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Archive: Little Remains of Peoples Temple Outpost Where 913 Died

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In 10-year-old photographs, the ground around the Jonestown pavilion is covered with bodies of men, women and children. More than 900 people had received a fatal potion of poison in Jim Jones' grisly ritual of suicide and murder.

Today, the infamous spot is covered with a dense mat of green weeds, flanked by a large bougainvillea bush that blooms in a cascade of bright purple. Little remains of the pavilion. Only three of its many support poles still stand to mark the spot. Charred timbers and planks lie scattered under the tangle of waist-high weeds, rotting on the moist tropical soil.

Gone is the ceremonial stage where Jim Jones worked his dark charisma; gone his priestly throne and the sign that warned his followers: "Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it."

Then an American communal experiment in the tropical wilderness of South America, Jonestown ended in horror on Nov. 18, 1978. Now an abandoned historical site in the Guyanese jungle, Jonestown is fading away under a mantle of weeds, brush and decay.

The Guyanese government appears content to let time and isolation dim the enormity that happened here. Authorities are doing nothing to preserve what little is left of the former settlement.

No Guyanese investigation was ever made into the rise and fall of Jonestown and its implications for this former British colony on the Caribbean's southeastern edge. Officials here have preferred to dismiss the subject, calling Jonestown an American problem.

For years, the Guyanese government gave no cooperation to outsiders who wished to come and see the hard-to-reach site in the country's remote northern hinterlands. Only recently has the Ministry of Information helped to arrange visits when requested by foreigners.

To mark the 10th anniversary of the tragedy, several American journalists came for a look. They found the 300 acres of once-productive land overgrown with weeds and brush. It is a scene of silent desolation, unclaimed either by man or by the tropical forest that forms a high wall around it.

Many fruit trees are dead or dying for want of cultivation and care. Others produce bananas, oranges and tangerines that fall unharvested on the ground. Palms that were just getting started when Jonestown died now rise tall over the wasted land.

Of nearly 100 wooden buildings that once housed a bustling community, none is left standing. Broken machinery, vehicle carcasses and other metal remnants have turned crumbly with rust.

Residents of Port Kaituma, an impoverished town on a jungle river 7 miles from Jonestown, say the abandoned settlement burned down in a brush fire sometime after 1983. What year the fire took place was not clear from interviews, but everyone seemed to agree that it was not caused by arson.

"Just dry grass got fire," said Laurence Inverary, 31, a former policeman.

No Resettlement

In 1980, Inverary said, he lived in Jonestown as a police guard for government livestock that used to graze the clearings. But no farmers have ever tried to resettle the land, he said. Asked why, he hesitated before responding, "They might be afraid."

Mortimer Kansinally, a policeman in Port Kaituma, confirmed the lingering fear.

"From the incident, everybody afraid of the old place," said Kansinally, 40. "They don't know if things still about." He said some people imagine that Jonestown is haunted by jumbies --evil spirits in Caribbean folklore.

Kansinally, a slightly built man with a gold tooth and a red stocking cap, said he was at the Port Kaituma airstrip in 1978 when the Jonestown nightmare began.

Rep. Leo Ryan, a Northern California congressman, had come to Jonestown on Nov. 17 to investigate allegations that members of Jones' Peoples Temple were being kept here against their will. Ryan was accompanied by American journalists, members of his staff and relatives of temple members.

The group spent the night in the settlement, and as it prepared to leave the next day, more than a dozen residents said they wanted to defect. Jones had been angered by previous defections, which he described as part of a conspiracy to destroy his tight-knit organization. Tension was high in Jonestown as Ryan prepared to leave in a truck on Nov. 18. A temple member grabbed the congressman and briefly held a knife to his throat, but Ryan was not hurt.

Later, however, a death squad from Jonestown opened fire on the group at the Port Kaituma airstrip.

Keith Thorne, 52, a shopkeeper in Port Kaituma, said he saw the group gunned down.

"They were all, first, around the plane, then started wild shooting," Thorne recalled. Ryan and four other people were killed. Ten were wounded.

"It was an awful sight to see," said policeman Kansinally.

Called for Mass Suicide

Something even more awful began late that same afternoon in Jonestown. Jones called everyone to the pavilion and told them that the settlement would soon be under attack. He said they had no choice but to "take the potion like they used to take in ancient Greece."

The Jonestown potion was made with a patented grape flavoring named Fla-Vor-Aid and lethal potassium cyanide. First children, then adults, drank it from paper cups. Children who refused the poison were held while it was squirted into the backs of their mouths with syringes. Adults who resisted were injected.

At the end, Jones and a close aide, Annie Moore, died of shots to the head from a .38-caliber pistol that was found beside their bodies.

When it was over, the bodies of Jones and 912 followers lay in tangled clusters over the pavilion area, a ghastly scene that would shock the world. Two men sneaked away during the the death ritual and survived to describe it.

