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40 years ago, apocalypse in Guyana's jungle

  • Jonestown Massacre: 914 adults and children from the People's Temple sect headed by Jim Jones died in the jungle of Guyana on Nov 18, 1978.

Paris (AFP) -- In one of the most dramatic mass murder-suicides of modern history, 914 adults and children from a US cult died in the jungle of the small South American country of Guyana on November 18, 1978.

Here is an account, drawn from AFP reporting at the time, of the "Jonestown Massacre" at the People's Temple sect headed by US Reverend Jim Jones.

Dream of a jungle utopia

Five years earlier, Jones had moved his "church" from San Francisco to the former British colony of Guyana in the north of the Latin American continent.

The self-styled reverend -- who passed himself off as the reincarnation of Lenin, Jesus Christ and Buddha -- had built a strong following since the 1950s, mostly attracting poor African Americans.

In 1973, in a remote part of the Guyana jungle, he founded Jonestown, a socialist, self-sufficient settlement that he said would be free of violence, racism, sexism and ageism.

Hundreds of his disciples followed and Jones wielded unquestioned authority over the community, a mix of hippy culture and vague socialism.

Ex-cult members, however, made claims of drugs use, hunger and sexual enslavement, saying Jones forced his followers to work from dawn to dusk, six days a week.

'Suicide' sessions, assassination

He also submitted his followers to weekly "white nights", bizarre sessions when they and their children were made to drink fake poison, they said.

His explanation: suicide would be their only escape from an inevitable and looming assault by the US government.

After complaints in the United States, Congressman Leo Ryan arrived at Jonestown on November 17, 1978 to investigate.

A day later, as he prepared to board a plane home, Ryan was shot dead on the tarmac by Jones' men, who also killed three journalists and a cult member who wanted to leave.

Syringes of poison

Back at the settlement, Jones told his followers that Ryan was a CIA agent and US Marines were preparing to attack the community.

A 45-minute recording found near his body would later reveal how he incited his followers to commit suicide.

In a story in December, AFP recounted: "The recording starts with religious music and the sounds of followers gathering ... Jones says that the sect has been 'betrayed' and will not be able to recover from what happened at the airport."

"'We are not committing suicide; it's a revolutionary act,' he says.

"He calls on the adults to administer poison to their children with syringes, saying, 'My opinion is that you be kind to children and be kind to seniors and take the potion like they used to take in ancient Greece and step over quietly.'"

Children cried and Jones appeared nervous.

He is heard saying: "Lay down your life with dignity. Don't lay down with tears and agony ... Stop this hysterics. This is not the way for people who are socialists or communists to die."

"Many people protest. A mother cries out that she accepts her own death but demands pardon for her son... The massacre ends with a cacophony of screams and pain, wheezing, the cries of children in agony and of protest, mixed with applause from Jones' fanatics."

Several hundred people fled into the jungle. Some were caught and shot or forced to drink the poison.

Jones was found with a bullet to the head but it was impossible to know whether he was killed or committed suicide.

Heap of remains

AFP journalist Marc Hutten arrived in Jonestown four days later and described scenes of apocalypse.

"From the helicopter ... we see a sudden blooming of bright colours, like a field of flowers. They are the cotton garments in which the hundreds of corpses are dressed," he wrote.

"The flowers become corpses and their smell, at first insidious, becomes putrid. Only the professional gravediggers of the American army keep moving among the swollen bodies."

"Planted in the midst of this heap of remains is a perch, with two parrots, who cackle as if nothing has happened.

"Further on, in a huge wooden cage, lies the body of a gorilla, the mascot of the mad 'priest', its head pierced by a bullet."

Other animals lay dead too, also poisoned, although two or three dogs still roamed the camp, Hutten reported.

"A small wooden bridge leads to the house of the late spiritual leader. Inside, 10 bodies... thrown across beds or even on the floor among the heaps of books and files."

"The Guyana soldier accompanying us says that the dead all seem to be black."

 

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