We expect our killing fields to be marked a certain way, and with at least a certain rhetoric of rectitude. At Jonestown, in Guyana, there are no markers, no memorials noting what took place, no manicured clearings to mark how the site looked 30 years ago, when more than 900 Americans died there in a still hard-to-imagine moment of mass suicide and outright murder. It is an open field bifurcated by a red dirt road, with knee-high bush to the north and, to the south, thick jungle. You don’t even realize you have entered the site until you are already there.
The wooden billboard that used to hang over the entry, proclaiming “Welcome to Jonestown / Peoples Temple Agricultural Project,” vanished long ago, along with virtually all other signs of Jim Jones and his followers, who died by the lethal ingestion of cyanide-spiked grape Fla-Vor-Aid, forced injection and gunfire. It is as though the memory of the massive loss of life — following the brazen murder of a U.S. congressman who had come to investigate complaints about the compound, three members of the media accompanying him and a commune defector at a nearby airstrip — is still too extreme to be remembered.
The event remains the most famous moment in the history of Guyana, which is roughly the size of Kansas and is the lone English-speaking country on the South American continent. The memory of the massacre is spooked with dark ironies about the country’s 42-year history of independence from the British Commonwealth. The Guyanese government had tried to develop a new and proud independent identity for the country that would serve as a model for postcolonial development — and initially welcomed Jim Jones as a blow to the American forces of imperialism. After the massacre, the country’s leaders opted to absolve themselves of the events, pointing to the Americans as if they had landed from Mars. Today, it isn’t much easier to mourn and memorialize the victims when doing so is an admission of the country’s failed hopes. Marking the tragedy has been no less acute in the U.S. It was only last month, during the 30th anniversary of the deaths, that a marker was erected at a cemetery in Oakland, Calif., to memorialize the 410 Jonestown victims buried there, 60 of them unclaimed.
The Jonestown site lies far in the bush, an hour’s flight by charter plane from the sleepy coastal capital of Georgetown and another half-hour drive down a bumpy road. “Do you know the bush?” asked my guide there, a slightly built, soft-spoken man from the nearby town of Port Kaituma named Carlton Daniels, as we entered the site of the former compound on the back of his son-in-law’s pick-up. The question wasn’t meant as a conversation starter: A vine he called a “let-me-go” dangled overhead. “It will grab on to you,” he warned.
Mr. Daniels, a semi-retired contractor, is the unlikely Virgil of Jonestown; he has lived in the area all his life and had been postmaster in the 1970s, when he first met the handful of Californian pioneers from the People’s Temple. They began to show up around 1974 after the organization leased 25,000 acres from the Guyanese government. (The bulk of the congregants, an unlikely cohort of African-American seniors, youthful white progressives and a small army of school-age children, would arrive two years later as unflattering reports of financial irregularities and church beatings began to appear in the San Francisco media.) Wading through the knee-high growth, he pointed out what was once a grove of cashew and lime trees, which marked the area around Mr. Jones’s cabin and now struggled to survive against flora more suited to the blazing, nearly equatorial sun.
Mr. Daniels recalled being let in the compound by the Guyanese Defense Forces three days after the massacre to retrieve some fuel containers he had lent to the People’s Temple. “I didn’t want to come back here for a long time after that,” he whispered, as if he were worried he might be overheard.
Trailing his son, who was armed with a cutlass against the jungle and the notoriously deadly bushmaster snake, we searched in vain for the remains of Mr. Jones’s piano, its rotting keyboard having been turned up by a party including the minister of tourism a year earlier. We had no more luck in finding any traces of the cage that once held Mr. Muggs, the pet chimpanzee Mr. Jones adopted, who perished alongside the 913 humans.
“They should have done something to keep the area the way it was,” Mr. Daniels said as his son emerged from a path-clearing reconnaissance job, his upper torso pock-marked with fresh bee stings. Mr. Daniels didn’t elaborate on the thought, but he didn’t need to. He admired the achievement of establishing a commune in such an inhospitable environment and recounted the lovely grove of well-tended fruit trees that once lined the entry. We followed his son about 40 yards into the bush and located the pits where recalcitrant children were kept as punishment (almost a third of the Jonestown victims were kids). Further along, we found what was left of Jonestown: a couple of vehicles turned on their sides; a flatbed truck with a skinny sapling growing through its chassis; and a long metal container that looked like it was once a refrigerator.
Over time there have been intermittent schemes to clear and memorialize the site. Last year, the Guyanese minister of tourism, industry and commerce, Manniram Prashad, visited it to promote his vision of “dark tourism.” A reporter from the Guyana Chronicle cheekily commented that Mr. Prashad “remarked that Jonestown, if reconstructed, can be a major tourist attraction in Guyana.” Rather than getting involved in the “blame game,” Mr. Prashad stated, “we should work to educate our people and allow others who suffered as a result of the loss of loved ones and friends to visit the site if they so wish.”
The minister’s desire to equate memorialization and tourism is linked not just to the desperate economic position of Guyana. It also represents the difficult relation between the Guyanese, who live overwhelmingly along a little stretch along the Atlantic Ocean, and the interior, which is home to virtually all of the country’s natural but hard-to-mine wealth in the form of bauxite, timber, gold, diamonds and eco-tourism. The hinterland remains the undeveloped great hope for the coastal Guyanese, whose capital, Georgetown, lies several feet below sea level and grows increasingly threatened by seasonal flooding and rising ocean levels. Roughly 25 miles across the flat plains along the coast, where sugar-cane fields but little else flourish, the jungle begins.
