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When Tragedy Becomes Triumph – What can we learn from the “Miracle Children” of the Amazon?

When Tragedy Becomes Triumph

When Tragedy Becomes Triumph – What can we learn from the “Miracle Children” of the Amazon?

In the past month, we’ve been both inspired and heartbroken by two global news stories that captured the hearts of the world. Two stories – one with a happy outcome against the odds, and one with a tragic outcome everyone feared but no one wanted to believe would turn out to be true.

In the middle of June, after a massive search and rescue operation involving over 200 military and Indigenous rescuers with search dogs, four children, aged 13, nine, four and just 11 months, were found alive in the dense Amazon jungle in Colombia. They had survived on their own for 5 weeks after the plane in which they were travelling crashed.

All three of the adults on the plane, including the children’s mother, died – although their mother survived for four days before succumbing to her injuries.

And then, just last week, we heard the heartbreaking news that all five people on board the Titan, the submersible craft taking them down to the wreck of the Titanic, had perished after what experts are now saying was a “catastrophic implosion.”

Its pilot ship, the Polar Prince, lost contact with the submersible just an hour and 45 minutes into their 8–10-hour voyage, triggering a very different, but equally intense search involving ships from the US and Canadian Coast Guard and Canadian Navy, as well as a French research ship, and other ships from government and commercial deep-sea operations.

Tragically, after 5 days, debris from the stricken Titan was found on the sea floor, confirming everyone’s worst fears. Accusations of cavalier attitudes to safety now abound, and an investigation is now underway to determine exactly what happened and who, if anyone, is accountable for the loss of life.

My heart goes out to the loved ones of the 5 victims of this awful accident, just as much as it filled with happiness when I read the news that the 4 “Miracle children of the Amazon” had been found alive.

I can’t help but think that in as much as the victims of the Titan tragedy were ultimately helpless to avoid their fate, the Amazon children took charge of their destiny, showing remarkable courage, ingenuity and bravery during what must have been a terrifying time in their lives.

Not only were they dealing with the trauma of a plane crash, but they had also just lost their mother, having seen her pass away from the injuries she sustained in the accident. But they honoured her memory, and everything she had ever taught them, by surviving on their own in an incredibly tough environment until they were finally rescued.

Their incredible story is testimony to the invaluable lessons they’d been taught by the elders in their tribe, their grandmother in particular. As members of the indigenous Huitoto people, living in the remote Amazonian village of Araracuara, the children were taught from a very young age how to survive in the forest.

“This is a virgin forest, thick and dangerous,” said John Moreno, an Indigenous leader from nearby Vaupés. “They would have needed to draw on ancestral knowledge, to survive.”

Everyone involved with the case agrees that this knowledge is ultimately what saved them.

“Finding enough high-quality food, building shelters and keeping out of harm’s way for 40 days and nights in a remote area of the Colombian Amazon would challenge most adult Westerners … never mind three children younger than 12 carrying an 11-month-old baby,” said Carlos Peres of the University of East Anglia in England, an expert in Amazonian biodiversity who was raised in the Amazonian city of Belém in Brazil.

“Some 100 years ago, that body of knowledge was very vigorous, but there were no aircraft one could crash in the jungle; 100 years into the future, there may be even more efficient aircraft, but very little of that knowledge will be left,” he said.

Experts also say that because the children were indigenous to the area, they carried a natural immunity to some of the potential insect-borne illnesses they might otherwise have succumbed to. Rescuers agree, saying the children knew how to survive, what to eat and drink, how to stay safe from predators, and how to protect themselves from the relentless rain that can torrent down for up to 16 hours every day at this time of year.

Ironically though, the rainy season, while presenting an additional challenge, also helped the children as it heralded a time of bounty in the forest, with lots of fruit and edible plants available.

The children also took cassava flour from the plane, but when that ran out, they had to rely on eating fruit and seeds from the forest. They also caught and drank rainwater.

The eldest of the four children, Lesly, 13, is credited as having the most knowledge of the forest and how to survive in it. She is also the one who pulled her youngest sibling, Cristin (who turned one during their ordeal) from the plane after spotting her foot in the wreckage.

Experts say the three oldest children survived the crash because they were seated at the back of the plane, which remained largely intact after it nose-dived onto the forest floor. The baby was being cradled by her mother, and this saved her.

But as it turned out, surviving the crash was only the beginning. The children then had to survive the aftermath.

Which they did. Against all odds, they were all found alive – dehydrated, weak and thin, yes, but very much alive. They were all airlifted to hospital and are now slowly recovering from their ordeal.

To me, of all the amazing, wonderful aspects of this story, there are two that stand out more than any of the others:

Firstly, these children are alive today because of the ancestral wisdom passed down to them from their grandparents, parents, and other members of their tribe. It hits home that there is no substitute for this kind of knowledge and expertise.

Nowadays, if there’s something we don’t know, our first reaction is to Google it or watch a YouTube video. And yet so often, if we just asked our parents or our grandparents, they might have a perspective that no internet influencer could ever hope to have.

While I’m not dismissing the value of social media, I also feel we could gain a lot from “Googling” our Goga’s brains now and then when we need a little advice or guidance.

Secondly, the area where the children were found is frequently disrupted by armed groups, anti-government rebels, and drug traffickers. The children’s rescuers came within 70 metres of them at one point, but the children hid, thinking they were from the armed group they’d been escaping from on the plane in the first place.

What’s truly inspiring for me is that, in an area where the people are traditionally at odds with members of the military, all differences were put aside as everyone worked together on one common goal – finding the children.

It makes me think about priorities. As so-called “civilised Westerners,” we focus so much on making money and being successful that we lose sight of what’s important – the power of family. The wisdom of elders. The strength of community.

It’s my sincerest wish that the loved ones of the victims of The Titan will find solace in their families as they grieve their loss. And that the Miracle Children of the Amazon will grow up to pass on their life-saving ancient knowledge to their children.

We need more of this in our world.