Colombian children survive on cassava flour and fruit for 40 days after plane crash in jungle

Colombian children survive on cassava flour and fruit for 40 days after plane crash in jungle

Monday 12/06/2023
Colombian soldiers pose for a photo after finding the child survivors of the plane crash in the jungles of Caqueta. (Reuters: Presidency/handout)

Four Indigenous children lost in the Amazon jungle after their plane crashed managed to stay alive by eating flour found in the wreckage and fruit from the rainforest.

The four siblings braved the jungle for 40 days before being found alive last week by Colombian soldiers, bringing a happy ending to a search-and-rescue saga that captivated a nation and forced the usually opposing military and Indigenous people to work together.

Cassava flour and some familiarity with the rainforest's fruits were key to the children's extraordinary survival in an area where snakes, mosquitoes and other animals abound.

They were travelling with their mother from the Amazonian village of Araracuara to San Jose del Guaviare when the plane crashed in the early hours of May 1.

The Cessna single-engine propeller plane was carrying three adults and the four children when the pilot declared an emergency due to an engine failure.

The small aircraft fell off the radar a short time later and a search for survivors began.

"When the plane crashed, they took out [of the wreckage] a fariña, and with that, they survived," the children's uncle, Fidencio Valencia told reporters outside the military hospital in Bogota where the children are receiving treatment.

Fariña is a cassava flour that people eat in the Amazon region.

"After the fariña ran out, they began to eat seeds," Mr Valencia said.

Timing was in the children's favour.

Astrid Cáceres, head of the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare, said the youngsters were also able to eat fruit because "the jungle was in harvest."

Officials praised the courage of eldest of the children, a 13-year-old girl, who they said had some knowledge of how to survive in the rainforest and led the children through the ordeal.

'Children are fine' despite being unable to eat

The members of the Huitoto people, aged 13, 9 and 4 years and 11 months, are expected to remain for a minimum of two weeks at the hospital receiving treatment after their rescue Friday.

Family members, Colombian President Gustavo Petro as well as government and military officials met the children Saturday at the hospital in Bogota, the capital.

Defence Minister Iván Velásquez told reporters the children were being rehydrated and cannot eat food yet.

"But in general, the condition of the children is acceptable," Mr Velásquez said.

Damaris Mucutuy, an aunt of the children, told a radio station that "the children are fine" despite being dehydrated and with insect bites.

She added that the children had been offered mental health services.

Ms Cáceres told reporters officials agreed with the children's relatives to allow for "spiritual work" at the jungle and the hospital " if there was no immediate emergency action" needed.

She said musicians and musical instruments relevant to the children's culture will be allowed in the hospital.

'The jungle saved them'

An air force video released Friday showed a helicopter using lines to pull the youngsters up because it couldn't land in the dense rainforest where they were found.

The military on Friday tweeted pictures showing a group of soldiers and volunteers posing with the children, who were wrapped in thermal blankets.

One of the soldiers held a bottle to the smallest child's lips.

General Pedro Sanchez, who was in charge of the rescue efforts, said the children were found five kilometres away from the crash site in a small forest clearing.

He said rescue teams had passed within 20 to 50 metres of where the children were found on a couple of occasions but had missed them.

"The minors were already very weak," General Sanchez said.

"And surely their strength was only enough to breathe or reach a small fruit to feed themselves or drink a drop of water in the jungle."

Mr Petro called the children an "example of survival" and predicted their saga "will remain in history."

"The jungle saved them," Mr Petro said.

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

Rescue dog that earlier found children still missing

Two weeks after the crash, on May 16, a search team found the plane in a thick patch of the rainforest and recovered the bodies of the three adults on board, but the small children were nowhere to be found.

Sensing that they could be alive, Colombia's army stepped up the hunt and flew 150 soldiers with dogs into the area, where mist and thick foliage greatly limited visibility.

Dozens of volunteers from Indigenous tribes also joined the search.

Soldiers on helicopters dropped boxes of food into the jungle, hoping that it would help sustain the children.

Planes flying over the area fired flares to help search crews on the ground at night, and rescuers used speakers that blasted a message recorded by the siblings' grandmother telling them to stay in one place.

As the search progressed, soldiers found small clues that led them to believe the children were still alive, including a pair of footprints, a baby bottle, diapers and pieces of fruit that looked like they had been bitten by humans.

The children told officials that, while still lost they spent some time with one of the rescue dogs, but it then went missing.

The military was still looking for the dog, a Belgian Shepherd named Wilson, as of Saturday.

President believed children had been rescued earlier

Before their rescue, rumours swirled about their whereabouts.

So much so, that on May 18, Mr Petro tweeted that the children had been found.

He then deleted the message, claiming he had been misinformed by a government agency.

Mr Petro said that for a while he had believed the children were rescued by one of the nomadic tribes that still roam the remote area where the plane fell and have little contact with authorities.

The announcement of their rescue came shortly after Mr Petro signed a cease-fire with representatives of the National Liberation Army rebel group.

In line with his government's messaging highlighting his efforts to end internal conflicts, he stressed the joint work of the military and Indigenous communities to find the children.

"The meeting of knowledge: indigenous and military," he tweeted.

"Here is a different path for Colombia: I believe that this is the true path of peace."

Story By: ABC/wires

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