Posted on Sun, November 16, 2003, The Miami Herald, Dreadful day in Jonestown remembered, by Mohamed Hamaludin,
summary: On the 25th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre, a reporter first on the scene recalls that dreadful day.
The horror lay in the silence.
Twenty-five years after the Peoples Temple of Love self-destructed, I still see, as if it were just yesterday, the more than 900 bodies lying in the clearing that Jim Jones' followers carved out of the jungles of Guyana.
The scene of death is still incomprehensible.
This was no war zone, there were no signs of violence except for a bullet wound to Jones' head. The others, all poisoned. An eerie stillness wrapped itself around them.
The beginning of the end for the commune came when California Congressman Leo Ryan arrived in Guyana to investigate reports that some Jonestown residents were being prevented from leaving and also that the People's Temple was not operating as a church.
I was in bed at home in Georgetown, the Guyana capital, with a high fever but, as a reporter for the Caribbean News Agency, I had tried to get a seat on the small plane that the Guyana government assigned to Ryan for the trip to the interior of the country. But there was no space, and the latest I had heard was the visit went well and Ryan would be coming away impressed with Jonestown.
But that was old news.
The congressman, based on subsequently published reports, was indeed coming away with a favorable image of the commune after an overnight visit, satisfied with what he saw and heard, including a special performance by the well-equipped house band, The Jonestown Express. The next morning, as Ryan was saying goodbye, one resident slipped a note to a journalist saying she and others wanted to leave.
When Ryan and the journalists began asking Jones if people were being held against their will, he said they were not and those who wanted to leave could do so. During the exchange, a Jones follower lunged at Ryan with a knife, cutting him in the arm, in an apparent murder attempt. Jones' elaborate deception staged for Ryan's benefit had unraveled.
But he had made contingency plans.
As the congressman and his party, including a small group of defectors, drove the seven-mile dirt trail to the nearby air strip for the flight to Georgetown, Jones summoned his followers for one of their frequent gatherings. He told them he had prayed to God and that God would cause the plane carrying Ryan to fall out of the sky. In actuality, Jones had planted one of his followers among the defectors. He was to sit behind the pilot and, when the plane was in the air, shoot him in the back of the head. The plot failed when the gun was discovered before it could be used.
Jones had a back-up plan. He had dispatched an armed team to the air strip, where they opened fire. They killed Ryan and a few California-based journalists and defectors, carefully selecting their targets.
Back in the commune, Jones and his followers began the ritual of death that he had dubbed ''White Night.'' Most drank from a half-drum containing a soft drink laced with cyanide; mothers used syringes to squirt the poison on the tongues of infants; besides Jones, a handful of young women -- whom the Temple usually identified as his secretaries -- were shot but, curiously, their bodies were found inside one of the buildings.
Few people knew of the tragedy that unfolded that Saturday night, Nov. 18, 1978. I heard of it after Hubert Williams, then editor of the Barbados-based Caribbean News Agency, phoned to tell me the announcement had been made in Washington. The Guyana government did not issue a statement, in keeping with its position that this was an American problem -- a posture maintained throughout the aftermath of the Jonestown tragedy.
The announcement sparked rumors that Jones had ordered a small group of armed young men to take to the jungle and avenge him and his followers. The rumors, which proved to be false, led the Guyana government to ban travel to the commune until the area was secured by soldiers sent in by train.
It was two days later that limited travel was allowed, and only by government officials and two reporters. As a reporter with the Caribbean News Agency, I was picked to file stories for the Guyana and West Indian media; Charles Krause, then a reporter with The Washington Post, was selected for the international press.
It was a surreal sight that we met in Jonestown.
Row after neat row of vegetables and other crops stood freshly cultivated, some, ironically, with signs warning of danger because fertilizers had been newly applied.
There were rows of another kind just yards away.
In an open area around the wooden structure that served as the Temple's meeting place, bodies covered the ground, some alone, others piled eight and nine deep. Jones lay halfway on the short steps of the building, around him the bodies of his burly adopted sons and others later identified as bodyguards. A few yards away was his wife, Marceline, a line of dried mucus just below her nostrils and a look frozen on her face that told me of immense sorrow.
I walked among the dead for a long time and then simply stopped and sat on a tree stump. It was easy to believe that just 48 hours ago this was a bustling settlement of nearly 1,000 men, women and children. It was not so easy to accept what my eyes were telling me.
LIVING AMONG DEAD
Skip Roberts, chief of the criminal division of the Guyana police, was collecting evidence. He found a briefcase full of passports, strengthening the belief that Jones had controlled the movements of his followers.
That evening, a plane came but it was a smaller aircraft that could not take back all who had made the morning trip. I was walking slowly to the plane and was among two or three left behind to await another plane the following day. I had to spend the night in a nearby police outpost.
My first concern was to find a way to file my story. The police officers let me use their shortwave radio, and I dictated my story to an editor from the London-based Reuters news service, who was in Georgetown collaborating with the Caribbean News Agency. That enabled me to get the first byline from Jonestown in papers around the world. I remember someone made a mistake and used the name ''Jamestown'' instead of Jonestown.
