FILE In this photo released by the Colombian Armed Forces Press Office, a soldier stands in front of the wreckage of a Cessna C206 on May 18, 2023, which crashed in the jungle of Solano, in the state of Caqueta in Colombia. The bodies of three adults were recovered from inside the aircraft. Forty days after the crash, four children on the flight were found alive. (Colombian Armed Forces Press Office via AP, file)
BOGOTA, Colombia The weary indigenous men have gathered at their base camp, nestled among towering trees and dense vegetation that forms a disorienting sea of green. They felt that their ancestral land Selva Madre, or Mother Jungle, was unwilling to let them find the four children who had been missing since their charter plane crashed weeks earlier in a remote area in southern Colombia.
Indigenous volunteers and military crews had found signs of hope: a baby bottle, half-eaten fruit, dirty diapers scattered across a wide swath of rainforest. The men were convinced that the children had survived. But punishing rains, harsh terrain, and the passage of time had weakened their spirits and drained their endurance.
The weak in body, mind and faith do not leave this jungle. Day 39 was do or die for the kids and search teams.
That night in the camp, Manuel Ranoque, father of two youngest children, reached for one of the most sacred rituals of Amazonian indigenous groups yag, a bitter tea made from plants native to the rainforest, more widely known as ayahuasca. For centuries, the hallucinogenic cocktail has been used as a cure for all ailments by people in Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Brazil.
Henry Guerrero, a volunteer who joined the search from the children’s home village near Araracuara, told the Associated Press that his aunt made yag for the group. They believed she would induce visions that could lead them to children.
I told them: There is nothing to do here. We will not find them with the naked eye. A last resort is to take yag, Guerrero, 56, said. The journey truly takes place in very special moments. It is something very spiritual.
Ranoque sipped and the men stood watch for a few hours. When the psychoactive effects wore off, he told them it hadn’t worked.
Some researchers were ready to go. But the next morning, 40 days after the accident, an elderly man took what was left of the yag and drank it. Some people take it to connect with themselves, heal illnesses, or heal a broken heart. Elder Jos Rubio was convinced he would eventually help find the children, Guerrero said.
Rubio has been dreaming for some time. He threw up, a common side effect.
This time, he said, it had worked. In his visions of him, she saw them. He said to Guerrero: We will find the children today.
The four children Lesly, Soleiny, Tien and Cristin grew up around Araracuara, a small Amazonian village in the department of Caquet, reachable only by boat or small plane. Ranoque said the brothers had a happy but independent life because he and his wife, Magdalena Mucutuy, were often away from home.
Lesly, 13, was the mature and quiet one. Soleiny, 9, was playful and Tien, almost 5 years before the accident, restless. Cristin, 11 months then, was learning to walk.
At home, Mucutuy grew onions and cassava, and used the latter to produce faria, a type of flour, which the family could eat and sell. Lesly learned to cook at age 8; in the absence of the adults, she often cared for her siblings.
On the morning of May 1, the children, their mother and an uncle boarded a light plane. They were headed for the city of San José del Guaviare. A few weeks earlier, Ranoque had fled his home village, an area where illegal drug cultivation, mining and logging have thrived for decades. He told the AP that he feared pressure from people connected to his industry, though he declined to give details about the nature of his job or his business.
Work there is not safe, Ranoque said. And it’s illegal. It has to do with other people in an industry that I can’t name because I put myself at more risk.
He said he left 9 million Colombian pesos, about US$2,695, in Mucutuy before leaving to pay for food, other necessities and the charter flight. He wanted the children out of the village because he feared they might be recruited by one of the rebel groups in the area.
They were on their way to meet Ranoque when the pilot of the single-engine propeller-driven Cessna aircraft declared an emergency due to engine failure. The aircraft fell off radar shortly after.
Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. The engine gave me out again. I will look for a river. I have a river here on my right, pilot Hernando Murcia told air traffic control at 7:43, according to a preliminary report released by aviation authorities.
103 miles from San José I’m about to land.
The Colombian military launched a search for the plane when it failed to arrive at its destination. About 10 days later, finding no planes and no signs of life, indigenous volunteers joined the effort. They knew the terrain and the families in the area much better. A man told them the plane made a strange noise when it flew over his house. This helped them outline a search plan that followed the Apaporis River.
