In Guyana, Jonestown massacre distant U.S. tragedy

GEORGETOWN, Guyana – Market vendors sold plantains and secondhand clothing Tuesday as children skipped home from school, business as usual in Guyana where the deaths of more than 900 U.S. cult members a quarter of a century ago are a distant American tragedy.

No memorials were held for victims of the Jonestown massacre, a horror that is barely known to half of the population, which hadn’t yet been born on Nov. 18, 1978.

“I’ve never heard about Jonestown,” said Naresh Bhiro, a 21-year-old coconut vendor. “I think I heard my parents, the older people, talking about Jonestown, but I don’t know what it is.”

Others remember only the vague outlines of what happened at the remote jungle compound.

The story of American cult leader Jim Jones began with talk of interracial harmony and caring for the poor and ended at his commune that night, when he exhorted his followers to drink cyanide-laced grape punch.

The government of this former British colony said it would support restoring the remote outpost as a memorial. Vines and trees now cover the area where Jones called for mass suicide, near a rusted flour mill and two wooden buildings in ruin.

“Developing the site would serve as a reminder to people about the insanity of others,” Tourism and Industry Minister Manzoor Nadir said. “It was more of an American problem than anything else.”

He said the government would support any private groups wishing to restore the site but would not offer any state funds.

Predictably, the 25th anniversary drew more attention in Oakland, Calif., where survivors and family members held a memorial service beside a mass grave where more than 400 victims are buried.

Guyana’s two main daily newspapers ran excerpts from historical newspaper accounts Tuesday.

The official Guyana Information News Agency released an unsigned column Monday faulting the government of then-Prime Minister Forbes Burnham for what it said was recklessly lax monitoring.

“We tend to defend ourselves by saying it was an American tragedy played out in the Guyana jungle,” the government statement said. “But we cannot escape the fact that the whole tragedy was facilitated by a government so bent on taking care of itself that it pulled a veil of secrecy tight around Jonestown and allowed the cancer to fester until the eruption.”

Hundreds of men, women and children followed Jones to Guyana. They built cottages, workshops, dormitories and cultivated crops in the rain forest just 40 miles from the Venezuelan border.

The nearest populated area, about six miles away, is the logging and gold mining town of Port Kaituma.

It was there that U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan of California flew in 25 years ago to investigate allegations that cult members were being abused and held hostage.

As he was preparing to return home with 18 temple members, he was ambushed on the airstrip. Ryan, three journalists and a cult defector were killed. Then, Jones called for mass suicide.

Babies were killed by squirting the cyanide-laced punch into their mouths with syringes. Most adults were poisoned, some forcibly. Some were shot by cult security guards.

Jones shot himself to death.

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