Twenty-five years after: A visitor to Jonestown looks back

Today marks a quarter of a century since the Jonestown tragedy made international headlines.

On November 18, 1978, some 911 people died in a mass suicide/murder at the People’s Temple in Port Kaituma. The tragedy appeared to have been triggered by a visit by Leo Ryan, a US Congressman, who was conducting a personal inspection to ascertain whether Jonestown was being run like a concentration camp and people were being held there against their will.

According to reports, about 16 Temple members decided that they wanted to leave Jonestown with Ryan and his team. They were allowed to go, but while at the Port Kaituma airstrip, Jonestown security guards arrived and started shooting. Congressman Ryan and four others were killed; three were members of the press; the other was a person from Jonestown who wanted to leave. 11 were wounded. Some hours later, the population of Jonestown – some 638 adults and 276 children – lay dead. Most appear to have committed suicide by drinking a drink laced with cyanide and a number of sedatives; other victims appeared to have been murdered by poison injection and some had been shot.

I first visited the People’s Temple along with some senior Region One (Barima/Waini) government officials during the early months of 1978.