The next morning I got a ride with the police to the commune to await another aircraft. The wait gave me time to look again at the scene of death.
It also gave me a chance to meet the living among the dead.
An elderly man was walking around in a daze. He said he was standing at the edge of the crowd and when he heard talk about ''crossing over'' -- Jones' code for mass suicide -- he slipped away and hid in a dugout.
An elderly woman, also obviously confused by what she was seeing, said she was in bed and slept through the tragedy.
The district medical officer who came to the scene told me he found evidence of about a dozen medications that probably were given regularly to the people of Jonestown, suggesting Jones had kept them under control with drugs.
A week later, I returned to the commune, this time with a large group of journalists. The bodies -- around 912 Americans and probably 50 to 60 Guyanese, mostly children who went to school in Jonestown -- had been removed. The rows of vegetables were withering. A windmill chugging monotonously overhead made the only sound.
Pieces of the life of the commune were strewn everywhere, from scores of hand-written notes from Jones' followers telling him how much they loved ''Father'' and ''Dad'' to audio cassettes that Jones and his people had listened to, especially the music of Barry White.
The rough cabins stood in marked contrast to the wilderness nearby. And, all around, where hard labor had failed to keep it at bay, stood the jungle, mute witness to humankind's follies.
Only one person was ever convicted and punished for the events of Jonestown.
Larry Layton, who was accused of being the person designated to shoot the pilot of Ryan's plane, spent 18 months in a Guyana jail and then was tried but acquitted. He was turned over to American authorities and was tried in the United States in 1981 on a charge of conspiracy to kill two federal officials: Ryan and Richard Dwyer, then chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Georgetown. A jury acquitted Layton, but in a second trial he was found guilty and spent 18 years in jail, winning parole in April 2002, according to information in the report ''Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple'' found on the websitejonestown.sdsu.edu.
But Layton was not the only one tried in Guyana. Jones' only natural son, Stephan, who was in the Temple's Georgetown building and was among several members who survived, was tried for murder. At one point in his trial, when he was obviously being badgered by the prosecutor, he suddenly blurted out that, yes, he was guilty. His statement brought an immediate adjournment.
As Stephan walked past me in the courtroom, I asked him why he had made the sudden confession. He told me he was distraught at what had happened and felt the prosecutor and the world wanted him as a scapegoat, so he obliged. He said he had nothing to do with what happened in Jonestown. After my story on that conversation was reported by the Caribbean News Agency, Stephan's attorney, Rex McKay, subpoenaed me to testify when the trial resumed the next day. I did. Stephan was eventually acquitted. The Jonestown website carries a long excerpt from a book he was said to be writing.
Stephan Jones may be able to explain a lot about the workings of his father's bizarre utopian dream, but other questions that have persisted a quarter-century are likely to remain.
• Who killed Jim Jones? The initial speculation was that he committed suicide, but the pistol that is believed to have been used to shoot him was found at least a dozen feet from his body.
• Why were Jones and his young female secretaries the only ones shot, while even his wife died by poisoning?
• Is there any truth in still-persistent speculation that the CIA engineered the destruction of the commune because Jones was, in the final days, having his followers learn Russian for a possible migration to the then-Soviet Union? That theory is strengthened by the fact that Jones had dispatched two aides with a suitcase containing a half-million dollars to the Soviet embassy in Georgetown with a note of fraternal greetings. The money never reached the embassy because the two couriers were apprehended by the Guyanese authorities while still in the jungle.
• Was the destruction of the commune Jones' final act of madness enforced by his armed bodyguards, or was it the result of a decision by his followers, probably drugged, to ''cross over'' from this life to another? It is difficult to conceive of any kind of coercion that would have made mothers squirt poison on the tongues of their babies.
I still don't know what Jones meant by it, but I remember well the motto carved on the front of the Temple building, words from George Santayana's 1905 work, Life of Reason, Reason in Common Sense: ``Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.''
Guyana's then-ruling Peoples National Congress benefited from having Jones and his followers in the country, not only politically, such as having them joining street rallies for the party, but also for an international goal. Guyana has a century-old border dispute with Venezuela, its giant neighbor to the west, which claims the entire Essequibo region or two-thirds of the country's 83,000 square miles, the area richest in natural resources.
Jones was widely believed to have been given permission to build his commune in the northwest region as a counter to any attempts at hostile action by Venezuela. Having American citizens in that area would have involved the United States in defense of its citizens.
Jones, for his part, deliberately picked the South American country as the new site for his Peoples Temple, when he relocated from San Francisco, convinced that Guyana's location made it an ideal place to be, because of the direction of the winds, to escape a nuclear holocaust.
It was not so easy for him to flee his personal demons.
Neither is it for many who came in contact with Jonestown.
Mohamed Hamaludin is an editor for The Herald's Neighbors section.