The bush covers 60% of the country, yet it’s home to only 10% of Guyana’s 780,000 residents, most of them descendants of African slaves or South Asian indentured servants. More than 300,000 live in Georgetown. The idea of colonizing the interior, whether it be for its mineral promise or for imagining a new social reality and set of possibilities for future generations, has long enchanted — and frustrated — post-independence Guyanese politicians.
No political leader was more adept at exploiting the idea or realizing its failure than Forbes Burnham, who led the country from independence in 1966 until his death in 1985. His aspirations to create a unique Guyanese path to socialism — through a top-heavy program of massively nationalized industry and agriculture in the interior — aggressively chased off foreign investment.
Mr. Burnham welcomed not only Jim Jones but other soi-disant radical movements into Guyana, turning the country into an ideological Disneyworld for the charismatic and the disaffected in the late ’70s. After the Jonestown massacre, he hatched a clandestine scheme with a Christian evangelical group associated with Billy Graham’s son Franklin to repopulate the site with anti-Communist Hmong tribesmen exiled from Laos. Like most of Mr. Burnham’s pipe dreams of developing the bush, it failed.
In 1978, Mr. Burnham’s unpopularity was growing and his overconfident austerity economy was failing. Guyanese-style socialist development meant not only nationalization of foreign companies but strict laws against exports, which led to crippling food shortages. The local Georgetown newspapers at the time had many more headlines on garlic and onion smuggling than the murder-suicides at Jonestown.
The disastrous economic effects of Mr. Burnham’s plans long outlasted his political leadership as the country faced energy shortages, racial violence against the South Asians who make up almost half of Guyanese population, crime and political corruption. The 2006 national elections were the first carried out largely without accompanying political violence, and the victorious candidate, President Bharrat Jagdeo, has promoted free-market investment. Still, by 2008, the sole economic category in which Guyana ranked among the highest is outward migration — it has the sixth highest rate per capita of citizens leaving the country world-wide.
Large parts of the interior remain virtually inaccessible, particularly in the northern regions, where Jonestown is located. Though a Chinese timber company has begun operations around Port Kaituma, the tin-shack mining town located about 10 miles from the Jonestown site, the town itself shrank by nearly half with the closing of the Barama Logging Company a decade ago and comprises a more transient population of “pork knockers,” individuals panning for gold. The lack of infrastructure has at least been a boon to the small river port — it’s the only real source of basic supplies imported for the entire region.
For all these reasons, not to mention the public’s stomach for constructing a Potemkin death village, the Jonestown tourism idea is a bit of a tough sale, and there hasn’t been much follow-up to Mr. Prashad’s trial balloon. “That didn’t get very far, did it?” laughed Rupert Roopnaraine, the program director in Georgetown of the Guyana Citizens’ Initiative and former prime minister candidate of the small Working People Alliance party. “The Guyanese, they are superstitious people. They’re not stepping foot back there.”
“When it happened, a lot of us wanted to preserve the site,” Georgetown mayor Hamilton Green says, “but it was impossible.” Mr. Green had been a ranking government official when Mr. Burnham ran the country. “Burnham just said no.” Mr. Green’s wife, Shirley Field-Ridley, who died in 1982, was minister of information in the Burnham cabinet, and as the evening of Nov. 18 unfolded, the country was overwhelmed by what had taken place. “We heard the death toll go from 10, to 100, to 300. What could we do? We only had 30 body bags in the whole country,” Mr. Green says. Like others in Georgetown, he darkly hinted of CIA involvement in Jonestown. There were rumors.
Mr. Roopnaraine says the country suffered from never having a full accounting — not only of what took place at Jonestown in the days after the massacre, when the Guyanese Defense Forces shut down outside access to the site, but also of the Guyanese authorities’ complicity in establishing a state-within-a-state in the hinterlands. He says revisiting the Jonestown massacre would mean revisiting the darkest failures of the country in the years following independence. The scandal helped fuel the popular anger against Mr. Burnham, who used election rigging, harassment and detention of political opponents, and state and paramilitary violence to maintain his autocracy. The insurgency led by Mr. Roopnaraine’s WPA party was effectively silenced by the assassination of its leader, historian Walter Rodney, on a Georgetown street in 1980.
Most of the Guyanese officials who were in power in the 1970s are dead, and questions as to how Mr. Jones’ sect flourished mostly unhindered in the jungle are simply impossible to answer. Mr. Burnham died in 1985; his agriculture minister Dr. Ptolemy Reid, whose portfolio brought him into the most direct contact with Mr. Jones, died four years ago. Neville Annibourne, the ministry of information agent who flew with Rep. Leo Ryan’s entourage to Jonestown and survived the shootings, lives in a suburb near the seawall in Georgetown. After promising information, he immediately requested $200 to start talking.
The point of departure from Port Kaituma to Georgetown is the same little-used dirt airstrip where Rep. Ryan and his entourage came under the fatal fire of the Jonestown killer who pursued them in a small flatbed trailer. There, one signs in with a Guyanese Defense Force official on arrival and departure (drug smuggling into and out across the nearby Venezuelan border remains a fear). In anticipation of a tiny charter plane’s landing, cows were shooed from the runway. A man named Troy came over to sit next to the Guyanese army officer, and began to cite scripture to explain why the spirits of Jonestown remained behind to haunt the land. Mr. Jones, he said, had attempted to make himself God over his kingdom. He quoted Colossians 2: “and having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it.”
From the plane above it’s nearly impossible to make out the Jonestown site from the sky. All that is visible is a ruffled ground of green interrupted occasionally by smoke and, here and there, by a lonely homestead. It remains that way for most of the hour-long flight, until the jungle abruptly comes to an end and the neatly ordered checkerboard squares of the coastal cane fields comes into view.
Eric Banks is a New York-based writer and former editor in chief of Bookforum.
Credit: By Eric Banks