Much of the world’s media was recently focused on the search for a missing submersible vehicle carrying a number of wealthy adventure tourists who’d set out to explore the wreck of the Titanic, deep below the icy waters of the north Atlantic. Sadly, this has had a tragic end. One cannot help but wonder whether similar international and technological resources and cooperation might have been employed to help reduce the loss of life in the Mediterranean or the English Channel?
There was another, recent, perhaps equally difficult, search and rescue operation, with an ultimately partly joyous outcome which occurred far to the south and west of the Titan event in the southeast of the nation of Colombia.
A large sparsely populated region of the Amazon rainforest, which has been called the ‘lungs of the earth’. Over 60% of the rainforest lies in Brazil but around 10% is in Colombia (with 13% in Peru). The Colombian Amazonas covers around 40% of the area of Colombia and has a forested area of over 480,000km2 and a population of just over 1.1 million.
By way of comparison, this is nearly double the area of the UK, which has a population of over 68 million. Because of the geography of the region, its rivers and dense rainforest, road communication is difficult. Indigenous peoples in the area have few alternative options other than to travel by air.
Flight from peril ends in disaster
This was the case on 1 May, when a single engine Cessna 206 HK-2803 carrying seven people set off from the Amazonian village of Araracuara. Aboard was an indigenous Huitoto (also known as Witoto) mother Magdalena Mucutuy (33), and her four children, Lesly (13 years old), Soleiny (9), Tien Noriel (5) Cristin Neriman (11 months). Despite not crossing international borders, they were nevertheless refugees, who set off to rejoin the father who, fearing for his life, had fled following threats from a local splinter guerilla group.
The plane crashed down into the rainforest in the Caquetá region of Colombia. The pilot, Hernando Murcia (55) and a local indigenous leader, Hermán Mendoza, died in, or soon after the crash. Magdalena is said to have survived for four days after the crash. Though badly injured, she sent her children to seek help, reportedly with the words “you guys get out of here. You guys are going to see the kind of man your dad is, and he’s going to show you the same kind of great love that I have shown you”.
Signs of hope among the despair
This might be perceived as contrary to best advice which would be to stay with one’s vehicle in the event of trouble, as it would increase chances of successful search and rescue attempts particularly from the air. The mother certainly knew her rainforest, it was two weeks before the crashed plane was located by searchers under the dense rainforest canopy! At or near the crash site, searchers located the three adult bodies, but only traces of the four missing children – a baby bottle, hair ties, a make-shift shelter and even small footprints.
The clues sparked a renewed search with military personnel joined by members of the local indigenous community. Further clues that the children were still alive were subsequently found, maintaining hope in those searching for them. The children’s grandmother recorded messages in the Huitoto language that were broadcast from helicopters urging the children to stop moving and stay in one place in order to give the searchers a better chance of finding them.
Efforts bear fruit
Finally, an astonishing 40 days after the crash, and to the joy of the whole nation, the children were found! Much of the credit for the children’s survival has been given to Lesly, barely into her teens herself, who had often helped out with the children when her mother had been working. She also used her indigenous knowledge of the rainforest and its fruits and seeds, a bag of cassava flour the children had found in the plane had helped sustain them in the initial weeks.
When they were eventually found Lesly ran toward the rescuers with the young baby in her arms and said “I’m hungry”. One of the boys asked for “bread and sausage” the kind of request my eight-year-old UK son is likely to make after a day in school.
Safe at last, recovery begins
The children have since been flown to the capital, Bogota, where, along with visits from the nation’s president and others, they have been receiving medical attention to in order to help them recover mentally and physically from their traumatic ordeal.
One hopes that they make a complete recovery and that there is childhood still left ahead of each of them to enjoy.