Since then, much has been written about Jones' troubled youth, his early years as an unorthodox and demanding religious leader, the growth of his Peoples Temple cult in San Francisco and Los Angeles and its exodus to Guyana in 1977. It is clear that deep-rooted obsessiveness, paranoia and megalomania propelled Jones to his final act of horror.

"It was not the temple's enemies that brought down the temple, but Jones' destructive personality," wrote Tim Reiterman in "Raven," a 1982 book on Jones.

In the early 1970s, reports from Peoples Temple defectors began to raise questions about the secretive sect and its leader, who was a member of the San Francisco Housing Authority. In response, Jones began planning for the creation of a Caribbean sanctuary.

In many respects, Guyana was a logical place for Jones to seek a fresh beginning for the Peoples Temple. He called himself a socialist, as did the then-leader of Guyana's government, Forbes Burnham. Although Jones was white, most of the sect's members were black, as was Burnham, most of his government and about 40% of the Guyanese population.

Guyana welcomed projects for settling its undeveloped hinterlands and increasing the country's agricultural production, which must be supplemented by food imports. Most of Guyana's 755,000 residents are clustered along the Caribbean coast, while most of its Idaho-sized territory is unused except by native Indians and gold prospectors.

The government especially wanted settlers in the northwestern district where Jones was offered a lease, because it is near the border with Venezuela, which claims historic rights to more than half of Guyana's territory.

Jonestown's first settlers moved to the site permanently in 1975. Late in 1976, journalists in the United States began investigating reports of beatings, mysterious deaths and deviant sexual practices in the Peoples Temple. Under increasing pressure, Jones began moving most of his membership from San Francisco and Los Angeles to Jonestown in May, 1977. He moved himself in August.

Although it was not self-sufficient in food or other supplies, Jonestown quickly became a fully functional community, with electrical generators, tractors and other vehicles, schoolrooms, wood and metal shops, chicken coops and pigsties. In all, an estimated $5 million was invested in the project.

Defectors said Jonestown was a concentration camp whose residents were subjected to psychological pressure, forced labor and physical mistreatment. From his fan-backed seat of power in the pavilion, Jones presided over long and emotional sessions called "white nights," dwelling on sex and love, revolution and socialism, traitors and enemies, death and suicide.

Brindley Benn, leader of a leftist opposition group in Guyana, began demanding an official investigation of Jonestown after U.S. press reports cast increasing suspicion on Jones and his practices.

'State Within a State'

"He had the government in his pocket," Benn said in a recent interview. In a political news sheet that he edited, Benn expressed fear that Jonestown was becoming a "state within a state," he recalled. But he said that Lloyd Barker, then the Guyanese police commissioner, claimed "there was nothing to worry about."

In a separate interview, Barker said: "I know there were some rumors there, especially people of the opposition. It was felt that an investigation was needed. I never felt professionally that there was any need."

Barker added that he knew Jones personally. "I think he was very intelligent, a very honest human. He had a type of esprit de corps that was required in the type of business he was doing."

Asked what lasting impact the deaths at Jonestown had had on Guyana, Barker said that before the tragedy, Guyana was so little known that the U.S. Postal Service often sent letters addressed for this country to Africa, the clerks apparently thinking the country name sounded African. "After the Jonestown incident, people were getting their letters properly," he said.

Still, Guyana would like to be known for its spectacular Kaieteur Falls, or the ornate wooden buildings of its capital. Instead, Guyanese are haunted by Jim Jones.

"They groan every time Jonestown is mentioned," said a foreign diplomat in Georgetown. "I think it has proved to be a major embarrassment to the country."

The main long-term impact of Jonestown on Guyana may have been to dampen development of the country's interior, according to Courtney Gibson, a journalist who once edited the governing party's newspaper.

"If Jonestown had gone well, if that disaster had not happened, I think the government's hinterland development project would be moving at a much more rapid rate," he said.

Patrick Denny, an Information Ministry official, said the government kept military or police guards at Jonestown until at least 1983.

"They were just minding some goats and things like that," he said, but no revival of the agricultural project was attempted.

"I think the real idea was to just let the jungle take it back, because you certainly weren't going to get any Guyanese to go in there and live," Denny said.

Why not? " Jumbies ," he said, smiling.

As the 10th anniversary of the tragedy approached, the government acknowledged outside interest with apparent resignation and lowered the barriers that had made it difficult to reach Jonestown. The airstrip at Port Kaituma was unofficially reopened, and a government plane was made available for trips in.

Only Remnants Left

After riding on a tractor over a rarely used track through the jungle from the airstrip to Jonestown, one group of visitors spent nearly three hours looking around the site. Spread through the weeds and brush of the biggest clearing were the rusted shells of two trucks, a dismembered tractor, a shoe-making machine, a wood-milling machine, a large storage tank, a concrete mixer, an air compressor, several engine blocks, pieces of aluminum roofing and a generator. The visitors found what was left of the pavilion, then the area of the married couples' cottages.

Finding a large metal object, someone used a machete to hack some weeds away. "It's a filing cabinet," Gouveia announced. Jim Jones' filing cabinet, now empty, broken and rusted. Not much more was left.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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