After their plane crashed and the three adults on board died, the siblings survived on their own until rescued.
“Miracle, miracle, miracle, miracle!” These were the words transmitted from the Amazon jungle in Colombia that echoed around the world on May 9, 2023.
“Miracle” was the code word agreed upon by the search parties, signaling that four Huitoto indigenous children — who had gone missing after surviving a plane crash in which their mother, pilot, and copilot died — had been found alive.
Lesly, 13, Soleiny, 9, Tien Noriel, 4, and Cristin Neriman, 1, survived alone for 40 days in an impenetrable, unexplored jungle, where trees block the sunlight, and it rains almost daily. It is home to the anaconda and the jaguar, as well as dozens of poisonous plants. The children had no food. What they did have — especially the eldest girl — was knowledge of the jungle itself, inherited from their ancestors. That they were found alive is a true miracle.
“I am very grateful to Mother Earth for releasing them. To my family, to all those people who told me, ‘Fatima, we’re praying.’ I also told them, ‘Let’s not let our guard down.’ And we did not. God is very great.” These are words of Fatima Valencia, the children’s maternal grandmother, after receiving the news that she had been confidently awaiting.
Despite the pain of losing their daughter, Fatima and Nicanor Mucutuy held on to the hope of finding their four grandchildren alive, as did the rest of their family and the whole country of Colombia. Along with being dehydrated and malnourished, the children were covered with insect bites, and were suffering from psychological trauma when they returned. However, the family is confident that the medical care being provided by the government will allow them to recover soon.
Fleeing from war
The four minors were traveling with their mother,Magdalena Mucutuy, from Araracuara, a town in the extreme south of the country that can only be reached by air or river. They were forced to flee the area because of threats made by dissident guerrilla groups who did not join the national peace process. So, the family boarded a small aircraft on May 1, intending to fly to San José del Guaviare.
Fleeing the dangers of an endless war, they suddenly faced another mortal danger: a technical failure in the single-engine plane that was carrying them. The plane crashed, and the three adults on board — the pilot, the co-pilot, and the children’s mother — died either in the crash or not long after. Recently, the father of the younger children informed the Colombian press that his wife Magdalena had survived for four days, during which her children stayed with her. Then she told them to go on, surely knowing that she had no chance of survival.
It was not until mid-May that the missing plane was finally located. Inside were the bodies of the three adults. There was no trace of the children, so the armed forces launched “Operation Hope.” Around 70 members from local indigenous organizations joined the endeavor.
The military possessed the technical expertise, rugged equipment, and high-tech tools. The indigenous people had ancestral knowledge, deep spirituality, and a profound knowledge of the Amazon jungle. Cooperation and respect for the special knowledge that each group possessed were key to their success.
The group searched night and day in the jungles of the Yari, in a region more than 460 square miles across. They dropped survival kits and lights from the air. They also played a recording in which the children’s grandmother encouraged them and gave instructions that would make it easier for the rescue team to find them.
The searchers were encouraged by the footprints and other clues that they found. A bottle, a baby diaper, some half-eaten fruit, some scissors, and rustic tents all indicated that the children were still alive.
The children were finally found in a place that the rescue teams had already searched several times. “It’s a mystery. It surprises us all. It’s an area that we had passed through, and there are no caves, no thick jungle, nothing that we hadn’t already taken note of,” a soldier told Semana magazine.
“A true miracle of life”
“Faith put us on the path we asked for. Here are the four children, in our hands, alive. Thanks be to God. God has blessed us.” Those were the words of one indigenous person who appears in the first images taken after the children were found.
For his part, General Pedro Sanchez, who led more than 300 uniformed personnel in the search, was happy, although there had been times when he felt uncertain and helpless.
“Faith moves mountains. You can achieve when you believe,” he said. “I felt peace in my soul for having done the right thing, for not having given up despite the adversity and the impotence we felt,” he told the Colombian media.
The Archbishop of Bogota, Luis José Rueda, also rejoiced: “It’s a moment to think about life, to thank the God of mercy who fills the Earth, along with all the people who made the search and rescue possible … who in one way or another collaborated with their prayers, with effective work so that the children could be found. It is a true miracle of life, and we thank the Lord.”
A sign to defend life
The archbishop added thatthe rescue “is a sign for all of Colombia, for us to fight, to defend life in all its stages, from the mother’s womb to natural death.”
The indigenous people stressed that the children were always cared for by the jungle itself, and that they had managed to survive because their parents had taught them to hunt and gather fruits. For this reason, they already knew what was good and what was bad for them in the jungle.
In any case, the four siblings were always protected by God in spite of the difficult circumstances of the crash and the loss of their mother in an inhospitable and dangerous jungle. The fact that they are alive today is a miracle.