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In a compound in the jungles of Guyana, South America, almost a thousand people obeyed the directives of their religious, supposedly Christian, leader, Jim Jones and gave cyanide laced cool drink to their children and drank it themselves. Those who refused to obey were shot. The mass suicide murder at the Jonestown jungle compound shocked a world struggling with identity and the realities of growing up out of the Hippie/Flower Power era and the Vietnam War. Within virtually a matter of minutes some 913 people died on Saturday 18th November, 1978.
That was 25 years ago.
Today the jungle has reclaimed much of the isolated compound that was meant to be an example of utopia — a paradise of community living and sharing which actually became a concentration camp prison, long before the suicide murders occurred. The ruins of some of the buildings remain amongst the jungle growth, but little else.
The nearest township is the logging and gold mining town of Port Kaituma, six miles from the site of the massacre. For many years locals from the surrounding area have avoided the Jonestown site, and have been reluctant to guide outsiders to the site.
More than half of today’s population of Guyana had not yet been born on November 18, 1978 — and very few of the country’s citizens remembered, or even knew of, the religious horror of that day. Many amongst those who could remember the massacre have tended to regard it as a uniquely American problem. The whole incident has been largely forgotten. To our knowledge, no major public memorial was scheduled in Guyana.
However, the hellish nightmare of Jonestown was remembered in the USA.
At 11 am on Tuesday November 18, at the Evergreen Cemetery, in Oakland, California, a special Memorial Service marked the 25th Anniversary of the Jonestown tragedy. Former members of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, some who had managed to escape the jungle compound before the suicide murders occurred, relatives of victims, and others gathered to remember, and to question how it could have happened. They gathered at the mass grave of some 409 of the unclaimed or unidentified Jonestown victims — including many children (some 227 children, including babies, died at Jonestown) — who were buried together at the Oakland Cemetery.
The San Francisco Public Library held a series of commemorative exhibits and a special panel discussion on ’Jonestown 25 Years Later: A Look Back’. There were also some other minor exhibits, and several special radio programmes aired around the USA reminding people of the tragedy of Jonestown.
In Indianapolis, Indiana, the state in which Jim Warren Jones was born, there were three theatre performances of ’The Onliest One Alive’ — based on the biographical story of Hyacinth Thrash who was the only real survivor of Jonestown — having hidden under a bed and fallen asleep just before the actual suicide murders. She died, aged 93, in late 1995.
The Oakland Memorial Service was led by Californian pastor, Jynona Norwood. She herself had distrusted Jones and had refused to follow him, but, as she told people:
’Twenty-seven people in my family died at Jonestown, Including my mother. The youngest person in our family who died was three months old. What could babies do?’
She told mourners at the service:
’The people of Jonestown were a precious people, family people…It is an injustice when people say they were unintelligent.... They had a natural desire for a better life for themselves and their children.’
She also told those present: ’We need to remember to remember. If you can say 1,000 people died and it can easily fall from your lips, you are remembering to forget.’
Before the service Norwood had stated:
’We are coming together to not only remember our loved ones but to say this must never happen again.’
The terrible mass suicide-murders took place not long after some of Jones’ guards had gunned down a party of relatives, journalists and some defectors, led by US Congressman, Leo Ryan. The Democratic politician had come to check out Jones’ supposed utopia in light of concerns and criticisms expressed by ex-People’s Temple members and relatives. As the party boarded their small plane on the small jungle airstrip, they were ambushed, with five, including Leo Ryan, killed and ten others wounded and left for dead.
Amongst the wounded that day was Jackie Speier. She was Ryan’s legal advisor at the time. Severely wounded, and with five bullets in her, she, like the others was left for dead. But she survived, and later entered politics, and now plans to run as lieutenant governor of California. She has gone through numerous traumas since Jonestown, but she continues to move on and up.
Reflecting on the events of the Jonestown horror, Senator Jackie Speier stated:
’In Guyana, I learned a critical lesson about the fragility of our existence and the importance of making every moment count. It’s a lesson I’ve been given more than once, but I try to be grateful, because it’s an awareness some people never receive in their entire lives.’
In an interesting twist, Erin Ryan, one of Leo Ryan’s daughters, works as an assistant to Senator Speier, and hopes one day to occupy her father’s former congressional seat.
After Leo Ryan’s murder his family went through considerable turmoil. One of his daughters, Shannon, joined the Rajneeshees (also known as the ’Orange People’ cult) and changed her name to Jasmine. Another daughter, Patricia, became the head of the anti-cult group, Cult Awareness, before Scientology took it over following legal wranglings over the group’s activities.
For years Erin Ryan tried to forget and get away from anything to do with Jonestown and cults. But now she sees it differently.
She has stated: ’Now I feel there’s a whole generation who doesn’t know anything about Jonestown and how it happened. I do think that the underlying events and causes of Jonestown can happen again and have happened on a lesser scale.’
One of the people involved in the recent focus on Jonestown was Oakland mental health counsellor, Nina Berry. When she was only twelve she lost her grandmother, grandfather, two uncles, a cousin, and her eight-year-old sister in the Jonestown horror.
She said: ’Nothing has changed. The scary thing is that something like that could happen again.’
She was right!
Religious mass suicides and murders HAVE happened a number of times since Jonestown — though mostly on a smaller scale, more than a thousand people died as members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God in Uganda, Africa in early 2000. Within two weeks of more than 500 people being burned to death in one day, the world media stopped reporting on the Ugandan religious tragedy. Most people, if they knew about it, have already forgotten!
It is a sad commentary on society, our attitudes, religious desperation and gullibility, and Western indifference.
(From TACL Vol 24 #6 2003)