Decades After Jonestown Massacre, Villagers Distrustful of New Foreign Influx
The Associated Press, Nov. 18, 2002
JONESTOWN, Guyana Nov. 18 — Razor grass, vines and a few wild daisies cover the area where American cult leader Jim Jones urged more than 900 followers to commit mass suicide.
Few care to remember the horrors of Nov. 18, 1978.
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But painful memories are reawakening with a new influx of foreigners U.S. missionaries and wildcat Brazilian gold miners to the remote jungle outpost.
“I see strange faces and I feel scared again,” said Caroline George, 37, whose three siblings died at Jonestown. “Everything is different in Guyana but it somehow feels the same.”
Residents of Port Kaituma, the nearest town about six miles away, asked themselves the other day what the business might be of a Nigerian who stopped in at a diner for some fried chicken; and of a Colombian who landed on the airstrip in a private plane.
This newfound multiculturalism, reminiscent of Jones’ dream of a Utopian multiracial society, is not welcomed by villagers whose collective psyche was scarred by the mass suicide.
“All of the activity here has brought better business but some of the people who come in here, I just don’t like,” said Denise Duke, 37, owner of the Big “D” Food Mall, a wooden restaurant specializing in chicken foot soup. “A lot of us are still suspicious of outsiders. Sure they bring us things, but what do they take in return?”
The town has more than quadrupled in size and population since the Jonestown massacre. Most of the 7,000 residents are native Amerindians and descendants of African slaves and East Indian indentured laborers imported centuries ago to Britain’s only colony in South America.
An interior covered by impenetrable jungle and dissected by snake-infested rivers prevented the Guyanese government from monitoring Jones’ activities, and accounts for a different kind of lawlessness today.
Port residents complain that President Bharrat Jagdeo’s government, preoccupied with growing anarchy in the capital, Georgetown, is not doing enough to prevent foreigners from stealing Guyana’s wealth.
Meanwhile, locals say, Brazilians and Venezuelans who have joined a gold rush often mine without permits and smuggle their gains across unpoliced borders.
Others complain the government is too trusting of foreign churches and missionaries.
Baptist pastor Dean Runyon, from Cleveland, Ohio, has gathered more than 400 followers in four years for his church, which offers services and helps with small community projects.
“Why I came to Guyana? That’s a long story,” says Runyon, hurrying to a sermon and referring other questions to his parishioners. “I have nothing to hide, though.”
“Pastor Runyon is no Jim Jones,” said parishioner Raymond Wong, 32. “He preaches the word of God, but that’s it.”
Few of these churchgoers are old enough to remember Jonestown.
“A lot of us who were around when Jonestown happened stopped going to church,” said Paul Adams, 49, who helped Jones clear land for the agricultural commune where he and his followers grew bananas and cassava and raised pigs.
Hundreds of men, women and children, followed Jones. They built cottages, workshops, dormitories and cultivated crops on 300 acres carved from dense tropical rain forest, some 140 miles from a capital reachable only by air or boat.
Then a congressman from San Francisco flew to the jungle compound one day to investigate allegations of abuse. As U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan was preparing to return to the United States with 18 temple members who had wanted to leave, he was ambushed on the airstrip.
Ryan, three newsmen and a cult defector were killed. Eleven others were injured. Then Jones exhorted his followers to drink cyanide-laced grape punch. Babies were killed by squirting it into their mouths with syringes. Most adults were poisoned, some forcibly. Some were shot by cult security guards. Hours later, 912 of Jones’ followers were dead. So was Jones, found with bullet wound in his head, whether it was suicide or murder is unknown.
“Something like that would never happen again here,” said Tourism Minister Manzoor Nadir. “I think the country learned its lesson the hard way.”