles from where they had found the baby bottle. “She said, ‘You are going to come close, very close, to them, and you won’t see them,’” the captain said.

It was late afternoon Friday when a group of indigenous trackers working with a unit of commandos called Tap 1 were crisscrossing a quadrant of jungle delineated during their search. The older girl had left a makeshift refuge in the vegetation and was foraging for food. Hearing the swish and slice of machetes as the search party made their way through the thick jungle, she cried out in excitement. Her siblings, exhausted and hardly moving, were found just yards away.

Speak Your Mind