Disasters & Accidents

Search commander: “We’re very close” to finding 4 kids lost in Colombian jungle

By Irene Escudero

Bogota, May 31 (EFE).- A month has gone by but the mystery remains regarding the whereabouts of four siblings between 1 and 13 years of age who apparently survived a plane crash in the Colombian jungle, although all three adults on board the aircraft perished.

Almost 200 people – about 120 army soldiers and 73 indigenous volunteers – have been scouring the zone surrounding the crash site since May 1, when the Cessna 206 carrying three adults and Lesly Mukutuy, 13; Soleiny Mukutuy, 9; Tien Noriel Ronoque Mukutuy, 4, and Cristin Neriman Ronoque Mukutuy, 1.

The children’s mother, an indigenous leader and the pilot all died in the crash and their bodies were found in the wreckage.

Despite the fact that it’s been a month since the crash and the children still have not been found, authorities are not losing hope. “We’re closing the cordon. We believe that we’re very, very close,” Gen. Pedro Sanchez, the commander of the special forces heading the search and rescue operation, told EFE.

“We’re sure that our path has crossed theirs,” he said, although the children “continue to go in circles,” a situation that has made it very difficult to find them in the Guaviare jungle, in pristine and dense Chiribiquete Park, where visibility on the ground is reduced to just 20 meters (about 65 feet).

But the search teams are repeating the same mantra: “They’re alive until we confirm the contrary.”

“If they were dead, we would have found them already,” the director of Colombia’s state Institute for Family Welfare (ICBF, Astrid Caceres, told EFE, because “the smell would attract animals that would orient us to where (the children’s bodies) are.”

The first hypothesis being considered, the ICBF director said, is that after the crash the children “left the site, went into the jungle,” but by now they would have returned to the plane or proceeded along a stream they’re following.

The Colombian military said on Tuesday that they found a track, supposedly made by the oldest girl, in the mud, which infused new “excitement” into the search teams.

But it’s true that up until now only a few tracks of that kind have been found, along with a shelter supposedly made and used by the kids, a baby bottle, diapers used by the one-year-old and some halt-eaten fruit. And all of those items were found a few kilometers from the crash site.

“Here in the jungle you can’t see anything at all 20 meters away, so imagine finding the cap of a baby bottle … It’s practically impossible. But we’re doing that, we’re defying the impossible,” Gen. Sanchez said.

Besides the search teams, which are also being accompanied by the father of the two younger children, the troops are using loudspeakers and bullhorns to broadcast messages from the kids’ grandmother telling them to remain calm and stay in one place so that searchers can find them. In addition, flyers and any other methods they can devise are also being used by the searchers, so far without success.

The latest strategy has been to set up sites that emit light and sound to attract the attention of the children, and to leave whistles along the stream or ravine where the kids are thought to be so that they can blow on them to bring searchers in their direction. In addition, the ICBF has been leaving packages of food throughout the region and now they’re going to add items such as blankets, more food and ponchos.

Joining the search operations in recent weeks have been almost 100 indigenous volunteers from several jungle regions of the country who are using their knowledge of nature and familiarity with jungle areas to track down the kids, whom they consider to be their siblings since they are part of the Uitoto indigenous community.

The children were accompanying their mother and making their first trip by plane from the remote Araracuara reservation, on the border between the Caqueta and Amazonas provinces en route to San Jose del Guaviare to meet their father.

“The grandparents told us,” the ICBF director said, “that the children had spent much time in the jungle zone where they were going, which is another Colombian jungle area, and they knew what to eat and how to live there, and so this gives us a lot of encouragement.”

But even so, a month after the children disappeared, “every day is another day of both anxiety and hope,” Caceres said.

EFE ime/joc/bp

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