Deep in the Guyanese jungle, only a nondescript sign and plaque recall a cult colony where one of the most terrifying mass murder-suicides in modern history took place nearly five decades ago.
“Welcome to the People’s Temple,” reads green lettering on a sign above a red dirt road announcing the entrance to what was once Jonestown, a jungle utopia turned nightmare, where 914 adults and children are died on November 18, 1978.
They were followers of the American Reverend Guru Jim Jones, who coerced them into committing suicide, urging parents to give their children poison, while others were shot trying to flee or forced to drink the deadly liquid .
The carnage has exposed the manipulative power cult leaders wield over their followers, and those living nearby are torn between wanting to move on and wishing the site could serve as a lesson in what went wrong. .
“There’s really nothing to see unless the place is cleaned up, and you’ll see what’s left on the ground in terms of old vehicles, tractors and other things,” said Fitz Duke, who lives in the nearby remote village of Port Kaituma. .
He was 31 when the massacre happened, and he remembers the presence of Jones and his retinue of poor African Americans, who worked hard to clear the jungle as they built what was to be a colony. socialist and self-sufficient on about 1,500 hectares in the middle of nowhere.
“They had a really good farming system,” Duke said, adding that local villagers often worked for the community.
“They had a lot of cattle. They were almost self-sufficient in terms of food for themselves. We used to visit them often. They had a really good orchestra, lots of instruments,” he added .
However, while the community was presented as a non-racist, non-sexist paradise on earth, it was ruled with an iron fist by Jones and his associates.
Former cult members have reported drug abuse, starvation and sexual slavery, saying Jones forced his followers to work from dawn to dusk, six days a week.
“You couldn’t just come and go as you wanted,” Duke said.
“They had a huge tower to see right down the main road. And they always had men up there to look through their binoculars.”
He said Jonestown guards with ‘bigger guns than police’ used to search cars, and once stopped a police car, telling them ‘that wasn’t Guyana, that’ was Jonestown”.
After complaints in the United States about living conditions in the community, Congressman Leo Ryan visited Jonestown on November 17, 1978 to investigate.
A day later, as he was about to board a plane home, Ryan was shot on the tarmac by Jones’s men, who also killed three journalists and a cult member. who wanted to leave.
For Jones – who had long warned his followers of an impending US government assault and staged seances in which they and their children drank fake poison – there was no turning back.
He told his followers that Ryan was a CIA agent and that US Marines were preparing to attack the community.
A 45-minute recording found near his body would later reveal how he incited his followers to kill himself in what he called a “revolutionary act”.
“It’s still a wonder why and how one man could brainwash so many hundreds of people,” Duke said.
Forty-four years later, only a white slab in the overgrowth bearing the words “in memory of the victims of the Jonestown massacre” bears witness to what happened at the site.
The sign at the entrance to the community was put in place to replace the old version some time after the events.
Duke is among those who would prefer the massacre to be forgotten.
“I feel like it’s really hurt our country. It’s put Guyana on the map for the wrong reasons. They should get rid of it. They should give the land to the farmers to have it. grow,” he said.
Local authorities declined to comment on the massacre.
However, Port Kaituma opposition leader Tiffnie Daniels, 31, said she would like to see the site become a place where visitors can “understand what happened”.
“There is only a monument and the jungle. But, if the children want to study that, or if people want to visit a tourist site, there is nothing,” she added.
“Yes, it’s a bad memory, but it’s also history.”