As they walked the unforgiving terrain and paused in groups, ants crawled over them and mosquitoes feasted on their blood. One researcher nearly lost an eye to a tree branch, and others developed flu-like and allergy symptoms.
They kept looking.
Historically, military and indigenous groups have bickered, but deep in the jungle, after food supplies and optimism dwindled, they shared water, meals, GPS and satellite phones.
Sixteen days after the crash, with morale low among all search parties, searchers found the wreck. The plane appeared to have gone down in a dive, it was found upright, nose down.
The group assumed the worst. The men had found the wreck and seen human remains. Guerrero said he and others have begun packing up their camp.
But one of the men who had approached the plane spoke up.
Hey, he said, according to Guerrero. I have not seen the children. The man slowly realized that when they found the wreck, they hadn’t seen any children’s bodies. He had approached the plane and seen the children’s bags outside. He noticed that some things appeared to have been moved by someone after the accident.
He was right. The bodies of three adults were recovered from inside the aircraft. But there was no sign of the children, nor any indication that they were seriously injured, according to the preliminary report.
The Army’s Special Operations Forces have changed their strategy, based on evidence that the children may be alive. They no longer moved silently through the jungle.
We’ve moved on to a second phase, 1st Vice Sgt. Juan Carlos Rojas Sisa said. We went from the invisible part to the loud part so they could hear us.
They shouted Lesly’s name and played a recorded message from the children’s maternal grandmother asking them in Spanish and the language of the Huitoto people to stay put. Helicopters dropped boxes of food and leaflets with messages. The military also brought in her trained dogs, including a Belgian Shepherd named Wilson who didn’t return to his handler and disappeared.
In the field, nearly 120 army personnel and more than 70 indigenous people were searching for the children day and night. They left whistles for the kids to use if they found them and marked about 6.8 miles (11 kilometers) with crime scene-like tape, hoping the kids would take the markings as a cue to stay put.
They began finding clues to the whereabouts of the children, including a footprint they believed was Lesly’s. But no one could find the children.
Some researchers had already traveled more than 930 miles (1,500 kilometers) between Lisbon and Paris, or Dallas and Chicago. Exhaustion was starting, and the Army implemented a plan to rotate soldiers.
Guerrero called and asked for the yag. He arrived two days later.
On Day 40, after Elder Rubio took the yag, the researchers combed the rainforest again, starting from where they found the diapers. Seeing him had revived hopes but gave no details as to where the children might be. The groups fanned out in different directions. But as the day wore on, they returned to base camp with no news.
Sadness in the field. Guerrero told Ranoque when the teams returned: nothing. We could not there is nothing.
Then came the news. A soldier heard by radio that the four children had been found 5 kilometers (3 mi) from the crash site, in a small clearing. Rescue teams had passed from 20 to 50 meters (66 to 164 ft) on several occasions but missed.
The soldier told Guerrero that he ran to Ranoque. They found the four, he said, between tears and hugs.
A helicopter took the children out of the dense forest. They were first taken to San José del Guaviare and then to the capital, Bogota, each with a team of health workers. They were covered in foil blankets and attached to IV lines due to dehydration. The hands and feet showed scratches and insect bites.
Ranoque said Lesly reported her mother died about four days after the crash. The children survived by collecting water in a soda bottle and eating cassava flour, fruit and seeds. They were found with two small bags containing clothes, a towel, a flashlight, two phones and a music box.
Tien and Cristin celebrated birthdays while the searchers searched for them.
All four remain in the hospital. A custody fight broke out, with some relatives claiming Ranoque was abusive towards the children’s mother. He admitted to verbal and occasional physical fights, which he called a private family matter. He also said that he hasn’t been able to see the two older children.
Officials, medical professionals, special forces and others have praised Lesly’s leadership. She and her siblings have become a symbol of resilience and survival around the world. The Colombian government, meanwhile, has been boasting of cooperation between indigenous communities and the military as it seeks to end national conflicts.
The jungle saved them, President Gustavo Petro said. They are children of the jungle, and now they are also children of Colombia.
True, Ranoque told AP, but indigenous culture and rituals also saved them. He attributes the yag and the vision of the elder in their group.
This is a spiritual world, he said, and the yag is of the utmost respect. It is the maximum concentration that is done in our spiritual world as an indigenous people.
That’s why they drank tea in the jungle, he said: That was how the goblin, that cursed devil, freed my children.
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