Cassava flour and some familiarity with the rainforest’s fruits were key to the extraordinary survival for 40 days of four children in the Amazon jungle after the plane they were in crashed, the children’s uncle has said.

“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 hospital in Bogotá, where they are expected to remain for a minimum of two weeks. Fariña is a cassava flour that people eat in the Amazon region.

“After the fariña ran out, they began to eat seeds,” Valencia said.

Damaris Mucutuy, an aunt of the children, told a radio station that “the children are fine” despite being dehydrated and having insect bites. She added that the children had been offered mental health services.

The timing of their ordeal 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”.

Fidencio Valencia, a relative of the children speaks to the press in front of the hospital in Bogotá.
Fidencio Valencia, a relative of the children speaks to the press in front of the hospital in Bogotá. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

General Pedro Sanchez, who was in charge of the rescue effort, said rescue teams had passed within 20 to 50 metres (66 to 164ft) of where the children were found on a couple of occasions but had missed them.

“The minors were already very weak,” 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,” he said.

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The children – members of the Huitoto people, aged 13, nine and four plus an 11-month-old baby – 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 1 May. They were found alive by a military sniffer dog on Friday, after spending weeks in an area where snakes, mosquitoes and other animals abound.

The children told officials they spent some time with a dog, but that it then went missing. The military is still looking for the dog, a Belgian Shepherd named Wilson, as of Saturday.

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President Gustavo Petro, who joyfully announced the discovery of the children on Friday, met the children on Saturday at the hospital in Bogotá. Defence minister Iván Velásquez told reporters the children were being rehydrated and could not eat food yet.

“But in general, the condition of the children is acceptable,” Velásquez said.

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

The four children were in a Cessna single-engine propeller plane that was also carrying three adults and when the pilot declared an emergency due to an engine failure. The small aircraft fell off the radar a short time later and a weeks-long search for survivors began.

An air force video released on Friday showed a helicopter using lines to pull the youngsters up because it couldn’t land in the dense rainforest. 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.

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

Two weeks after the crash, on 16 May, 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.

Colombia’s president, Gustavo Petro, greets a nurse tending to one of the four Indigenous children who survived an Amazon plane crash.
Colombia’s president, Gustavo Petro, greets a nurse tending to one of the four Indigenous children who survived an Amazon plane crash. Photograph: AP

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.

The announcement of their rescue came shortly after Petro signed a ceasefire 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.”

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